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A 'like' for linguistics: Can social media save Mexico's unwritten languages?

Many indigenous languages alive in Mexico today don't have formal written systems, but a growing number of computer-savvy young people want to Facebook and tweet in their native tongue.

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“Many young people have told me, ‘I want to learn!’” says Cruz of the evolving written system. “My idea was to create the Facebook page and write phrases: buenos días and 'it’s hot out.' But our challenge is that we still need to create an alphabet that is visually, aesthetically, better.”

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The role of education

Before Yasnaya Aguilar was born, the Mixe people of southern Oaxaca state had accomplished most of the work of creating an alphabet and writing system. Aguilar, a linguist and native speaker of Mixe, says the work today is in teaching people to read and write in the language.

That many indigenous languages lack a writing system has little to do with their antiquity and more to do with historic patterns of education, she says. Until recent decades, the government’s education policy was to teach only Spanish in schools, discouraging or even prohibiting students from speaking their native tongue.

In the past, “in Mexico, few people knew how to write,” Ms. Aguilar says. “There was discrimination against these languages. With these movements, there has been a recognition of their value.”

Online revival

Twitter offers a clue to the global interest in putting indigenous languages to use online – historically the domain of English, Spanish, Chinese, and other major languages.

“The idea [of whether] the language is suited for modern technological media like Twitter – that’s an obstacle for a lot of endangered languages,” says Kevin Scannell, a professor in the department of math and computer science at Saint Louis University.

He has studied the use of indigenous languages on Twitter and advised the social media company on how to make its coding more friendly to the symbols sometimes used in indigenous tongues.

He says there are more than 140 indigenous or minor languages in use on Twitter today. Nahuatl, a language native to central Mexico and beyond, has 17 users. Other indigenous languages are used by more than 300,000 users or as few as one.

“Part of it is just a conscious effort to keep the language alive and promote the language and encourage other people to use it,” says Mr. Scannell, who tweets in English and Irish Gaelic. “It’s a statement that says, ‘We’re here, and we’re proud of the language.’”

The use of native Mexican languages online, even in doses of 140 characters, is part of a broader phenomenon in Mexico, says Swanton, the linguist.

“I see it as part of a larger issue, which is the emergence of a very sophisticated generation of young people,” he says, “many of whom are professionals and move in the world in sophisticated ways. They are incorporating those experiences into an indigenous identity.”

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