Android App for Language Documentation

Steven Bird, Associate Professor in Computer Science at the University of Melbourne, and his team have developed an Android application for the documentation of language. The easy-to-use app was first tested in the field last year in Papua New Guinea, where Dr. Bird and his colleagues provided the Usarufa people with Android cell phones, equipped with the app, to record themselves speaking their language.

The Usarufa language is still spoken by only about a thousand people. The language was the first to be recorded with the new technology in the pilot project and also the source of the app’s name. The developers named their application Aikuma after the Usarufa word for “meeting”.

Speaker using the Aikuma app

The pilot project turned out to be very successful. The Usarufa speakers had no difficulties using the app after brief instruction and enjoyed recording their stories, personal narratives, songs and dialogues.

A more recent field trip led Dr. Bird and his colleagues to the Tembé people, who live in an Amazonian reservation in Brazil. The people are aware of the endangered status of their language, which has only about 150 remaining fluent speakers, so they invited the researchers into their remote village to help them preserve their linguistic heritage.

75 miles away from the nearest town, the villagers do not have internet access and are not familiar with the latest technological devices. The minimal design of the Aikuma app and the use of touch-screen phones allow for an intuitive method of recording. The speakers record themselves by just pushing the record button, holding the phone to their ear and talking as if they were making a phone call.

A particularly useful feature of the app is the ability to add a time-aligned audio translation. Most of the minority language speakers in Brazil speak Portuguese as well. A translation of the recordings in a language that is more widely spoken can help ensure that the content of the recordings will be understood even if the language loses its last speakers in the future.

Steven Bird talking about his current field work in Amazonia

In the past field linguists tended to focus on producing written documentation, but the transcription of speech with the International Phonetic Alphabet is a very time-consuming task that can take up to an hour for each minute of spoken language. The documentation of severly endangered languages is a race against time and recordings of the actual language in use can only be made while there are speakers left. Dr. Bird points out the importance of recording endangered language speakers:

"We collect and archive language recordings now while the speakers are still alive. That’s all. We have the whole of the future to transcribe and process the recordings...The living speakers of today’s disappearing languages are equipped to preserve their voices, their unique perspective on the world, and how they have managed to live sustainably in their homeland for centuries."

The research team found only six fluent speakers in the village, but they were all keen on recording their Tembé stories and legends and translated them into Portuguese as shown in the video below.

The most recent field trip lead the researchers to another Amazonian tribe, the Baré. However they couldn't find any fluent speakers of this endangered language, and found that everyone had shifted to the more widely used Portuguese or Nhengatu - a language that is undergoing shift as well, but is still spoken by about 20,000 people.

The Nhengatu speakers recorded some of their stories using the Aikuma app and it struck Dr. Bird how one of the speakers gestured with one hand while speaking. From an anthropological as well as linguistic point of view gestures are a rich source of information. The speakers also enjoyed making video recordings of each other, and this was particularly helpful when an elderly speaker wasn't able to manipulate the touch-screen in order to make a recording. A solution to this and a further development of the Aikuma app prototype could be to change the format from audio to video in order to capture this additional information and let the speakers create video recordings of each other.

The pilot projects turned out very successful and insightful in both preserving some of the stories and languages of the peoples involved as well as providing the developers with ideas on how to further improve the Aikuma app so it can be used successfully for the documentation of endangered languages in even the most remote places.

Read more about the Aikuma pilot projects in Papua New Guinea and Amazonia.

You can also follow Steven Bird’s ongoing fieldwork via Twitter.

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