Android app for oral language documentation

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Steven Bird, "Cyberlinguistics: recording the world's vanishing voices", 3/11/2013:

Of the 7,000 languages spoken on the planet, Tembé is at the small end with just 150 speakers left. In a few days, I will head into the Brazilian Amazon to record Tembé – via specially-designed technology – for posterity. Welcome to the world of cyberlinguistics.

Our new Android app Aikuma is still in the prototype stage. But it will dramatically speed up the process of collecting and preserving oral literature from endangered languages, if last year’s field trip to Papua New Guinea is anything to go by.

Read the whole thing.

Full disclosure: I'm co-P.I. with Steven on an NSF grant to develop, deploy, and test this approach to language documentation ("Language Preservation 2.0: Crowdsourcing Oral Language Documentation using Mobile Devices").


  1. Avinor said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

    I'm wondering a bit why the informants are asked to record their stories in solitude. Wouldn't the natural setting be in front of an audience? I as a westerner brought up with technology still find it slightly silly to sit all alone and talk into a computer, if there is no live feedback.

    [(myl) Actually, the project often records people speaking for an audience, or being interviewed, or having a discussion. A typical scenario might involve someone telling a story while someone else listens. The idea is that once people learn to use the app to create and share content, they can use it as they please.]

  2. Eric Vinyl said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

    As one elder said: "We must record our stories now so that they can be preserved for our children, since they are not learning our language!"

    I'm curious if anyone with any language preservation experience knows of any cases where such an initiative prompted a speech community to thereafter raise their kids with the endangered language as their first language? Or do linguists ever grab them by the shoulders, shake them and yell, "SO FUCKING SPEAK IT TO THEM!" or does that like violate the Prime Directive?

    [(myl) There have been and continue to be many attempts at "language revitalization", all around the world and in many different social and linguistic contexts. But the deck is usually stacked against these efforts, in the absence of strong countervailing forces, for fairly obvious social and economic reasons. The situation is not all that different from the one facing the children of immigrants in the U.S., where the first generation born and raised in here often acquires only a partial command of the ancestral language, and the second generation may get almost none at all.]

  3. Barbara Partee said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

    This is so wonderful!

  4. marie-lucie said,

    March 11, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

    This is great news indeed. Let's hope the technology will be made widely available to communities.

    When a language is endangered, and "the children are not learning it", it is because nobody is speaking it TO them and expecting them not only to understand but to reply in kind, which is what happens naturally in a monolingual situation. This is not often realized in the first generation raised in English or other dominant language, because there are still enough speakers of most ages, the oldest of whom still speak to children in their own language. But soon the generation that grew up speaking English (etc) between themselves and with their parents is less and less able to speak with the grandparents, so that their own children have fewer and fewer models, and none of their own age. So "Speak X to your children!" is no longer practical for parents who may only have a passive knowledge of the ancestral language apart from a few common phrases, and be unable to carry on a conversation, let alone provide models for their children.

  5. Jason said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 2:21 am

    Steve Bird claims Tok Pisin is a "trade language" "used by merchants and the like without a common tongue." Tok Pisin is a lot more than a trade language, it's a full fledged creole and the lingua franca of PNG! Other than this, this is welcome news.

  6. Jon said,

    March 12, 2013 @ 11:35 am

    At the moment I'm reading A History of Language, by Steven Roger Fischer. In it he says: "True minority languages, that is, those tongues spoken by 20,000 or less, depending on circumstances, can be preserved only by complete isolation. Anything else means certain annihilation."
    He doesn't give a reference for the number. It sounds depressingly high to me. He says the extinction almost always happens by the 'reluctant desire' of parents to give their children better prospects, by teaching them the dominant language and not the ancestral one.

  7. Angie said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

    If you need a tester I would love to help. I am attempting to do something similar with my ethnic group in Nigeria.

  8. Jared said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 8:17 am

    I am making a short video about internet usage in remote villages, and I was wondering if I could use the image on this page in my video?

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