Smartphone app could help save Australian Aboriginal language from extinction
The Iwaidja language is currently spoken by fewer than 200 people.
Wed, Nov 14 2012 at 4:20 PM
Photo: Minjilang Endangered Languages Publication project
Around the world nearly 3,000 languages are facing extinction. At least 100 of those endangered languages are in Australia, where one, Iwaidja, now has fewer than 200 fluent speakers. The language is only used on Croker Island, a 130-square-mile island off the coast of Northern Australia that is home to a regional group of indigenous Australian Aboriginals.
Losing a language like Iwaidja can rob a people of their culture and the world of their history and accumulated knowledge. But saving a language can be a time-intensive project, involving recording equipment and the presence of a trained linguist. That takes both money and labor, which are in short supply.
But as CNN explains, the people on Croker Island are actually fairly tech-savvy. Their community store sells smartphones and the island school has eight iPads for its students. And a group called Minjilang Endangered Languages Publication project has created a free app to help save the Iwaidja language from extinction.
"There has been an enthusiastic uptake of mobile phone technology in indigenous communities in Australia, so the idea is to capitalize on that," linguist Bruce Birch told CNN. "People have their phones with them most of the time, the app is incredibly easy to use, and this allows data collection to happen spontaneously, opportunistically," he says.
The app, called Ma Iwaidja, works on iPhones, iPods and iPads. It contains 1,500 Iwaidja words and their English translations (and vice-versa), as well as 450 phrases. The more the app is used, the better it will get, since users can add their own updates. The next version of the app, due in January, will allow users to record audio in addition to or instead of typing.
The app — one of several that the group is developing — not only offers indigenous people control over saving their own language, it ensures that the information that used to be gathered by a linguist goes back to the community. "What we have found over the years is that one-way resources do not have much impact, especially on younger generations of speakers," Birch said.
Birch tells Indian Country Today that the app has already been downloaded nearly 400 times. “We've spent time introducing the app through the school on Croker." He says they are involving local indigenous assistant teachers to play a role in developing classroom programs built around using the app. The project has also published books, CDs, DVDs posters and other materials to help preserve the languages.
In addition to Iwaidja and English, the adults living on Croker Island often speak two additional indigenous languages: Mawng, which has approximately 750 speakers throughout Northern Australia; and Kunwinjku, which has approximately 2,000 total fluent speakers. Birch said the Iwaidja and Mawng languages have similarities, somewhat comparable to the differences between Spanish and Italian, but are otherwise distinct.
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