App helps preserve endangered Indigenous language

A smartphone app is being developed to help preserve an endangered Indigenous language in the Northern Territory.

App helps preserve endangered Indigenous language

App helps preserve endangered Indigenous language Source: SBS

Linguists working on the project estimate that less than a hundred people in the Daly River region can speak the Marrithiyel language.


They're hoping the smartphone app will help reach young people who only have a limited understanding.


In the same way that basic words and phrases are used to help people learn languages for overseas travel, the smartphone app for the Marrithiyel language will start with the development of about 200 words and phrases.


"We say wudi for water and it's not a borrowed word from the English language, it's actually part of the Marrithiyel language."


That's Doctor Linda Ford from the Northern Institute at Charles Darwin University in Darwin.


She says it was her 16 year-old daughter, Emily, who gave her the idea for the app.


"She would rather learn to use the phone app because she was doing Spanish language at Darwin High School for Year 11 and she said it's much easier and she showed me how she accessed the Spanish phone app and so then that gave us the idea to get on to Bruce Birch."


Bruce Birch is a linguist from the Australian National University in Canberra.


He's developed several smartphone and tablets apps to preserve languages in Australia and overseas.


Doctor Birch says the apps are easy to use.


"A system whereby people could have a dictionary on their phone and also record comments about entries that were in the dictionary and then could create new dictionary entries and then sync with a centralised online database. We developed then a curation interface where people can look at the data, that's coming up there. Curate it, moderate it, edit it and publish it back to the phone so you've basically got a community which can grow say a dictionary or a collection of stories or anything really."


Bruce Birch says gone are the days when expensive technology in the hands of a few had to be the way of doing things.


"It's a kind of a democratisation process, a way of engaging everybody in the process. Two years ago there were no smartphones or Ipads available in the remote community where I work. Now they have a cabinet there with about 20 different smartphones available in the community store, like the only store on Croker Island, a community of 250 people and they can choose between about 20 smartphones, they can buy an iPad there, that's a key thing as well, you're putting it on devices which people already have and already know how to use."


Doctor Ian Green from the University of Adelaide is also involved in the project.


And like Bruce Birch, he specialises in using technology to educate.


"We're not using the app to actually try and strengthen language use in the community which is using the language already on a day to day basis, we're trying to help people who are, you know, have the language as part of the linguistic heritage. We're trying to help them reacquire that heritage, get in touch with that heritage and to begin to use bits of the language on a day to day basis."


Preserving the language and bringing it to young people are the main goals.


But Linda Ford says the app could be used to reach out to members of the stolen generations who were deprived of their Indigenous languages.


"To re-engage with those people who were sent away to the missions and that. Even though that was years ago, it's still an important process, part of the healing process and to reconcile with family members."

4 min read
Published 27 October 2014 at 2:20pm
Source: SBS