BY GRETA HARRISON
UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE
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 [pictured] from the Department of Computing and Information Systems.
PNG 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.” Prof 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.
“These people have extensive knowledge of their environment and a rich oral literature, none of which is recorded,” said Prof Bird. “We are introducing … social networking in a place with no previous contact with the Web.”
The project taps into the traditional knowledge of 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.
Associate Professor Bird described the technology as a modern-day spoken Rosetta Stone, drawing on the wisdom of the community.
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.