Endangered Languages


Cross-posted at pfed.info.

Last week, I undertook a brief fieldtrip to Pine Creek and Kybrook Farm, Northern Territory, to present the completed Wagiman Electronic Dictionary to the Wagiman community.

It has been a long time coming as several of us have been working on this dictionary in our spare time for the last six months, and so it felt especially good to be able to see a finished product, and better yet, to give it back to the community. In that six months, we successfully integrated recent research into Wagiman plants and animal species by Glenn Wightman, as well as very recent work done by the CSIRO on fish species in the Daly River. The electronic dictionary now contains all that up-to-date information. We also managed to produce sound files for the majority of lexical entries in the dictionary. There are around 1250 sound files in the dictionary altogether, totalling some 15 minutes of high-quality audio.

Lardukkarl nganing-gin using the Wagiman mobile phone dictionary

Lardukkarl nganing-gin using the Wagiman mobile phone dictionary

The Wagiman community are very pleased with the dictionary, and all enjoyed listening to the marluga¹ who recorded each of the sounds. The Wagiman people were also excited to see the mobile phone version of the dictionary. It’s not quite as complete as the computer based dictionary; it contains far fewer sound files (around 300), and doesn’t contain the sometimes lengthy dictionary comments that accompany many lexical entries. This is an unfortunate constraint of the size of a standard mobile phone screen — too much information can be hard to navigate through.

I also met with representatives of the Northern Territory Department of Education, who were interested in supporting the dictionary and possible collaboration into the future. The Wagiman have given the tick, and the Department are going to go ahead and install the dictionary on all the computers in the schools in Katherine as a first step. We’re hoping that we’ll also be able to get the Northern Territory Library on our side and install the dictionaries on library computers. That way, most computers accessed by children and young adults in the area will have the Wagiman dictionary installed.

In addition to the computer- and mobile phone-based dictionaries, we have also been looking to produce a printed version. Hopefully the Wagiman community will be able to take advantage of the increased interest in Indigenous languages recently, and sell copies of the dictionary to tourists through various shops in Katherine, Pine Creek and Darwin.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of this particular project is the demonstration that accessible electronic dictionaries for Indigenous languages can be produced for relatively little extra effort, provided that the language in question has been adequately described. Although for many languages, this remains a significant obstacle.

The Wagiman people have given us permission to allow the public to download a demonstration version of the Kirrkirr dictionary, which we will try to have ready soon. A full version will be available upon request to the Wagiman community.


¹Marluga, (nom.) Old man.

In the last few weeks, the topic of bilingual education in Australia has been receiving a fair amount of coverage in the mainstream media. Last week, I happened upon an article in the Herald, echoing earlier reports in voicing the widespread opposition from educators and academics towards the Northern Territory government’s policy of English-only education for the first four hours (leaving only a single hour of tuition) each day. The article quotes Patrick McConvell, co-author of the AIATSIS discussion paper1 that effectively brought the debate to the forefront of Australian politics.

The coverage of this issue continues tonight at 8:30 (EST) on ABC1, as Four Corners looks at the history of bilingual education in remote Australia, which they also covered way back in 1986, and dissects the policy decision by Marion Scrymgour in October 2008, before she quit her portfolio as Minister for Education. Our very own expert in this field, Dr Jane Simpson, was interviewed for the program several weeks ago, so I suggest watching it.


In other news altogether, I have finally had my honours thesis published online in The University of Sydney’s eScholarship repository. It was just under three years since it was marked in October 2006, but better late than never! You can access the pdf version here2.


  1. Simpson, J., P. McConvell & J. Caffery (2009) Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory Canberra: AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24.
  2. Wilson, A. (2006) Negative Evidence in Linguistics: The case of Wagiman Complex Predicates. Honours Thesis. Sydney: The University of Sydney.

Nothing is official as yet, but I’m fairly confident that I can informally announce to the world that I will be commencing a Ph.D. next year.

My topic will be Classical Tiwi, an Australian language that seems to have escaped the radar for serious documentary research of late. This is especially odd, given that Tiwi1 is one of the country’s most populous languages with somewhere around 2000 native speakers2. Of course this is not quite the case when it comes to Classical Tiwi, which may have only around 250 speakers, many of them elderly.

