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Language's digital lifeline

The Ma! Iwaidja app
07 January 2013

Try saying this out loud until it rolls off your tongue smoothly: Janad Kalajarr! (pron: JAh-nahd KAh-lah-jahd). have you got it yet? Are the people around you looking at you strangely?
 
What you’re saying is ‘he/she is mad!’, and you’re saying it in the language Iwaidja (pron: ee-Why- jah). Learn that phrase, and you’ve taken the first step towards speaking one of the world’s most endangered languages, only spoken fluently by around 200 people, most of whom live on Croker Island in the Arafura Sea off the Northern Territory coast.
 
But that number could soon become much greater, thanks to the pioneering work of ANU linguist Bruce Birch. Birch, who is based on Croker for an average of six months each year, has worked with the Minjilang Endangered Languages Publication Project to develop the first phone app for an Australian Indigenous language. And with the app comes hope that this language – unlike many other Indigenous languages before it – won’t be lost forever. Birch said the idea for the app – Ma! Iwaidja – developed  as the spread of phone apps gathered pace.
 
“It was originally a joke,” he says. “As phone apps started to take off, we joked about having an app for Iwaidja. Two years later, during which period there has been an exponential increase in the use of digital technology in remote Indigenous communities, we have one.
 
“And Iwaidja is a great language to trial this kind of thing on. There are a maximum of 200 speakers of it, at various levels of competency. The current generation of children and teenagers aren’t picking up the language very well. So we want to see if they get into using the app, both as a handy reference and as a way of helping to document the language by recording their own data.”
 
The app includes a 450-entry phrase book, a ‘conjugator’ allowing users to properly conjugate verbs and sentences, and an information section about the language itself and other endangered languages in Arnhem Land. It also has a 1,500- word English-Iwaidja dictionary with audio.
 
Birch says that learning Iwaidja is not for the faint of heart.
 
“For English speakers, it is very hard to learn. Not only is the sound system different – it’s much easier for speakers of Italian, for instance – but it’s what’s known as a ‘morphologically rich’ language. That’s very different from English, which has lost much of its morphology.
 
“Morphology means there are a range of prefixes and suffixes which attach to stems. This results in long words which are equivalent to English phrases and sentences. It’s hard for people to learn who are not used to that, because before you say something you have to ‘load up’ these long words, which include a verb or noun stem along with prefixes and sufixes encoding subject, object, directionality, tense and so on,” he says.
 
Birch, a researcher with the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, leads a life that many of us would envy – dividing his time between the southern states and Croker’s paradise-like islands located 200 kilometres from Darwin. he has been working on Iwaidja since 1999, and spending large periods – and sometimes the whole year – living on Croker since 2003.
 
His time on the island has allowed him to form strong bonds with the locals, who were instrumental in bringing the app to the wide world of the Internet. That a group based at a remote outstation where the only connection to the Internet is through dial-up were able to develop an app is remarkable  and was a cause for celebration on the island. But the launch of the app was also tinged with sadness, as Birch explains.
 
“I have close relationships with my native speaker collaborators on the island. My main collaborator on the app was Joy Williams Malwagag, who tragically died in May before the app was released. Joy provided her outstation as a work and accommodation base over the last four years, and it’s there that much of the work on the content for the app was carried out.”
 
In addition to capturing the language as it stands, and encouraging new speakers, the aim is for the app to become a living, developing database that its users can contribute to.
 
“Using their phones and tablets, people will be able to upload recordings of new dictionary entries and phrases to be moderated and checked for accuracy before being made available for download to all users. With the upload, users will also be able to give us metadata – such as who the speaker was or a photo of what they’re talking about.
 
“That additional functionality means the app becomes a living, constantly developing dictionary for a language that is otherwise highly endangered.
 
“Additionally, we are initiating more structured use of the app, with school children on Croker and in Darwin, who are typically multilingual, being assigned the task of collecting phrases or words around a particular theme and then recording and uploading them to be moderated by members of the Minjilang-based Iwaidja Language Team.”
 
Although the app has only just hit online stores, it’s already attracting considerable interest from people documenting other endangered languages in Africa and the Americas. But for Birch, there’s no resting on his laurels; he’s already developing plans to bring this cutting-edge technology to bear on some of Arnhem Land’s other endangered languages.
 
“We already have phrase book content ready for Iwaidja’s neighbouring language Mawng, and hope to have that available in a few months and preparations for a Kunwinjku version are underway. More excitingly, we will be making the app available ‘empty’, ready for use for any language in the world.”
 
Not bad for something that started as alba [Iwaijda word for fooling around].
 
The Ma! Iwaidja app is available at the Apple app store and Google Play. This article was first published in the Summer 2012 edition of ANU Reporter.
 

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