Modern ways for ancient words

This forum was held in Newcastle, Australia, 24-26 April 2007, coordinated by the Awarbukarl Cultural Resource Association (ACRA). Subtitled ‘Modern ways for ancient words’, it was organised by Daryn McKenny and his team (including Dianna Newman and Faith Baisden) who put together two and a half days of presentations on the state of ICT in Indigenous language (IL) programs. The forum had a number of sponsors, testament to Daryn’s ability to pull in support from various quarters, including DCITA, Telstra, Microsoft among others.
Representatives of language programs and language centres came from far and wide, including Townsville, Cairns, Port Hedland, Kalgoorlie, Bourke, Adelaide, Nambucca Heads, Sydney, Melbourne, Walgett, the Kimberley and New Zealand. We were given lots of information over the two days that I was there (I missed the last morning) and I’ll try to summarise it here. Apologies to anyone I’ve left out.

After the welcome to country and a dance performance we were graced with a message from Senator Coonan in which she emphasised the funding that DCITA had put into ILs and the $36.6 million that is targeted to improve Indigenous telecommunications, including $2.6 million for online content Backing Indigenous Ability) to provide useful information in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages [Ed.note – hyperlink hard to load. but.. 27/4/07 update from D Nash: The Minister’s 23 February 2007 Media Release, and DCITA’s Backing Indigenous Ability website. Applications closed last Friday, 20 April 2007].
There were show and tell sessions, many CDs were displayed and I have to admit that their functions all started to look very similar after a while, using Flash and Macromedia Director to present a (usually very small) set of words (see Jane Simpson’s post on this topic), with games doing a rearrangement of the same data. Given that they are mainly funded by DCITA it is a shame there is not a central template developed to allow each local agency to put in their data/images/sounds to create their own CD rather than paying lots of small IT companies to create individual new products.
The Warrgamay language program (Melinda Holden and Cassy Nancarrow) showed us an interactive tool complete with a cutaway view of a head as it pronounces each sound. Cassy also showed us a Gugu Badhun dictionary CD, based on Peter Sutton’s work.
We saw a collection of Pitjantjatjara stories produced as books and Powerpoint (they could as easily be in OpenOffice :)) slides by Greg Wilson, Audrey Brumby and Marika Zellmer from the SA Education Dept with beautiful linked external image files (painted by Audrey Brumby) and sounds.
In one approach to providing a template for general use, Daryn McKenny showed Miromaa, the software he has been developing for presentation of Awabakal material. Based on a Microsoft Access database, it allows import of data in various formats and linking to images and sounds, with export possibilites including HTML for webpages or Toolbox format for use in LexiquePro. It presents wordlists and allows them to be exported to printable documents.
At the high end of the dictionary software scale was Freelex/Matapuna shown by Dave Moskovitz from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori / The Māori Language Commission (NZ) who are writing a monolingual dictionary of the Māori Language, well worth a look as an open source dictionary creation system. Matapuna, or maybe Freelex, has been used for dictionaries of Karen, Fula and Hawai’ian. Dave also showed a set of online games and learning exercises, including songs for Māori at
John Giacon’s reflections on the language work he has done are especially relevant to those working on languages where historical material plays a crucial role in language reintroduction. He identified three stages to the work, the first is the location of historical records, the second is analysis of those records which really requires linguistic training and the third is delivery of the material to the community. He showed a number of Gamilaraay/Yuwaalaraay (GY) resources, including audio linked texts and songs and an interactive CD dictionary (made by David Nathan).
Sue Atkins of The Learning Federation, a consortium of Education Departments from Australia and New Zealand, showed an online template for creation of word games and other language related activities that you fill in with details from your language and then export to a bundled presentation that you can either read in your browser or put on your server.
Cat Kutay showed some language learning software she is developing at UNSW, based on a kind of standalone wiki that can extract data from tabulated forms and create links between various data types. It does simple translations based on wordlist lookups, and she is planning to develop a parser.
Daryn McKenny proposed that there needs to be a website for community-based language work on ILs and he has built a prototype at (but you need to be registered to use it). It contains wikis and blogs and aims to link to all possible resources, a valuable service if he can get support to do it, and one that has been needed for some time.
I talked about creation of data in ways that will last over time, and outlined the functions of four tools for linguists: Transcriber, Elan, Toolbox and Audiamus. I wanted to point out that creation of good data will ensure that it is available for the community in future and that multimedia products are derived from data that will be preserved in the longterm.
Albert Burgman showed us how he used LexiquePro to convert Toolbox dictionaries into interactive dictionaries with images and sounds for Wangka Maya Aboriginal language centre in Port Hedland. Five languages now have dictionaries in this form (Payungu, Jiwarli, Thalanyji, Warnman and Martu Wangka).
Kazuko Obata talked about the Austlang online database for Australian Indigenous languages which will give a summary of information available about each language.
John Hobson of the Koori Centre at the University of Sydney reported on their Masters and Graduate diploma courses for training teachers of Indigenous languages which just had ten students graduate and which is seeking new students.
The forum was very well organised (and catered!) and, for me, was reminiscent of the Aboriginal Languages Association conferences of the 1980s where both Aboriginal people and linguists are able to find out what we are all up to.

4 thoughts on “Modern ways for ancient words”

  1. I was also at the Forum, and as Nick reported, the Forum was well organised and also appeared well funded. In addition to representatives from language programs and centres, a number of representatives from government departments: DCITA (from both national and NSW offices), NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, NSW Board of Studies, NSW Department of Education and Training, Queensland State Library, etc. were there to listen. DCITA brought a consultant who is conducting a review on the MILR program as well as FATSIL, and he was interviewing participants (I didn’t get interviewed so I don’t know what kind of questions he was asking). As Nick mentioned, there were a lot of similar products and several people expressed needs for templates, regardless whether they are in proprietry or open-source formats.
    For me, it was a very good opportunity for networking and to find out what activities are taking place at different parts of Australia.

  2. The conference itself was very well organised and presented. Our indigenous languages are some of the oldest in the world and I found it inspiring to see other indigenous people also reclaiming their languages and trying to get them used. I’ve come back to Port Hedland motivated for more. Well done to the Awarbukarl Cultural Resource Association.

  3. I’d have to say it was one of the most productive of these events I’ve been to in many years. My thoughts went straight back to the ALA conference in Alice Springs in 1984.
    It would be great to see more opportunities for linguists and community to work so productively together.
    I’m looking forward to ILC2007 and LingFest2008!

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