Languages to live longer

Story by Bill Bennett, The Age, 6th September 2007

The article talks about how Arwarbukarl developed a computer program called Miromaa to assist in the rate of language loss for Aboriginal languages and Miromaa a back end database for a website currently under development named ‘ourlanguages’.

In a true marriage of old and new, the internet is set to perpetuate, if not, revive dozens of Aboriginal languages facing extinction. The Miromaa software project - miromaa means "saved" in Arwarbukarl language - was developed by two Aboriginal men in Newcastle despite assurances from linguists that lay community members were ill-equipped to save languages.

Daryn McKenny, general manager of the not-for-profit Arwarbukarl Cultural Resource Association led the development of the program. It will be used in a yet-to-be-launched website that aims to take the linguistic salvaging effort worldwide.

It is estimated that from the 250 known Australian Aboriginal languages, only 15 to 20 are fluently spoken today. The top five indigenous languages are spoken at home by between 2500 and 5800 people only, according to the 2006 census.

"What culture is left is disappearing every day with each elder who passes away," McKenny says. "We need not just linguists but an army of people and technology to slow down the loss."

Arwarbukarl, originally spoken by the people of what is now Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and the lower Hunter Valley, is among those languages in danger of disappearing.

"We were doing song and dance to educate the community and our own kids, we wanted to teach them the culture, but without the language there was something missing. Here we are teaching and talking about our language but in English. It's not the same," McKenny says.

The project was almost killed four years ago when the now-defunct ATSIC conducted a review that recommended funding be cut because "two fellas without a linguist could not revive a language", he says.

"It was a big kick up the butt but it meant we had to change our ways and work smarter."

With a background in computing, he started a search for language software around the world but settled for developing one from scratch when he realised existing programs were aimed at professionals studying threatened languages, not those practising them.

Miromaa allows community users of different language groups to post text, images, sound and video of words and phrases in a sort of communal multimedia dictionary effort and in the process create a resource others can use. It has a separate section for linguists.

It has been licensed to cultural centres in Victoria, Western Australia and north Queensland.

But it is the Our Languages website that will allow the wider community to learn indigenous languages when it launches later this year. It will cater for multiple dialects, so that an online search for the word "emu", for example, will elicit several regional results, including audio of the correct pronunciations. The site (www.ourlanguages.com.au) is still under development and inaccessible but will be open to all when finished.

"Everyone in Australia talks Aboriginal and they don't even know it - it's in the street names, the places, everywhere," McKenny says.

Our Languages will be launched with significant pro-bono help from Microsoft under its Unlimited Potential program and technology-enabling company, Dimension Data. It received partial funding from the Federal Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) but additional funds will be needed to add more languages.

The first dedicated national Aboriginal TV channel was launched last month. National Indigenous Television (nitv.org.au) carries 24-hour programming and can be seen by Optus Aurora satellite subscribers and Imparja's Channel 31 viewers in remote Australia. The $50 million venture, backed by the federal department, will be available nationally via Foxtel and Austar from October.

The channel is calling for program submissions from the community, including language-preservation ideas.

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  • Friday, 07 September 2007