Community Oral Histories

Protecting and strengthening the world’s existing cultural and linguistic heritage

Part I

This is the first post in a series of guest posts by Robyn Perry, a recent graduate from U.C. Berkeley’s School of Information, about the Aikuma Project – a project to protect and strengthen the world’s existing cultural and linguistic heritage.


I developed an early love of storytelling by listening to my grandfather recount stories from his life. As he has aged, I’ve begun to record his stories because I know our retellings will not be the same as hearing what he remembers in his voice. My grandfather’s stories are the strongest connection I have to the life-altering events like the world wars and the Great Depression. And very simply, I know my family will be grateful to have the record in the future.

You can imagine how appalled I was, as a linguistics student in college, when I learned about situations around the world in which grandchildren cannot speak the languages of their elders, and so may not be able to hear their stories. Immigrant and refugee communities are under pressure to assimilate to the dominant culture surrounding them. By the second generation, children often do not speak much of their grandparents’ home language.

A result of this trend is that half of the world’s languages will likely fall silent in the next century. Through the Aikuma Project, we want to challenge this supposedly inevitable prospect. Of course, we could just try to document these languages, expecting them to die off. But we are not so cynical. We want to dedicate our work to supporting efforts already underway in communities to reinvigorate language use and language learning.

The Time of Remembrance (TOR) project was an exciting discovery for me and my research collaborator, Steven Bird, because the Aikuma Project has similar goals. The TOR project highlights the stories of those who have experienced hardships, often because of their cultural identity or place of origin. This often involves physical and emotional suffering and loss. It can also mean the sacrifice of cultural identity, language, and tradition to make a life in a completely new context.

While TOR amplifies community stories through high quality film with subtitles (when necessary), the Aikuma Project focuses on making story gathering accessible and easy. We train people to record stories using Aikuma, a mobile app that anyone with an Android phone can use for free so the story collection can be community-driven.

We aim to record and translate the stories of our neighbors and friends whose experiences are important to remember. While Aikuma has already been used by linguists to document stories in languages in remote places around the world, we’re currently working to understand language use and language shift[1] in several Bay Area communities.

We are linguists who have a special interest in linguistic diversity and the preservation of culture around the world. Culture can mean everything from stories to songs, and from prayers to poetry (and much more, of course). We want to make it quick and easy to get to work on protecting a community’s linguistic heritage.

So readers, surely you must know someone like my grandfather. Is there someone in your life whose storytelling you treasure? What would the world be like without their stories? In the final post, we’ll explain more about Aikuma and how it can help create a record of your favorite stories.

[1] Language shift means a change in language use across a community, including an increase or decrease in the use of a language, or a move from monolingualism to bilingualism or the reverse, for example.

In our next post with Robyn, we’ll trace how quickly a language can go from vital to threatened.

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