Academics team up to save dying languages

A beautifully crafted documentary about Aikuma by Thom Cookes which aired on ABC’s program The World (25/3/13):

This video included a segment about Lauren Gawne and her work on Kagate (Nepal).

Mar 13, 2014

Two Interviews on ABC Radio National

Stories from the Brazilian Amazon, with Waleed Aly and Phillip Adams, on ABC Radio National:

  • ABC RN Drive with Waleed Aly: Passport: Steven Bird, computer scientist and preserver of old languages [ audio | website ]
  • ABC RN Late Night Live with Phillip Adams and Carmel O’Shannessey: Lost and found languages [ audio | website ]

Aug 20, 2013

The wrap up of my Brazil fieldwork


Aikuma app for speech annotation

Of the ~200 languages spoken in Brazil, about half are spoken in the Amazon. During March-May this year I had the privilege to work with speakers of Tembé, Ticuna, and Nhengatu, teaching them how to use mobile technologies for preserving their disappearing linguistic heritage. It was incredible to see how the technology didn’t just enable the work, but motivated people to participate.

Much of the activity was close to water — unsurprising given the vastness of the rivers, often many kilometres wide and holding 20% of the world’s freshwater. Access to language areas was different in each case: an eight hour drive into the rainforest (Tembé), a guide taking me deep into a warren of informal roads and dwellings on the outskirts of a city (Ticuna), and a boat ride up the Rio Negro (Nhengatu).

This fieldwork was a true adventure: going into the unknown with little idea of what to expect, depending on others for the basics of survival, being welcomed by local indigenous people yet finding it challenging to establish shared goals and activities. And there were my new travelling companions Katie and Isaac, who got wind of my travels and wanted to come along for the adventure.


Travelling up the Rio Negro

The work is summed up in three articles, each with an ABC interview:

1. Earlier work in Papua New Guinea set the scene: I was there with Florian, my PhD student, for five weeks in early 2012. This story and interview mark the start of my fieldwork in Brazil.

2. Visiting the Tembé village was more difficult than I had anticipated. Everything was so foreign and there were incomprehensions on both sides.

3. The second village visit was different. We found a receptive community and they were excited about collecting, transcribing, and publishing their stories.

The third linguistic community was Ticuna — interesting, complex, and vexing. I’ll save it for another day…

May 30, 2013

Photographs from Terra Preta

I’ve just returned from four days in Terra Preta, a 50km boat ride up the Rio Negro from Manaus. My friends from the Tembe trip, Katie and Isaac, joined me and did an brilliant job with recording and transcribing Nhengatu stories. This post has a selection of photos from our trip.


In front of our boat, after negotiating the price


A photo from our boat. Big sky. Bigger river.


Arnaldo, fishing for our lunch


Our lunch (piranha)


A typical house in Terra Preta (incl satellite dish)


Our accommodation, in three hammocks on Arnaldo’s porch


Children listening to their recordings on the Aikuma app


Celia, with some of the beautiful things you can make with açaí berries


The school, two rooms, one computer


Soccer occupied most of the weekend


Jonas, recording a translation, with random onlookers


Jeremias, Clodoaldo, and Jonas transcribing stories


Jonas, transcribing from the mobile phone recording


Keyboarding texts for publication


Aline (6) showing me canoes in the flooded forest


6pm view from the village, with rain and boat


Apr 29, 2013

Nhengatu: A Timely Lesson in Language Preservation


Showing off the Aikuma smartphone app for recording and translating spoken language

The village of Terra Preta is a short boat ride up the Rio Negro from Manaus (satellite picture). I went there last Sunday, hoping to give the Nhengatu people a short lesson in language preservation, and wondering if I could interest them in doing some recording work using our mobile phone app.

After leaving Manaus, we tracked along the northern bank of the river, about 50m out, dense rainforest on our right and a vast expanse of water on our left. The Rio Negro is more than 10km wide in places. We watched a tucuxi, or river dolphin, arching out of the water. Aldevan scared me with his talk about the hazards of the river, the anaconda, jacaré, piranha, candirú (notorious for invading the urethra). Our boat felt tiny as we were tossed around on the wake of the large boats coming in the opposite direction. Still, it was too hot to wear the life vest and it would only slow down my sprint to the shore if we were to capsize!


