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Smartphone App Created to Increase Use of Endangered Aboriginal Language in Australia

A smartphone language app has been launched to help save the Iwaidja language. Ma! Iwaidja is the first phone app for an Australian indigenous language, one that is spoken by less than 200 people on Croker Island.
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A new smartphone language app has been launched to change the way the Iwaidja language is being recorded and to help save it.

Ma! Iwaidja is the first phone app for an Australian indigenous language, one that is spoken by less than 200 people on Croker Island, off the coast of the Northern Territory of Australia, according to the Iwaidja Inyman, also known as the Minjilang Endangered Languages Publication, project website.

“There has been an enthusiastic uptake of mobile phone technology in indigenous communities in Australia, so the idea is to capitalize on that,” Bruce Birch, a linguist and coordinator of the Minjilang Endangered Languages Publication project, which developed the app, told CNN. “People have their phones with them most of the time, the app is incredibly easy to use, and this allows data collection to happen spontaneously, opportunistically.”

The first version of the app includes about 1,500 entries in its dictionary, which translates to and from English and Iwaidja and speaks the words out loud so the user can hear the pronunciation.

Other app features include a list of common phrases categorized by topics like conversation, language, weather and time. For example, if the user touches the language category they can learn how to say things like: “I’m learning to speak Iwaidja.”

The app also includes a Wordmaker that teaches users how to conjugate words to see the difference between things such as “my leg” and “your leg.”

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The app also allows the user to record phrases or dictionary entries. The next version of the app—to be launched in May 2013—will increase this capability and allow users to upload their entries so others can check them for accuracy and download them to add to their own dictionaries.

“We believe the tools we are developing will exponentially increase the involvement of the indigenous people whose languages are threatened, without the need for difficult-to-attain levels of computer literacy,” Birch told CNN.

The school on Croker Island has eight iPads with the app installed and Birch will be spending time on the island using the app with other members of the language documentation team. He told Indian Country Today Media Network that the reaction to the app has been “enthusiastic” and that as of the beginning of November it had been downloaded 385 times.

“We’ve spent time introducing the app through the school on Croker. We have the support of the education department to develop apps specifically for the multilingual context in which most schools in remote aboriginal communities operate,” he said. “A crucial part of our approach is to involve the local indigenous assistant teachers in the process, in fact to ensure they play a leading role in developing a program around the use of the apps.”

The Minjilang Endangered Languages Publication project is already gathering content for a Mawng version of the app and will follow that up with a Kunwinjku version.

“Many adults living on Croker Island, for example, understand and speak Iwaidja, Mawng and Kunwinjku, three completely distinct languages, as well as English,” says the information within the app. “While Mawng is related to Iwaidja, the two are very different languages in many respects. You could perhaps compare them to Italian and Spanish, although they’re probably a little further apart than that.”