Aragonese is one of the minority languages of Spain, spoken in the autonomous community of Aragon in the northeastern part of the country. With an estimated 10,000 native speakers, it is in a much more precarious position than its neighbors Catalan and Basque. Nevertheless, there is a vibrant online Aragonese community that is working hard to develop free and open source resources to support and help revitalize the language. One notable example is the tremendous volunteer effort that has gone into developing the Aragonese Wikipedia; weighing in at 25,000+ articles and 2.5 million words, it is believed to be the largest Wikipedia of any language, per number of native speakers. For this interview, I spoke with two leading figures in the Aragonese online community about their work on behalf of the language: Santiago Paricio, a high school teacher of Spanish in Navarra, and Juan Pablo Martínez, a university professor in the Engineering School at the University of Zaragoza.

Santi Paricio (L) and Juan Pablo Martínez (R)

KPS: Please tell us a little bit about the Aragonese language, how many speakers there are currently, whether it's taught in schools, etc.

SP/JPM: Although there are no official data, it is estimated that some 10,000 native speakers in the north of Aragon (less than 1% of the Aragonese population) plus an indeterminate number of second-language speakers speak Aragonese. The number of native speakers is dramatically decreasing mainly due to the fall of intergenerational transmission. In most areas, only older people use the language. In contrast, there is a certain interest among young and mid-age people to learn the language in areas where the language is not spoken anymore as a native language. Some of them are even raising their children in Aragonese.

But this has not always been like that. Aragonese was once spoken in almost all Aragon and was one of the administrative languages of the Kingdom of Aragon. However, it has suffered a constant decline and progressive substitution by Spanish since the 15th Century.

The language is only being taught as a voluntary subject at five primary schools in the north of Aragon. Since 2010, with the passage of the “Law on Languages of Aragon” the language has a minimal legal recognition from the local government. However, the Act, which established a Language Regulator Body (Academy) and voluntary classes in all educative levels in the regions where the language is still spoken, has hardly been developed, and the new local Administration elected in May 2011 has announced that they will reform the Act, which they opposed, rather than develop it. According to the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages, Aragonese is categorized as “definitely endangered”.

You can hear the sound of Aragonese at the Archivo Audiovisual del Aragonés.

KPS: What opportunities are there to use the language online?

SP/JPM: In Aragon, access to technology is not itself an issue. However, native speakers of Aragonese are a mainly aging and rural-based population, so their access to the Internet, computers, and ICT in general is on average lower than the rest of the population. Speakers of Aragonese as a second language are, in contrast, much more active on the Internet and, being more conscious of the language, they tend to use the language more often.

There are not many sites or software translated into Aragonese. Some examples are Mediawiki (the software to build wiki webpages like Wikipedia), some parts of Ubuntu and Firefox, and several other small programs. There is a nonprofit association, Softaragones, in which we are also involved, promoting software localization for Aragonese.

Aragonese Wikipedia

As for resources, Wikipedia in Aragonese is probably the main one nowadays. It is a very active project (the most active Wikipedia in terms of size per number of speakers), and represents now the widest corpus in Aragonese which can be found on the Internet (with the advantage of being free content). It has also acquired the attention of Aragonese mass media, with several interviews on the public radio station and a full-page story in the main newspaper. We are currently involved in developing open-source tools for the language: spell checkers, machine translation systems, online dictionaries… We can also highlight the efforts in the field of distance language learning; for example the non-profit cultural association Nogará-Religada which launched distance courses in Aragonese in recent years, based on the Moodle platform and assisted by other technologies, such as VoIP.

However, lack of resources and translated software does not preclude the use of the language on the Internet: we can find a number of websites and blogs written in Aragonese, and even a recently-created digital newspaper. Although modest in absolute numbers, their relative prevalence is high, given the size of the Aragonese-speaking community. Social networks represent a good opportunity to use the language online, by creating online speaker communities (very important for a community that is so sparse in the “real world”), or just using the language for general communication purposes (taking advantage of the fact that intercomprehension with the majority language, Spanish, is not difficult).

KPS: Many speakers of indigenous and minority languages are reluctant to use their languages online. What is the general attitude toward using the language online? Are there any special obstacles that arise for Aragonese speakers?

