The digital platform saving Indigenous languages from extinction
25 March 2019 at 4:22 pm
There are only two people left in the Torres Strait Islands who are fluent in the native Erub Mer dialect, and many fear the language will soon disappear entirely. But a digital platform is fighting to change that.
Developed by The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF), the Living First Language Platform is trying to stop the disappearance of Indigenous languages across Australia through a range of digital language apps, to be used and taught by first language speakers and those in their community.
In Australia, 50 per cent of Indigenous languages are now extinct, and only 13 are considered strong and viable. On a global scale, every 14 days an Indigenous language disappears.
The interactive platform includes translations from first language to English and vice-versa, and allows users to listen to words as syllables, sounds and phonograms. Users can also add in their own stories or experiences as a way to record the history and culture of the community.
Eric Brace, the project lead of the Living First Language Platform, said empowering communities to restore their own languages, like the Erub Mer dialect in the Torres Strait Islands, was vital to the program’s success.
“Seeing the Torres Strait Islander community’s excitement amongst young people, that they could collaboratively record that language and teach that language through the platforms, is where we are seeing the realisation of the program,” Brace told Pro Bono News.
He said previously a linguist would visit the communities regularly to collect and record the language, but this was no longer necessary thanks to the platform.
“[After] their second visit on the Torres Strait, they didn’t have to go back because the community had the tools to carry on the work without any outside help,” he said.
Brace said with 2019 being the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, it was a good time to focus on the issue.
He said working to preserve and revitalise Australia’s Indigenous language’ was a key component of reconciliation, as well as creating strong connections and a recognition of culture.
“Over the 20 years we’ve been working in Indigenous languages, we’ve been able to see how important it is for communities,” he said.
“Whether it’s about the language they speak every day, or if it’s something they strongly hold towards their heritage, language is very important to culture and identity.”
The program recently picked up the Innovation in Connecting People Award at the South by Southwest Innovation Awards in Texas, which Brace said went a long way towards recognising this was important not only in Australia, but in the rest of the world as well.
“The recognition gives us a platform and opportunity to further spread awareness about what we’ve developed, and what’s possible from what we’ve developed,” he said.
“It also could inspire other projects to innovate in the area of first language preservation all around the world.”