At the end of 2012, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke of embracing the “Asian Century” prior to implementing a policy recommendation whereby at least one Asian language will be taught in all Australian schools. Meanwhile, the United States is also looking at language in 2013, but has instead identified digital communication as a priority for underprivileged and underrepresented students—the Code.org website is one example of the way in which coding language is being more widely disseminated. Although HTML5 and the dialects of China might seem worlds apart, the two language forms have now come together through the work of a computer scientist from Australia’s University of Melbourne.
Associate Professor of Computer Science Steven Bird is presently in the rainforests of Brazil with an Android app called “Aikuma” that he continues to develop with a PhD student and linguist Matt Taylor. By introducing Aikuma into the 21st century, Bird is seeking to greatly assist the process of preserving endangered languages, such as his current linguistic project Tembé, a Brazilian language spoken by just 150 people today. Prior to the Amazon, Bird and his colleagues journeyed to Papua New Guinea, where they recorded Usarufa speakers, of which there are only 1,000 left.
The Aikuma team relies on a solar-powered Wi-Fi router and cell phones to conduct its work, and members engage with guests in a natural manner—in PNG they hosted a village feast with a box of frozen lamb meat, while in Brazil they recorded video footage of an all-night coming-of-age ceremony at the invitation of the hosts. Bird described the trips as “an experiment in bringing digital culture to analogue natives,” as he uses his app to record stories, songs, legends, personal narratives, and dialogues on the cell phones that he hands to the speakers of the endangered languages.
If enough people use Aikuma, Bird will eventually accumulate a considerable collection of recorded material that will form an archive of the more obscure aspects of the world’s 7,000 languages. With permission, the data will be kept in the Internet Archive, a digital storage space that has been used to preserve significant portions of the online realm since the 1990s. Aikuma is an ideal tool to achieve Bird’s goal, as its audio capacity means that literacy is not an issue (furthermore, most endangered languages are not in written form). Also, the latest version of the app consists of a voice-activated translation function, whereby a user can interrupt a recording to provide a simultaneous translation of the content in another language—the cell phone then links the translation to the original recording and this means that the stored material can still be understood after the languages are no longer spoken.
Of course, Bird and his colleagues have their work cut out for them, as, for example, 100 languages are spoken in the Amazon alone. However, the fruits of their labor will be invaluable, as not only will the linguists of the future be able to explore languages of the distant past, but the recordings are also given to the respective communities so that future generations will gain a deeper insight into their amazing histories.