As this project has been getting a bit of media attention over the past few months, we’ll post and archive our media appearances on this page.

2012 February 22, 2012, Australian Geographic blog

Project creates ark for world’s dying languages

Recordings of indigenous languages on the point of extinction are being gathered into an online database.

An Aboriginal man talks in Laura, QLD, part of a Northern Australian 'hotspot' of dying languages. (Credit: Getty)
An Aboriginal man talks in Laura, QLD, part of a Northern Australian ‘hotspot’ of dying languages. (Credit: Getty)

AN ARK FOR ENDANGERED LANGUAGES has been set up on the Internet in a bid to save thousands of ancient tongues from extinction. The same project has flagged up Northern Australia as a hotspot of dying languages.

Eight new “talking dictionaries” have been unveiled by linguists who journeyed to some of most remote corners of the world in search of vanishing languages. Though no Australian languages are yet included, they may be in the future.

These talking dictionaries – of eight languages – feature more than 32,000 written words 24,000 audio recordings of native speakers pronouncing words and sentences, as well as photos of cultural objects.

Of the nearly 7000 tongues spoken on Earth today, more than half may be gone by the end of the century. In Australia alone, of 250 or more languages spoken at the time of European settlement, only 20 remain in use today.


Aboriginal tongues threatened

Some Australian experts have argued that the talking dictionaries project isn’t doing anything very new in putting electronic dictionaries of endangered languages online, but have commended it for drawing public attention to the problem of languages facing extinction.

“I think it’s great that the problem of language endangerment in getting attention in the mainstream media,” says linguist James McElvenny formerly at the University of Sydney. “It is important to raise awareness of the problem and mobilise public interest.”

The Enduring Voices project is a partnership between the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Aside from the talking dictionaries it has also identified 18 “Language Hostspots” around the world were native tongues face the most dire threats.

In Australia, a large swathe of the Top End has been identified as a hotspot. Here the researchers recorded snippets from the three last surviving speakers of Magati Ke, as well as one of the last speakers of Amurdag in the NT’s Wadeye community. The team also recorded a woman from Sunday Island in WA who said she spoke a version of the Bardi language, but was in fact the last speaker of a language called Djawi.

Northern Australia language hotspot

Aidan Wilson a linguist at the University of Melbourne says that, according to new estimates, “there were originally somewhere around 363 languages spoken in [mainland] Australia, and most are no longer spoken. The north is where most of the remaining languages are still spoken, but only because European settlement took longer to get out there. So the language death process hasn’t stopped, it’s just been slower to take effect there.”

“The Top End represents the most diverse [group of] languages in Australia, and is one of the most linguistically diverse regions on the planet,” he says. “So language loss up here is a devastating loss for humanity.”

The problem is more widespread than just the Top End, however. “Pretty much all Australian languages, through a combination of social pressures and bad government policy, are endangered,” says James. “There have been a number of projects in the past couple of years that have tried to take advantage of modern technology to help Australian languages.

James started an Australian project with Aidan in 2008 called ‘Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries’ which attempted to deploy dictionaries for dying languages on mobile smartphones to Aboriginal communities.


The Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages, Issue 41, October 2009, p. 11. (Original)


Jack Buckskin

Jack Buckskin

Jack Buckskin has got a great new tool to help him teach the Kaurna language from South Australia: a complete Kaurna dictionary on his mobile phone. To find the Kaurna equivalent for an English word, or vice versa, he just punches through a few options on the keypad, and there it is, complete with pictures and an option to hear the correct pronunciation. Life’s good!

This technology is called ‘Wunderkammer’ and has been developed by James McElvenny and Aidan Wilson at the University of Sydney through the ‘Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries’. And it’s free. Just go to, read the instructions and download the software. If you have any difficulties you can email James, “the big thing at the moment is getting people to use the software, see what they can do with it, and come up with things they would like us to improve”. Jack’s already been roadtesting Wunderkammer, and says it “makes learning a lot easier, especially when you are unsure of a word in kaurna – you can just check it, it’s the future of learning”.


NY Times report about endangered languages and some of the efforts of linguists around the world determined to combat language loss. Includes a brief interview with James McElvenny about the applicability of mobile phone-based dictionaries in contexts in which speakers of languages don’t have access to computer or internet resources.

