Linguists working on the project estimate that less than 100 people in the Daly River region can speak the Marrithiyel language.
They’re hoping a smartphone app will help reach young people who only have a limited understanding.
Doctor Linda Ford from the Northern Institute at Charles Darwin University says her 16-year-old daughter Emily came up with 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,” she told SBS.
“A curation interface where people can look at the data … 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.”
Bruce Birch is a linguist from the Australian National University in Canberra who has developed several smartphone and tablets apps to preserve languages in Australia and overseas.
Doctor Birch says the apps are easy to use and provide a truly interactive experience.
“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.”
Doctor Birch says gone are the days when expensive technology in the hands of a few had to be the way of doing things.
“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. 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.”
While preserving the language and bringing it to young people are the main goals, Doctor 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,” she added.