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Endangered Language, by Erika Enlund

A visual learning tool to educate on the Mutsun language

July 14, 2015

[This is a guest post by Erika Enlund*, sharing with us her Endangered Language Revitalization project]



There are roughly 6,500 different spoken languages in the world. According to David Crystal, on average a language dies every two weeks. This means that there is no longer anyone speaking the language. “When a language disappears, so do a culture and speech community’s unique way of seeing and ordering the world” says Stanford linguist Sarah Ogilvie.

Stanford’s Humanities + Design Lab at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis and the Graduate Communications Design Program at Pratt Institute partnered for a semester in early 2015 to create an opportunity for design students to create Information Design solutions under this umbrella topic of Endangered Languages. Students were encouraged to create either a learning tool, an interactive system, or material intended to support efforts to revitalize endangered languages and to raise awareness of these efforts.

Initially, I wanted to create a learning tool for kids with an element of gameplay. Kids are crucial to the life of a language because they learn language faster and easier. One of the factors to determine if a language is endangered is if there aren’t any children speaking it. A challenge we had to keep in mind was to maintain the cultural identity of the language in our design. It was important that our own cultural biases didn’t seep into the work and dictate the identity of the speech community because that would chip away at the the authenticity of that community. Considering all of this, Dr. Sarah Ogilvie, whose research provided the basis for this collaboration, connected me with the Mutsun People. The Mutsun are a Native American Tribe from Northern California whose language had laid dormant for 90 years. This tribe is in the process of reconnecting its members to its native language.

I began combing through their 600+ page dictionary picking out words that I think would be important to learn. I focused my search to nouns only. I barely got through the “L”s when I realized that I needed to collaborate with the someone in the tribe and have them pick out 15-20 nouns that fit into four categories: food, materials, nature, and family. I chose these categories because I observed that most of the words revolved around these categories.

After receiving the words from Quirina Geary, tribe leader, I dove into the design process. I settled on designing flashcards and dropped the idea of gameplay because flashcards could be used to learn and to study. The cards include the word, how to pronounce it, and a graphic element on the front. The back has the word used in a sentence and that sentence translated in English (considering the tribe members’ first language is English now). The choice of a horizontal layout came after some user testing of a prototype.

The color palette is designed to resonate with the tribe cultural references: the tribe’s fondness of hummingbirds and their connection to the Earth. I designed a Visual language system based on geometric abstract shapes to help memorization of terms and to support the interaction. Geometric shapes were chosen to be as neutral and abstract as possible, therefore using them allowed me to create a visual language that didn’t impede on the cultural aesthetic of the tribe. The symbols are not iconic nor literal representations of the word they’re associated with. However, the relationships between the symbols within their category generate meaning. The goal was to design a coherent data visualization system that would translate semantic relationships between the terms by respecting their complexity and correlations even when different from our language.

For example, the category of kinship terms was most challenging. This tribe has two different words for the word “sister” depending on who is speaking. Unlike the Spanish language in which the ending dictates the gender of the speaker/subject, this language just uses two separate words. Therefore, the word for “sister” (said by a woman) is depicted with a solid line whereas the word for “sister” (said by a man) is depicted with a dashed line. Another example would be in the category of nature. Sky is represented with a large, open triangle, thunder is represented with that same large, open triangle and two solid triangles inside it, and lightening is represented with that same large triangle and two small, open triangles inside of it. Both thunder and lightening occur in the sky, hence smaller triangles inside of a larger triangle.

In total there were 65 word cards. Three cards were reserved as instructional pieces teaching the user how to pronounce the letters of the language. The completed deck was sent to the Mutsun Tribe. Developing the rules of the visual language was a fascinating part of the process. The importance of consistency was challenging but ultimately it’s what glued the entire system together. Without established rules, the forms would have no meaning and therefore serve as decoration instead of as a piece of information.

(image: Erika Enlund)
(The above cards are from the nature category. Sky, thunder and lightning respectively | Erika Enlund)
(The front of the cards have the word of the language and its pronunciation with its corresponding symbol | Erika Enlund)
(The back of the cards have the word being used in a sentence and its english translation | Erika Enlund)
(The kinship (family) category is unique as each term is dependent on the maternal or paternal relationship. Differences expressed through dashed and solid lines | Erika Enlund)
(image: Erika Enlund)
(image: Erika Enlund)


*Erika Enlund is a graduate student of the Communications Design program at Pratt Institute in New York City. For more of her work, check out

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.