I’ve been interested in Tiwi for quite some time, as a relative of mine married a Tiwi Islander, right when I started becoming interested in Australian languages. I even remember looking at the list of the authoritative publications for Australian languages, and noting that Tiwi was researched as far back as 1976. I somewhat facetiously told myself that I was going to do my Ph.D. on Tiwi and give Osborne’s 19763 description a surely-needed update.

Then, earlier this year, I was approached by a colleague who suggested for a bunch of reasons that I do Tiwi for a Ph.D., not knowing that I had Tiwi family connections and a previous interest. Quite serendipitous.

I’ll be enrolled at the University of Melbourne, so if all goes well throughout the application process, I should be looking to move to Melbourne sometime in early 2010.


  1. Officially there isn’t a difference between Modern Tiwi and Classical Tiwi, meaning that ‘Tiwi’ is considered one language still.
  2. The census numbers vary considerably. In 2006, 1724 people said they used Tiwi at home, while in 2001, the number was 2050, and I suppose people tend to overreport more than they underreport.
  3. Osborne, C. R. (1974). The Tiwi language : grammar, myths and dictionary of the Tiwi language spoken on Melville and Bathurst Islands, northern Australia. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

I’ve had a busy and eventful week, and right now appears to be about the only spare time I’ve had.

I attended the Australian Languages Workshop last weekend at Kioloa on the NSW south coast, an outpost of ANU. I didn’t present anything, but I managed to discuss the mobile phone dictionary with a number of interested people and got a fair amount of positive feedback.

I then spent the week writing a chapter for a forthcoming volume on language revitalisation. It’s been sent off to the editors now, after a very tightly packed Friday of drafting and proofreading and editing1. The chapter doesn’t go into many details with respect to specific dictionary projects, but instead discusses the future possibilities of integrated teaching resources for endangered languages, that is, using electronic dictionaries in the classroom, which will usually be equipped with a computer or two,  and installing mobile phone dictionaries on the students’ phones so they can access a smaller version of the dictionary whenever they like. Here’s the abstract:

Owing to the disproportionately high level of illiteracy in remote indigenous communities, especially in indigenous languages, printed books are perhaps not the most appropriate form of delivery of language learning materials such as dictionaries. Electronic versions based on computers may be more useful. However, the availability of computers, and consequently computer literacy, in remote Australian communities is still very low. By contrast, mobile phones are almost ubiquitous. Unfortunately, mobile phones generally only allow small applications, meaning that most content expected in a reasonable language learner’s dictionary must be jettisoned. We propose, and document, a method of dictionary delivery that takes advantage of the flexibility and usability of computer-based dictionaries, as well as the portability of mobile phones. This process entails maintaining a single dictionary file that can be exported to dictionary visualisation programs, to applications that can be installed on a mobile phone, as well as a number of other formats in various media. Computer based resources may contain as much information as is necessary, in a format that can be navigated easily, while a mobile phone based version will contain only a reduced version of the original content, although it will be available to the user without the need of a computer.

It was also an exciting week on the teaching front; I gave my first lecture on Wednesday, it was on phonemics for an introductory linguistics course, so I got to do all those problems like Fijian prenasalised stops, Tojolabal aspirants and Spanish lenition. By all reports, I did fairly well.


  1. Thanks, by the way, to Mic, my brilliant editor.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working my way through my several hours of Wagiman recordings from my recent fieldtrip, all the time remarking at how excellent they are. It’s a combination of a good recording device; a Roland Edirol R-4, a great microphone with a proven track record in the field; a Røde NT41, and experience in microphone placement and input gain control2. I’m finding the best tokens of all the words I recorded for eventual insertion into the electronic versions of the Wagiman dictionary, including a Kirrkirr instance, and a mobile phone dictionary.

Splitting the recordings into some 1500 individual sound files is a time-consuming occupation, and unfortunately, as it’s the only one of my many jobs that isn’t actually paying me anything, higher priority tasks often win out.

Eventually though, we’ll have a Wagiman electronic dictionary ready for distribution, and a down-sampled version of the same ready for installation on mobile phones. So keep posted!

[Cross-posted at pfed.info]


  1. Both of which were loaned from PARADISEC.
  2. Gain control was really key in the end, as it was raining most of the time,which would cause low-level hiss if the gain were set too high. Luckily my speaker didn’t mind talking directly and loudly into the microphone, so I was able to keep the gain right down to stop too much ambient noise getting in.

