tip off

Putting language documentation in the hands of the speakers

Linguist Bruce Birch reports on the recent work of the Minjilang Language Team who are pioneering the use of mobile devices to document Australian languages.

Ma!

Bruce Birch writes:

In recent years, people living in the remote Indigenous communities of Arnhem Land in the far north of Australia have enthusiastically adopted the mobile phone as their documentation tool of choice, using it to make video and audio recordings of significant and everyday events, including music and dance performances, ceremonies, hunting trips, and much else besides. The switch to smartphones and tablets is now underway, with community stores stocking a range of Android phones, and iPads being distributed to schools throughout the region.

In response to this, a community-based language documentation team concerned about the decline of Indigenous languages spoken on remote Croker Island off the Cobourg Peninsula in Northwestern Arnhem Land, conceived of the Ma! Iwaidja project. Initiated with funds from the Australian government’s Indigenous Languages Support program, the result is Ma! Iwaidja (released in June 2012), a touch-and-listen smartphone and tablet app with a customizable dictionary and phrase book which allows users to audio-record new entries via a simple interface. The app specifically targets Iwaidja, a Cobourg language with a dwindling speaker base of perhaps 150 people, the largest concentration of whom live in the community of Minjilang on Croker Island.

Many people who could make valuable contributions to the documentation of a language remain untapped resources in typical documentation scenarios which require the presence of a linguist with recording equipment, working at pre-arranged times, often with a tiny percentage of potential ‘language consultants’ involved. A key aim of the Ma! Iwaidja Project is to facilitate the involvement of larger numbers of native speakers of all ages in the documentation process without the need for difficult-to-attain levels of literacy and computer literacy.

Initial informal trialling of the app in Minjilang has been encouraging. Women and men of various ages up to the mid-fifties, as well as primary school students, were able to use the app within minutes, succeeding in taking photos of plants and trees, recording their names in Iwaidja, typing in the English common name if known, and saving the new data. The trial showed that putting this kind of language documentation tool in the hands of the speakers has great potential.

The next stage of the Ma! Iwaidja project, to be launched in June 2013, will allow people on Croker Island to upload audio, video, image and text data in the form of new dictionary entries, or comments on existing entries, to a database with a web interface, using wireless networks available within the community. Uploaded data will be curated by the Minjilang Language Team (which is something of a movable feast in terms of its make-up) and made available to all users of the app via update notifications.

As of 2013, the team will be collaborating with The Language Archive (TLA), one of the world’s most advanced online archives for endangered languages, based at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in The Netherlands. TLA will be providing server space for data uploaded from the apps and will develop a plug-in for their data management program Arbil which will allow ingestion of language data directly from the Ma! database for archiving purposes.

Stage 1 of the project, the Ma! Iwaidja smartphone/tablet app, can be downloaded for both Apple and Android devices. Feedback on the app, along with ideas, suggestions, and requests for modifications, new features, or new apps can be emailed to: bruce.birch@anu.edu.au

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