Languages given fighting chance

Story by Andrew McLeod, Newcastle Herald, 12th September 2007

Many Aboriginal Languages are all but extinct and many are in danger of falling silent forever as the last generation of speakers grows old.

But a cutting edge computer program developed in Newcastle could help preserve the language and, in turn, keep cultures alive.

Daryn McKenny from Arwarbukarl Cultural Resource Association is the man behind the language reclamation and revitalisation program.

In 2003 he started work on a database of words from the local Arwarbukarl language using a basic computer program designed for more conventional use.

"There were lots of language software available but it was all aimed at linguists, not native speakers."

When Microsoft heard of the work he was doing and learnt he had lost Government funding, they came on board and helped him design a specific program archive native languages.

That program is called Miromaa, the Arwarbukarl word for 'saved'.

Mr McKenny says awareness of traditional language is important to understanding Australia's Indigenous culture.

"You can't experience culture without language; it is wrapped up in the language.

"When the project started the aim was to revive the language here (in Newcastle,) which hasn't been spoken here for about 100 years."

Mr McKenny says the underlying philosophy of the project has been to help Aboriginal people access the language rather than keep it in the hands of linguists.

"We were told two people can't revive a language, that we'd need academics, but why can't Aboriginal people be empowered to revive their language?

The Miromaa program has been adopted by about 30 communities across Australia, from Far North Queensland to Western Australia.

It combines audio and visual technology with written language and historical information to give a broad understanding of the way the language was used.

As the Arwarbukarl language has essentially disappeared, Mr McKenny and program manager Dianna Newman have searched for traces of the language in historical documents and archived the words.

They have archived about 2500 words from the local language, while other projects with better preserved languages have managed to archive more than 700 words in their database.

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  • Thursday, 13 September 2007