Drops Partners with UN-proclaimed International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) to launch Ainu, a Critically Endangered Language Spoken in Northern Japan

With very few native speakers remaining, the launch of Ainu on Drops will mark the first time the language has ever been digitized 

November 14, 2019 — Language learning platform, Drops, today launches Ainu in collaboration with UN-proclaimed International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019). Available to download for free on iOS and Android, the addition of Ainu on Drops will mark the first time the language has ever been digitized on an app, helping to bring new access and awareness to one of the world’s most critically endangered indigenous languages. 

Supporting the revitalization of the Ainu language

Languages carry cultural and historical significance that the world can’t afford to lose, yet every two weeks another language goes extinct. In response, the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recommended that 2019 be the Year of Indigenous Languages, with UNESCO acting as the lead UN agency overseeing IYIL. 

Ainu is one of the world’s most endangered languages with multiple dialects. For hundreds of years, the Ainu has been linguistically isolated to a relatively small Ainu population in Japan's northernmost prefecture – the island of Hokkaido. On the Japanese census, an accurate number of the Ainu population is unclear but is said to be less than 1% of Japanese citizens. 

In May of this year, Japan enacted a new bill to officially recognize the Ainu people of Hokkaido as an indigenous people of Japan. The bill includes provisions to make the country more inclusive for Ainu natives, promoting their culture and extending economic support. Prior to formal recognition, Ainu has only survived by being passed down from parents to their children using the Romanization system. Textbooks are available for very few of the many dialects. 

Leveraging technology to facilitate global awareness and access 

Drops has made it a continued priority to add endangered and indigenous languages including Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan, and now – Ainu. Once IYIL2019 was announced, Drops doubled down on their efforts, realizing that their fun, effective, and vocabulary-focused approach to language learning made them uniquely equipped to bring niche languages to an even broader and more global user base. 

Together, Drops and IYIL2019 looked at the world’s most at-risk languages, evaluating local preservation efforts, the rate at which the language was disappearing, and if it was possible to digitize the languages without sacrificing cultural nuance and relevancy. They agreed to launch Ainu on Drops, realizing that despite an uptick in grassroots language preservation efforts, the language was still disappearing at an alarming rate. 

The development of Ainu on Drops took over 6 months and was a joint initiative between Drops, IYIL2019 and the Center for Ainu & Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University, the only national research institution specializing in Ainu studies. 

Working with the Center, Drops traveled to Japan to ensure the Ainu language was accurately represented on its app. They met with the Ainu translator and oversaw the recording of the Ainu expressions with the goal of fully understanding and immersing themselves in the culture. 

Drops worked closely with translator Associate Professor Jirota Kitahara of Hokkaido University and voiceover talent, certified Ainu language instructor, Kenyu Yamamaru, to offer 211 Ainu expressions in 14 topics and 5 categories. The culturally specific expressions, as well as 23 phrases that are important for the Ainu language and culture, like tonkori (string instrument), cisenomi (gift for new residence) and rakko (otter), were carefully selected by Professor Kitahara and Yamamaru. 

Daniel Farkas, co-founder and CEO, Drops: 

“When a language dies, it’s like losing a species in biodiversity – entire customs, values, and stories disappear forever. Around the world we spend billions of dollars building museums to preserve antiquities and art that showcase indigenous and ancient cultures, while the languages from these cultures are going extinct. As a language learning company committed to broadening access and awareness of all languages, we feel this is a travesty and decided to act. Because of Ainu’s endangered status, recent recognition efforts and the strong local efforts of Hokkaido University, we knew we could work alongside IYIL2019, Professor Jirota Kitahara and the Center for Ainu & Indigenous Studies at Hokkaido University to bring Ainu to life on Drops.” 

IYIL2019 Secretariat:

“IYIL2019 aims to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote them at the national and international. Technology is one way to do this – it is a doorway to opening up access and awareness for some of the world’s most endangered languages.” 

Associate Professor Kitahara: 

“I’ve focused my life and career on understanding, preserving and passing on the Ainu language and our culture, ceremonies, and people. The opportunity to share and translate Ainu expressions with Drops and IYIL2019 and bring it to life in digital form, and in such a beautiful and widely-accessible way is a huge honor.”

In addition to adding Ainu, Drops will support the opening of the new Upopoy Center scheduled to open next spring, a multi-complex facility which will support revitalization and creation of Ainu culture.

To learn more about the International Year of Indigenous Languages, please consult the Action Plan. Discover the initiatives and events organized by UNESCO in cooperation with different partners all over the world on the dedicated website, and follow the ongoing social media campaign.

About Drops

Drops teaches the essentials of language – vocabulary – by combining engaging word puzzles with visual association. With 37 languages and 15M users and counting, Drops is one of the fastest-growing language platforms in the world. Through 5-minute word games, using Drops is fast, fun, and effective – becoming as second nature as Instagram scroll. Through their companion app Scripts, Drops teaches character-based writing systems and with Travel Talk, users can learn the essential words and phrases you need abroad. Drops was named one of Fast Company’s ‘Most Innovative Companies’ in 2018 and also won Google’s prestigious Material Design Award for Experience, honoring their Scripts app. 

Drops was founded in 2015 by language and learning enthusiasts, Daniel Farkas and Mark Szulyovszky. Drops is available for free on iOS and Android, with a premium version available for $9.99 monthly, $69.99 yearly, or $159.99 for lifetime access.

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