Well, my time in the Territory has come to an end, almost. I’m sitting in Darwin airport waiting for my flight. Not a lot to do in Darwin, so I pretty much came straight here after getting dinner in town. Luckily, I stumbled upon an ethernet port that was obviously for one of those airport internet kiosks – the ones that charge 2 bucks per 8 minutes – that the airport has evidently neglected to disable, meaning I have free broadband internet for the first time in a month!

I’ve got plenty of time to make use of it too; my flight isn’t for another 4 hours1. I intended to studiously listen to my recordings and split them into individual sound files, one per word, for eventual insertion into the Wagiman Electronic Dictionary, but catching up on old email correspondences, reading old xckd comics and Language Log posts and downloading the latest Herald cryptic crossword file have sadly taken priority.

My work up here slowed down a little lately, owing to a bunch of meetings in the community this week, and the fact that my informant and I have been getting a little tired of covering tthe same territory. I actually got caught short this week and didn’t get to finish off the checking of the dictionary content, but I’ll be able to do some final checks the next time I’m up here, probably in the middle of the year2.

As far as the dictionary goes, it’s progressing nicely. I’ve been able to make some additions, and get rid of some words that were always dubious. The more recent ethnobiology research from Glenn Wightmann will need to be integrated at some stage, but I can do that from Sydney. The software for mobile phone dictionaries is also going steadily, and you can read all, or mostly, about that at pfed.info, the website we’ve created for this project. Demo dictionaries can be downloaded or tested online at pfed.info/wksite, although it’s all still in its infancy.

The reaction to the mobile phone dictionary that I’ve been showing off up here has pretty much been universally positive. Everyone I’ve shown it to has been interested in it, even the adults in the community, although the teenagers took a particular liking to it. Not only does this stand to reason, but it bodes well for what we’re actually trying to achieve with this project; increased access to a dictionary of one’s language in a format that’s easy to use. I haven’t wasted any time in showing it to the linguists up here and they too have shown interest, so much in fact that we’ve gone on to wunderkam3 dictionaries of a further two languages: Dalabon and Bilinarra.

We have a couple of other ideas up our collective sleeve that would potentially aid in the wider use of electronic dictionaries of minority languages, but I don’t want to give anything away just yet4.


  1. Actually it’s only 3 by now, such is the time it takes me to write a post these days.
  2. So that I can escape the bitterst of Sydney’s winter, as well as having inadvertently escaped the worst of summer this time around.
  3. This is a backformation from Wunderkammer, the name that James came up with to cover the mobile phone dictionary software. So, what else does a Wunderkammer do if it doesn’t wunderkam? My intended meaning for this word is ‘to convert a dictionary into a mobile phone-ready format’. I felt I needed a new word, since a default ‘do’ would imply that we had a hand in producing the content, which would clearly detract from the hard work of the researchers, language workers and speakers.
  4. More accurately, I don’t want to promise anything that real-world constraints, such as computational impossibility or pecuniary limitations, would prevent me from being able to deliver, but ‘not spoiling the show’ sounds much better.

I reckon I chose about the best time to come to the Northern Territory, given that this weekend in Sydney is meant to be swelteringly hot, 44 degrees odd, while up here it peaks at about 30 degrees before bucketing down with rain in the afternoon.

The work is also going relatively well, given the constraints of working in the rain, and with informants who are increasingly old and decreasingly mobile. I’ve been working with one speaker on clearing up a number of words that have been left out of the dictionary so far due to a lack of data, and we managed to get about half of them back in.

Everyone who has seen the mobile phone dictionary now has been interested in it, most of all the younger adults who predictably use their phones more than anyone. There has also been some interest in the mobile phone and Kirrkirr dictionaries from the Northern Territory Education Department, a representative of whom saw a demonstration of the software yesterday. This would mean, provided we can get permission from the various people involved, that we’ll be producing a Kirrkirr instance and mobile phone dictionary for Dalabon, a Gunwinyguan language from southern Arnhem Land.

The other main task I have over the next few weeks is to sit down with my speakers, when they can, and systematically go through the list of headwords in the dictionary, and procude clear, audible recordings of each for insertion into the dictionaries.

