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Zapotec Talking Dictionary

This is the story of the creation of a Zapotec Talking Dictionary, designed to help revitalize a native language on the verge of disappearing. 

I'm Brook Lillehaugen, a professor who holds a joint appointment at Swarthmore and Haverford. Working with students, alumni, and community members, I led a project to build the aforementioned Zapotec Talking Dictionary app to help revitalize the endangered Zapotec language of Mexico. This dictionary is part of a larger Talking Dictionary project directed by K. David Harrison at Swarthmore that contains hundreds of TDs for small or threatened languages around the world.

I'm Janet Chávez Santiago and I'm from Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mex. a Zapotec town located in the Valley near the city of Oaxaca. For the past several years I've been working with this variant of Zapotec, which we learn as kids in our houses from our parents and/or grandparents. I focus on teaching Zapotec as a second language to non-speakers. Since Zapotec (and indigenous languages in general in Mexico) is not a language that we learn in school, due to issues related to politics and the education system itself, there's a huge lack of pedagogical, literary or any other kind of material in the language and if anything does exist, it is either out of reach to the speakers or it is on a different variant of the language. ​

How did this work cause a positive impact?
One of the exciting things about doing this kind of work is that there are multiple layers of positive impact. For example, Janet has been able to use the talking dictionary, in both its online and app form, in her classes where she teaches Zapotec. It's a great pedagogical tool for language learners. Likewise, it's been a wonderful way for me to teach linguistics students about lexicography and about collaborating with indigenous language activists.  

In addition to these more concrete impacts, publishing Zapotec language on the internet is a statement in and of itself. Sometimes Zapotec languages are disparaged. Some people wrongly say Zapotec languages aren't "real" languages—that they are dialectos—something lower than a language, less than a language. People might say Zapotec can't be written or shouldn't be written and that it serves no purpose outside of the pueblo, that it's a language of the past. Writing Zapotec online, listening to it online helps to push back against all of these falsehoods—Zapotec languages are real, are full and complete languages, can be written, and can be written and viewed publicly, worldwide!  


JANET CHÁVEZ SANTIAGO: The Zapotec Talking Dictionary has had various positive impacts. One of them is that it can be accessed by anyone who has access to the internet (through a computer, a cellphone or a tablet device.) But most important is that this project is an open source that actively includes native speakers and gives them credit for their contribution, so then the project itself becomes part of the community and their own benefit. The collaboration between experts of the language, speakers and linguists is a bridge that complements the knowledge for all of them. It has been a constant learning collaboration and hopefully an encouragement for younger generations to enjoy the local richness of their language. 

What makes you proudest of it and where it's going?
BROOK LILLEHAUGEN: The method that we're using to build these linguistic resources. We are working collaboratively and inclusively—with large, diverse teams. Language experts can record one word or a hundred! The system that K. David Harrison and his team designed allows for micro-attestations—each lexical entry can be credited to an individual. This allows for transparency and real acknowledgement of the expertise behind the dictionary.  

This summer I'll be in Oaxaca with students collaborating on the dictionary. By next fall, there should be hundreds of more words, recordings, and images. The android app has been well received and, moving forward, I would love to see an iPhone app! I'm not a programmer myself, so this will be an opportunity for even more collaboration.


JANET CHÁVEZ SANTIAGO: Five years ago when I started teaching Zapotec I had almost nothing in terms of pedagogical material to support my students. Nowadays the Talking Dictionary has become a very important tool that I can refer my students to, so they can be more independent in their own process of learning.  They can also request or suggest what they want to see and hear in the dictionary.   Native speakers, as well, can record the words they feel are important to document and share. The intention is to grow the dictionary in terms of words and images and by including more speakers, especially the youth, as encouragement to keep speaking the language.  The inclusion of monolingual Zapotec speakers allows us to record those words that others of us are forgetting.


Anything else you'd like to say?
BROOK LILLEHAUGEN: ​Janet's family are expert weavers, and so we have been able to include this specialized knowledge in the dictionary. Here, here, and here are entries related to that you might enjoy.

JANET CHÁVEZ SANTIAGO: Hopefully we can have the needed support in order to develop an app for iPhone/iPad! 

+ READ additional coverage of the project herehere, and (in Spanish) here.)