SP/JPM: Most native speakers wouldn’t even think about using the language online, because the language still has a stigma of being “bad speaking”, “useless language”, “only valid to speak about the rural world”. Some don’t even feel comfortable using the language outside their family circle. This does not fully apply to the youngest generations who have received the language from their parents: they often have a better linguistic awareness, as a part of their identity, and are less reluctant to use the language online, at least when communicating with known people. However, as most of them have not received any education in Aragonese, nor have they ever written the language, they often feel insecure about it. On the contrary, speakers of Aragonese as a second language are more likely to use Aragonese online, not only as a communication tool with other Aragonese-speaking Internet users, but also as an activist decision to promote the language. We think that the main driving forces for using the language online are activism and identity.

The proposed official orthography

KPS: How is/was computing terminology developed? Is there a "language board" or are terms developed naturally by the community? If there are official terms, how are they communicated to the community?

SP/JPM: That also holds in the case of Aragonese. The community usually adapts most commonly used terms from Spanish or Catalan to Aragonese, but there is not always a unique solution. For lesser-used, more specific terms, we can mention the community working on the Aragonese Wikipedia as a source for terminology. Softaragones has also developed a “collection of computing terms” and a style guide for software localization and translation, but this is mainly useful for advanced users and translators, rather than for regular users. Due to the lack of response from the administration, the II Congress of Aragonese created in 2006 a nonofficial regulatory board, the “Academia de l’Aragonés”. Together with their proposal of an interdialectal spelling system (PDF), they published some guidelines on the adaptation of technical words, which has somewhat reduced the multiplicity of possible solutions. In brief, development of computing terminology is needed in Aragonese, but does not preclude online use of the language.

KPS: Are there other special challenges your community faces in terms of developing technology for the language and/or communicating online?

SP/JPM: We believe the adoption of a unique spelling system would be crucial to booster the generation of new resources. The 2010 proposal of the Academia de l’Aragonés linked above has not reached full consensus, but it is the spelling system most widely used in the generation of new online content (e.g., in the Aragonese Wikipedia and in the online newspaper Arredol), as well as among most active online users (as an example of this, it is used by 25 of the 26 top tweeters listed on the Indigenous Tweets Aragonese page). As a consequence of this, the open source linguistic tools now under development are using this spelling system. Another issue is that of dialectal variation. While there is no communication problem caused by dialectal differences, it is necessary to provide them with tools as spellcheckers and/or translators (or at least take them into account, as there is not a strong standard dialect). In general, dialects are not represented enough online.

Bilingual signs on a hiking trail (CC-BY)

Of course being such a small minority, software vendors and service providers do not show interest in including localizations for Aragonese, to say nothing of developing linguistic resources. We must find the way forward for our language in open source/free software projects, which allow the reuse or adaptation of technologies and resources developed for other languages. An example of this is Apertium, a free/open source machine translation project which has just released a first version of an Aragonese-Spanish bidirectional translator (the latest version can be tested here or here). These projects also promote cooperation between developers interested in different lesser-used languages or language lovers in general. Another example is the release of an Aragonese spell checker, which already has extensions for Mozilla products and LibreOffice.

KPS: Are young people using the language online? Do you think social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are helping encourage language use by younger speakers?

SP/JPM: Yes, mostly young people use the language online. Until a couple of years ago, the use of the language online was mostly limited to some second-language speakers and activists. Recently, social networks like Facebook and Twitter have opened new chances to use the language, to connect with other speakers, and are seen as a window to show the language and the community. This has indeed encouraged the use of Aragonese by younger speakers, now including native speakers, who have shifted their oral communication habits to these new modalities. This is very good, as it puts people speaking different dialects in contact with each other, and also native speakers with second-language speakers, improving the feeling of being a community.

KPS: What is your vision for your language in ten years, both in general terms and in terms of software/online use?

Aragonese-speaking village of Ansó (CC-BY-SA)

SP/JPM: It is difficult to say. The dream scenario would be that children in the speaking areas would be able to learn the language at school, and children in the rest of Aragon would have the opportunity to learn it. Aragonese society should also be more aware of the cultural value of their own language. With support from the Administration and Civil Society, the objective of preserving intergenerational transmission and increasing language vitality could be achieved. In terms of online use, the aim would be that Aragonese speakers find the tools and resources to use their language online (translators, spellcheckers, speech synthesis and recognition, localized applications…), to get and create content in their language, and to use it correctly.

In more realistic terms, we believe that the use of the language online and the availability of online/computer language resources will indeed increase in the coming years, and this will open opportunities for the language, but this by itself does not guarantee the survival of Aragonese. The language must be transmitted to the children, and they need to learn to read and write the language at school. Otherwise, the efforts we are undertaking in the “digital world” might be useless. On the positive side, while decades ago it was already thought to be very close to extinction, Aragonese is still a living language in the 21st century, and we are working to keep it alive.


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