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Venturing forth: Language rescue

An entrepreneur enrolled in the Cambridge Social Ventures programme, part of the Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge, seeks to save endangered languages from extinction by encouraging new people to learn them.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Inky Gibbens

Inky Gibbens

It’s a bit of a mystery where the Ainu people living in northern Japan came from – perhaps from Siberia, but nobody really knows. But what’s certain is that the Ainu language is critically endangered, with UNESCO estimating that there are only 15 speakers left.

A passion to save Ainu and other endangered languages is what led education entrepreneur Inky Gibbens to launch a Cambridge-based venture, Tribalingual, which seeks to teach these languages to people who want to learn them. Tribalingual is one of the ventures currently supported by the Cambridge Social Ventures programme.

“When I learned that Buryat, the northern-Siberian language of my grandparents, was in danger of dying out, I knew there and then that I had to do something,” says Inky, who was born and raised in Mongolia, and grew up speaking Buryat as one of her native languages.

According to UNESCO, half of more than 6,000 languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century if nothing is done. About 230 languages have become extinct since 1950, and more than 500 languages are critically endangered with the youngest speakers being grandparents or older generations.

But for Inky, there is more at stake here even than language death: “We’ve got to think about human culture more broadly – because languages are so fundamental to us as human beings, when languages die, so does our collective human heritage. Many organisations attempt to solve the problem by documenting languages. But what if we could save some of the languages by getting more people to speak it?”

She says the social aspect of her venture is two-fold: to help save important aspects of human culture, and provide income to teachers of these languages. Each student pays £350 to learn one of the languages on offer and Tribalingual then pays the teachers a percentage of this.

At the moment, Tribalingual is offering five languages – Mongolian, Ojibwe (an endangered musical language in North America), Tulu (a South Indian language that is passed down orally only and doesn’t have a writing system), Quechua (a language spoken mainly in the Andes of South America), and Ainu. The teachers are based all over the world and are experienced in teaching their culture and language to students. As Inky sees it, the biggest challenge for Tribalingual is to scale fast enough before some of these languages die out.

With a background in sociolinguistics and EdTech, Inky is enthusiastic about teaching these rare languages online and currently teaches Mongolian through Tribalingual. During the 10-week course students are taught via video, audio and text, and they also have Skype sessions with their teacher. The course is designed to leave students with some basic skills in the language, including the ability to greet people, ask questions, count, describe the weather and use some simple verbs.

“The idea is that people will become a part of a network and will continue to speak the language they’ve learnt,” says Inky, who hopes that someone who learns Ainu will one day fly to Japan to meet one of the native speakers there and explore this inter-cultural experience.

Karen Anderson, Business Advisor at Cambridge Social Ventures, is Inky’s mentor and is helping Tribalingual hit the ground running. She said: “Tribalingual is a much needed social enterprise that is working to support the individuals and groups trying to save rare and endangered languages around the world. Inky Gibbens is well equipped for leading this movement which encompasses culture as well as language.

“Research has identified that social entrepreneurs are often driven to solve a problem and Inky is definitely working on a social problem with Tribalingual. Her approach is to reach out to people who are native speakers of rare and endangered languages and support them to teach others through the shared platform. One of the challenges is finding these unique individuals who, like Inky herself, both have a passion to save their language and are gifted enough to teach it.”


This article is part of Venturing Forth, our new series on the aspirations and challenges of ventures connected to students, alumni and others associated with Cambridge Judge Business School.