I can now confirm that I’ll be back in the territory in a little over a week’s time. It’s my first time back there in over 18 months, and it’ll be my first experience of a Northern Territory wet season, so I can’t wait.

The reason I’m going is to do some work for the electronic dictionary of Wagiman that James and I are producing, including a mobile phone version, using generously donated funds from the Hoffman Foundation. I’ll just be going over the revisions that need to be made to the current dictionary, record sounds and possibly take photos for inclusion into the dictionary, and discuss with the community how they’d like it to work.

For one thing, there are plenty of words that I know the older speakers don’t particularly want the younger kids to know about, so I’m guessing they’ll want such words ‘hidden’ from the kids’ version of the dictionary. However as James pointed out to me, the first words younger kids look up in dictionaries are swear words and taboo body parts, and having them there for them to gawk over provides a means with which the kids can relate to the dictionary matter.

Also, we’ve decided that it’s about time to set up a website and blog for the project, except we haven’t yet got around to installing the wordpress software. The site will contain information relating to the project, new releases of software, instructions on how to convert toolbox databases into other formats, and extensive documentation of the whole process.

<update>
The PFED website and blog is now up and running!
</update>

I read in this morning’s Herald that a school in Victoria has been trialing the use of iPods for facilitating school work. iTouches1 are being used to research and submit assignments, to download music and for students to communicate with their teachers over email. The results so far suggest that students are much more likely to interact with school work over the medium of an iPod than more traditional methods, and are more likely to use the iPods than laptops.

This story ties in with James and my work over the past year, which will continue throughout this year, into the use of mobile phones for the maintenance of endangered languages. It also overlaps with the government’s ‘education revolution’ promise of the last election, in which each student receives a laptop.

So far the government’s plan has been marred by cost blowouts – although I’m almost certain this is due to the ‘Government letterhead’ effect2 – and concerns about the long-term technical support of the computers. The iTouch wins hands down on both counts, as they’re much cheaper – about 300 bucks as opposed to a grand at least – and they can be easily supported by Apple’s existing technical support infrastructure, especially if the iTouches come with the extended warranty.

Another issue raised here is the future of personal technology – though this is getting considerably geeky of me. I’ve long thought that there was too much increasing overlap between personal portable computers and mobile phones. More and more, mobile phones are internet enabled (although costly, as you have to go through your telco), support more data, can run programs, and generally operate like mini-computers. My prediction has been that mobile phones will get bigger and more functional, and laptops will get smaller and more portable, until they meet in the middle with personal PDA-style touchscreen computers with phones in them. Obviously such things have already been created, like Blackberries, iPods and, until recently, palm pilots, but the market is only beginning to catch on.

In addition to mobile phone applications for dictionaries of endangered languages, we think we can probably make downloadable programs for other devices, like iPods, and mobile phones that run Android (Google’s open-source and free answer to Apple’s iPhone). And we dont just mean dictionary viewing programs, but dictionary creation tools as well.

Imagine, for instance, if students of outback schools were equipped with iTouches pre-loaded with bilingual Kriol-English learning programs, and were pre-configured with a Kriol language pack, so that the iTouch’s menus and options started out in Kriol, until such a time as their English literacy reaches the point where they can switch it over to operate it in English.


  1. I’ve written right to the end of this post and realised that I’ve said ‘iTouch’ way too many times. I should point out right from the start that the device may as well be any of this new breed of mobile phone – though preferably something developed by the Open Handset Alliance and running Android. But for ease, I’m just going to refer to ‘iPod’ and ‘iTouch’ all the way through.
  2. The Government letterhead effect is when a private contractor increases their prices exponentially when they receive a quote request with a government letterhead. Remember the guys that wrote ‘No War’ on the Sydney Opera House in red paint? It cost $100,000 to clean.

    As if.

I’ve been back in Sydney for almost a week now, having been in Melbourne before that to attend the University of Melbourne Linguistics and Applied Linguistics Postgraduates Conference, where I presented the Kaurna Electronic Dictionary1 to a sell-out crowd. It was the final leg of an epic, two part world wind whirlwind tour that began in Wellington almost two weeks ago. (more…)


  1. For some background on the dictionary, see these posts (definitely not automatically generated):
    Mobile Phone Dictionaries

    Ceased to Be

    Conferences, Seminars and Dictionaries

    More Good News
    One down, one to go

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