The Need for Audio Description in Indigenous Languages

I live in a desert. A river runs through the middle of my city — Albuquerque, New Mexico — and vast stretches of ancient, ancestral lands surround it. This area is home to some of the oldest pueblos, indigenous communities, and Native American reservations in the United States. 

And while the landscape bears their ancient structures and new constructions, from ceremonial kivas to crystalline casinos, indigenous people are seeing their languages become less and less enshrined. In a world of digitized media and language tools, ancestral languages are often left behind. 

Billions of people worldwide lack access to digital content and services in their language. While some of that has to do with structural inequalities on a larger-scale — from lack of digital infrastructure (like Wi-Fi access) to lack of native languages being taught in schools — it is partly caused by the lack of investment in and inclusion of diverse languages in content production and localization. 

This “media-desert” becomes even more vast when considering audio description — the art of describing what is happening visually on-screen for a blind and low-vision audience — in indigenous languages. There is still such a long way to go even with English audio description availability and quality on all streaming, broadcast, and classic media. And, of course, accessibility goes far beyond English in order to reach a linguistically and culturally diverse audience.

In many ways, artificial intelligence (AI) could be an exciting breakthrough toward creating audio description in a wide range of languages. AI could allow an audio description script to be written and voiced in one language (say, English), and then re-voiced in another language in an instant. 

At the same time, disparities in language access become even more glaring with the advent of generative AI (GenAI), since the enormous datasets required to train large language models (LLMs) are often not available in indigenous languages. That has led some communities to create their own digital language tools, working with universities or other institutions to weave artisanal digital databases — stitched together one word at a time.

The work of preserving and digitizing indigenous languages is ongoing, something April Armijo of Ambitious Ancestors calls “indigitization.” Producing audio description in underserved languages can amplify and aid this language preservation, while also increasing access.

Madeline Baugh
Madeline Baugh is an audio description and dubbing producer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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