Androids in Amazonia

9 March 2013, 2.50pm AEST
Androids in Amazonia: recording an endangered language


Steven Bird
Associate Professor in Computer Science at University of Melbourne

Steven Bird receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the US National Science Foundation.

The University of Melbourne
Provides funding as a Founding Partner of The Conversation.

Augustine, one of the few remaining speakers of Tembé, recording a story using an Android phone. Steven Bird
The village of Akazu’yw lies in the rainforest, a day’s drive from the state capital of Belém, deep in the Brazilian Amazon.

Last week I went to Akazu’yw, carrying a dozen Android phones with a specialised app for recording speech. My students and I had developed the software in Melbourne. How effectively would it work in Amazonia?

The plan was to record and translate the stories of the surviving speakers of Tembé, a critically endangered language of the Amazon, with just 150 speakers left. Continue reading

Language dies when tongues are silenced

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Identity dies when tongues are silence



Geoff Maslen

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, photographed by <a href="">Helen Page</a>Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, photographed by Helen  Page

Warwuyu ngarranha


ngarraku bäpawu

ngurunguna guni-pun


harayu . . .

SO SINGS blind Aboriginal artist Geoffrey Gurrumul  Yunupingu, who was born on Elcho Island, off Arnhem Land, in one of his haunting  songs, Bäpa.   His words in the Yolngu language translate as:

Grief has taken hold of me

for my father

when the sun sets. . .

Grief has no doubt taken hold of many Aborigines  in the 220 years  since the  British colonised the continent. The First Australians lost more than their  fathers: they lost their lands, their culture and, in most cases, even the  languages of their parents.

Dr Rachel Nordlinger, a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of  Melbourne, says an estimated 250 distinct languages and 600  dialects are  believed to have been spoken by Aborigines before  white occupation of Australia  began in 1788.

Yet, Dr Nordlinger says,  only 120 survive  and perhaps 100 of these are  spoken by elderly people and their future is uncertain. Massacres, disease,  dislocation from  lands and the refusal by church missionaries and white school  teachers to allow Aborigines to speak in their own tongues extinguished the  rest.

“The languages that are being spoken are still important for their  communities and we still need to do lots of work on them,” she says. “Language  is crucial to people’s identity and their sense of who they are and their  position in the world.   For the people of a traditional territory, the language  is intimately associated with the landscape and that’s a very important part of  cultural belief.”

Dr Nordlinger says language loss is devastating for the communities affected  but it also matters at a higher level because each language  tells us something  different about the way humans think, about the way they conceptualise their  world.

When a language is lost so is the knowledge about the land where the people  lived: the plants, animals and insects, along with their histories, stories and  mythologies.

For 20 years, Dr Nordlinger has been studying Aboriginal languages, visiting  communities in northern Australia for weeks at a time and  occasionally  recording the voices of the last speakers to try to ensure elements of the  language are retained. Because Aborigines had no written records, linguists must  set out the words phonetically to show how they are pronounced, using English  letters and symbols that approximate to the sounds.

“The work might involve just sitting down with the person and beginning by  asking what’s the word for tree?  What’s the word for child?  What’s the word  for person, hand, nose?

We start with the words for the objects around us and then build this up into  sentences and start to break down the basic grammar. When you develop some  understanding of how the language works, you can move on to stories and  texts.”

Part of this often intensive labour involves developing dictionaries and  grammatical descriptions while also working with the community to decide what  words and expressions would be useful for them.

As well, Dr Nordlinger produces materials for the local school — collecting  stories for the children to listen to in the traditional language and in  English, and developing little picture dictionaries that can be used by  teachers.

“It’s really important that we develop writing systems for these languages to  record the stories and write the dictionaries and other texts so that  information is kept, even if we end up in a situation where there are no longer  any speakers.”

During her arts degree at Melbourne, Dr Nordlinger did a course in  linguistics and became interested in Aboriginal languages because of the way  they differ so markedly in their structure from English and other European  languages.

In her honours year, she spent some time with an Aboriginal community in the  Northern Territory’s Victoria River region and later went on to complete a PhD  in linguistics at Stanford University in California.

Much of Dr Nordlinger’s research has been conducted with an isolated but  large Aboriginal community at Wadeye, 420 kilometres south-west of Darwin. She  says the people there speak Murrinh-Patha, a strong language still  learnt by  children from their parents and one of the few Aboriginal tongues to have added  more speakers since British colonisation.

“Murrinh-Patha now has 2500 to 3000 speakers which, on a global scale, does  not sound many but often Australian languages originally may only have had 50 to  200 speakers, so up to 3000 is a very large number. One of the reasons is that  Murrinh-Patha has actually taken over the domains of other languages around the  Wadeye region that now only have  small  numbers of elderly speakers. These are  highly endangered languages and the people in those communities, instead of  speaking their traditional languages, are using Murrinh-Patha.”

Dr Nordlinger says Wadeye began as a Catholic mission at Port Keats in 1935  and, as a result, other groups moved on to the mission. Murrinh-Patha was the  language of the area and, because  it and landscape were so connected, it was  appropriate for outsiders to speak the language of the land on which they  resided. In contrast to the language  loss occurring around the globe, Wadeye  stands out.

Dr Nordlinger has been awarded a new Australian Research Council grant and,  with three  Melbourne colleagues, will begin investigating the ways children at  Wadeye learn the Murrinh-Patha language. Because of its radically different  structures from English and other European languages, she says, the study is  likely to reveal details about how people acquire language.  This will help in  developing appropriate educational tools to assist in maintaining  the  language.

Linguists estimate that over the next 100 years, thousands of languages may  simply cease to be spoken.

Dr Nordlinger says  95 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by only 5  per cent of all the people. These speakers tend to live in small groups,  are  often marginalised, disempowered and under threat from the dominant global  languages, including English. “This means there is a high risk to linguistic  diversity around the world and Australia is often considered to be the hot spot  for that kind of language endangerment.”

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