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IT researchers preserving remote PNG languages

Researchers from the Melbourne School of Engineering are travelling to remote Papua New Guinea to trial a mobile app that will document and preserve the region’s unique dialects; languages that are at critical risk of being lost forever.

The project is being led by Associate Professor Steven Bird from the Department of Computing and Information Systems.

Papua New Guinea has over 800 distinct languages, around one third of the world’s indigenous tongues. This linguistic and cultural treasure is at risk of being lost as the languages fall out of use.

“Now is the time to record and translate the stories and songs, so they can be heard and understood by future generations.” Associate Professor Bird said.

“The best way to do this on a large scale is to use mobile phones. They are already in widespread use, even in villages without electricity, where they are recharged using car batteries.”

Doctoral student, Florian Hanke, developed the software for Android phones, which is capable of recording audio and sharing it over a local network. Others can then listen to recordings, rate them and give a spoken commentary or translation into English. The software is designed for use by people without formal education or even literacy.

Associate Professor Steven Bird

“These people have extensive knowledge of their environment and a rich oral literature, none of which is recorded,” said Associate Professor Bird.

“We are introducing Web-2.0-style social networking in a place with no previous contact with the Web.”

“However, we are not trying to deliver the Internet to the village. Instead, we are creating digital content in small languages, some with only a few hundred speakers.

Associate Professor Bird said the data would eventually end up in the Internet Archive, based in San Francisco.

The project taps into the traditional knowledge of the elders, combining it with the skills of a younger generation who have western-style education and carry mobile phones. An elder will record a story on one phone. Someone else will then rate it, or supply another version of the story. Those listening to stories add their vote of approval and in some cases offer additional details.

A bilingual person will then listen to a highly-rated story on another phone and provide a translation into English. Another person will listen to the English and transcribe it. Over time, researchers will build up a large database of translated texts in many of the local languages. This will not just be useful for people wanting to learn the language of their ancestors, but will also be used for the development of automatic translation software.

The team has chosen the Android platform because it is free, open source, and available on inexpensive phones in Papua New Guinea.

The Android application

Associate Professor Bird described the technology as a modern-day spoken Rosetta Stone, drawing on the wisdom of the community.

The latest research builds on an earlier project, where Associate Professor Bird trained 100 students in three PNG universities to record their ancestral languages, using 100 voice recorders.

The project has an impressive list of sponsors, including the Australian Research Council, the US National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research.

“The sponsors saw that we had a viable plan for using inexpensive technology and voluntary labour to secure a vast amount of linguistic heritage in digital form.” Associate Professor Bird said.

Within PNG, the project is receiving logistical support from the University of Goroka and the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Dr Avei-Hosea, Dean of Humanities at the University of Goroka, said that PNG was one of the few countries in the world that still practices its oral cultures and speaks its languages, and is richly blessed with untapped traditional knowledge.

“More than 80% of PNG’s knowledge systems have not been researched, recorded and archived.

“Most of the Papua New Guineans who hold such knowledge are old people and if we do not act fast in preserving such knowledge, it is certain that we will lose what is truly ours forever,” Dr Avei-Hosea said.

“Our languages are the key to all these indigenous systems. Such a project, for recording, archiving, and research using the latest in technology is important and timely.”

Listen to Associate Professor Bird discuss the PNG Languages project on ABC Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat.

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One Comment

  1. Warren Glover says:

    Great to see this project, Steven, and the potential for use with such readily available devices. Warren.

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