Aldevan Baniwa, my Nhengatu guide


After filling up, we were on our way

After about 90 minutes our driver cut the engine and pulled through a gap in the semi-submerged trees that obscured the riverbank. Without the engine noise, the air was suddenly full of birdsong. The three of us, Aldevan, Isaac and I, climbed out of the boat, and laboured up the steep flight of steps to the first house of the village.


Maneuvering our boat into position beside the schoolboat


The first local that we met, an acacá (macaw)


We were met by Arnaldo Yarumare. Opening my notebook, I mechanically asked Arnaldo for the name of his language. Baré, he replied. Then he added that no-one speaks Baré any more. How curious to be affiliated with a dead language. Later I checked the Ethnologue entry for Baré and found that the language is still spoken, though probably not for very much longer. Arnaldo continued: like some other Baré speakers, he has now switched to Nhengatu, a language having 10,000 speakers. My curiosity about the language situation satisfied, I was glad to rest in a hammock in Arnaldo’s breezy porch. It had been a 5am start that day. After an hour or so, Arnaldo asked if I would like to try some local food. I agreed and so he led us up the hill, threading our way through wooden houses mostly on stilts, greeting people along the way. Yane kwema.

We arrived at a building with a corrugated iron roof and no walls, set on a raised concrete base. Shade. The benches arranged around the perimeter were close to capacity with about 50 people. In the centre, a large table was set out with food. The moment we arrived everyone moved to the table, filled their plates, returned to the benches, and ate. Would we be invited to join them? No-one acknowledged our presence so I felt invisible, yet being unobserved I felt unselfconscious about observing. Monitoring whether people were speaking Portuguese or Nhengatu.

A lesson in language preservation (take 1)

After lunch the children disappeared, and Arnaldo publicly welcomed us. Aldevan talked about our language recording work. Soon it was my turn. I asked whether the children speak Nhengatu (they don’t) and whether there are any storytellers (there are). They named one man who is now well into his eighties, but not present with us. I asked for a volunteer to tell a story to the group. After a brief pause there seemed to be consensus and a man called Jonas Alesio stood up. I handed him one of the phones and he told a story about the Curupira. His story enthralled his audience. Next, Samuel Alexo agreed to translate. After a 20-second demonstration, he used our Aikuma app to translate Jonas’ story into Portuguese.


Jonas Alesio, recounting a story


Samuel Alexo, translating phrase-by-phrase

Once he finished, I replayed the recording and translation for everyone to hear.

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(Scroll to the bottom of this post for an English paraphrase.)

I asked the group what they thought of this, and whether they would like us to return another day to record more stories and prepare a CD. In response, Samuel stood and addressed the group, explaining the importance of this work to record the language and to make sure that the children would be able to understand the stories. He turned to me and spoke about the need for an exchange. They could participate in our recording work. Would we help them to produce a DVD?

That was strange! Samuel viewed their participation in audio recording as a favour to me, when I had just presented it as a favour to them. Its true that I wanted their participation. Was it disingenuous of me to present it as a service to them? Perhaps Aldevan’s introduction of me as a researcher was the trigger: Indians bristle at the word pesquisador given the history of outsiders coming and taking things away. As we parted, Samuel offered to speak to the rest of the village and then get back to us.

I was curious to see the computer room, and so we were ushered into a room containing computers, monitors, a router, and uniterruptable power supplies. All still boxed. These would eventually be powered by the generator for a few hours each day.


At the new computer room, with 11 unboxed desktop computers


Router and uninterruptable power supplies


As we walked away, I commented to Isaac that this was our most positive reception to date. A village leader understood and valued our work and publicly expressed a desire to cooperate. We were soon back at Arnaldo’s house, where a meal of catfish and rice was waiting for us.

A lesson in language preservation (take 2)

On the boat ride back to Manaus I reflected on our brief recording session. There was the woman videoing Jonas on her phone. She kept getting in the way of my photography. Why didn’t I get a wide-angle shot including her? There was Jonas’ one-handed gestures, while he held the phone in his other hand. There was the request to assist with a DVD. The whole situation was screaming VIDEO at me.

In our app development we had focussed on audio because video files are often too large to upload over a 3G network. However, here there was the computer room, and the fact that many Indian villages are getting grants to set them up. There was the wireless router which they unboxed in front of me. There was the requirement to store recordings locally. A local area network and associated file storage would soon be in place. There would be no bandwidth problem.

In this place, and others like it, video documentation on mobile phones would be possible. This was a game changer. The person being recorded would not hold the phone — someone else would be videoing. We would need a new app, one which supported video playback. A user would pause the video to record an audio commentary or translation. Another playback mode would interleave the video with that spoken translation. People would share videos and playlists. The locally-owned phones would become the dissemination medium. Or something like that.

I need to think about it some more…


Listening to Jonas’ story


Our lunch of catfish and rice

The Tale of the Curupira

Recounted by Jonas Alesio (Nhengatu), orally translated by Samuel Alexo (Portuguese), paraphrased by Isaac McAlister

Once upon a time, a man went out into the forest to collect sorva. He very much enjoyed working with sorva, cipó and the roots of the piassava tree, for this was how he earned his living. He would spend two or three weeks at a stretch deep in the forest working with these products.

On one particular day, the man came to the foot of a sorva tree. He climbed the tree at once and began to extract the tree’s juice. After a while, from up in the sorva tree, the man heard a strange sound, as if someone were running through the forest, running to get something. When the man heard this noise, a sort of buzzing sound, he looked down to the ground. There he saw what seemed to be a little man. It was what in Nhengatu we call the Curupira.

So the man stared down at this person that he had never before seen in all his life. He noticed that it was covered entirely in long, thick hair, so much so that one could not see its face; and its feet were pointed backward.

Before climbing up into the sorva tree, the man had put his rifle down and left it at the foot of the tree. Having now seen this creature down on the ground, the man yelled down at it, “Leave my rifle right where it is!” At this moment, the creature picked up the karauatá where the man had been collecting the juice of the sorva tree and began to pour it out. Seeing this, the man became very angry and he yelled down, “Look little one! You had better leave that karauatá be or I’m going to come down there and I’m going to give you a beating!” So the man came down from up in the tree and he cut himself a switch. The first lashing that he gave to that creature, it just took it. The second lashing that he gave it, again the creature remained impassive. But as the man swung his switch for a third time, the creature called the Curupira suddenly grasped the stick and struck the man with it, knocking him to the ground where he promptly fainted.

As the man lay on the ground, the Curupira picked up the container of sorva juice, picked up the man’s rifle and finally picked up the man himself and hoisted him upon its shoulder. It then took him back to where the man had left his canoe.

When the man came to, he was lying on the riverbank right by his own canoe. He looked behind him and saw the Curupira sitting not far away from him. Now the man was afraid. He crawled to his canoe. Turning around again, he saw the creature once more now far away. The man got into his canoe and began to row. He headed straight for home.

When he finally arrived home and his wife saw him, she was surprised since her husband usually returned from the forest in the afternoon. This time, though, he had come back quite early. The man’s wife said to him, “My husband, why have you arrived so early? You always come back later than this: 3 in the afternoon, 6 in the afternoon…But now you’ve come back early. What could have happened?” So the man said to his wife, “Look, I’ve been through something truly terrifying! There in the forest, a creature appeared, the likes of which I have never seen before in my life. It gave me a beating and I must have fainted. But, that same creature picked me up and carried me to the river where he left me right by my canoe. That is why I came back so early today.” The man no longer knew what to say or how to explain what had happened to him for he was too frightened. It was then that he began to feel his body ache…

(And there I will end this tale that I have told for you, you all who are white people, here listening to this tale. Thank you very much!)


Apr 09, 2013