Linguist’s Preservation Kit Has New Digital Tools

Published: July 27, 2009

TEI, Sierra Leone — Jogue, yipe, simoi are three short words for foods in Kim, a language in Sierra Leone that Tucker Childs has been trying, for the past three years, to write down, record and understand.

Kim is a dying language, and Dr. Childs a field linguist. From his base here in Tei, a small fishing village on the Waanje River, he canoes up the narrow waterways that cut across the river’s floodplain, and hikes a few miles inland, to where the last Kim communities remain. Based on recordings taken there, he has devised an alphabet and compiled a dictionary and is finishing a book on the grammar.

Africa has about 2,000 of the world’s 6,000 languages. Many are still unwritten, some have yet to be named and many will probably disappear. For centuries, social and economic incentives have been working against Kim and in favor of Mende, a language used widely in the region, until finally, Dr. Childs speculates, the Kim language has been pushed to the verge of extinction.


Of course, online resources are useful only to communities with Internet access. Communities without that access, like the Kim, still require books to be printed, and recordings to be copied onto CDs or tapes.

Holding more promise are programs that put electronic dictionaries on mobile phones. James McElvenny, a linguist at the University of Sydney, has led the development of software to help revitalize vanishing languages. Mr. McElvenny has been working with Aboriginal groups like the Dharug of Sydney to give learners, many of them no older than 16, a portable reference that supplies the definition and the sound of words that are otherwise no longer spoken, because Dharug is a dead language.

“A lot of the older members are technophobic,” he said, “but the kids are really getting into it.”



Sydney Morning Herald report about the theft of the current Wagiman dictionary by an INSEAD marketing professor, for the purpose of selling cheap, low quality books on Amazon, and subsequent report about how electronic dictionaries like ours may prevent such data theft from happening into the future.

Puzzled publisher at a loss for words

Joel Gibson Indigenous Affairs Reporter
December 19, 2008 (original)

THE indigenous language fraternity may be small. It may be close to extinct. But this week at least it was the mouse that roared, after Aboriginal language experts stopped a prolific 21st-century publishing phenomenon in its tracks.

With more than 100,000 titles listed at the online bookstore, Philip Parker is, theoretically speaking, the most published author in history.

A marketing professor at the INSEAD business school in France, he uses patented computer algorithms to copy information online and compile it into “studies” on niche subjects such as the econometric outlook for bath mats in India or web servers in the United States.

The process has seen him labelled a “book spammer” by his critics and a luminary by admirers. But it was Professor Parker’s hobby that offended the delicate sensibilities of Aboriginal language experts.

A dyslexic, he collects lists of words and publishes dictionaries, thesauruses and crossword puzzles at a loss, he says, in the interests of education. His work has been heralded as a way to create paper resources for resource-starved Third World students.

And so he created thesauruses for eight Australian languages available online, and crossword puzzle books for five of them – and found himself accused of plundering Aboriginal culture.

A handful of linguists demanded Professor Parker remove the books from sale. They called them disrespectful and claimed copyright in the dictionaries based on years of painstaking field research to revive endangered languages, of which Australia has more than any other country.

Peter Austin, a linguist in London whose 1993 Gamilaraay Reference Dictionary had been converted, accused Professor Parker of intellectual property violations, taking materials without attribution, and publishing books that contain “such bad scholarship, ridiculous claims, nonsense, and stupid howlers that it is actually funny”.

Aidan Wilson, a Sydney University linguist who wrote an honours thesis on the Wagiman language spoken north-west of Katherine, said Professor Parker had used the wrong spelling on the cover of his publication Webster’s English To Wageman Crossword Puzzles: Level 1.

The language had only four remaining native speakers and its survival depended on them trusting academics, he said.

“They can leave our language alone,” said Dharug man Richard “Nambrimbrii” Green, the indigenous language teacher at Chifley College in St Marys. “‘Dalangwa Dharug,’ which means ‘Tongues off our language.”‘

Mr Green said indigenous communities felt they had moral rights to their languages and foreign publishers often used outdated spellings and introduced errors. Professor Parker was mortified. He had never intended to upset anyone, he said, and has since removed his publications of Australian native languages from sale.

He had never known anyone to claim intellectual property over a language but it placed him in a moral dilemma.

“Maybe this is the risk of new technologies but I was thinking about Africa and a desperate need for people there who need any educational resource they can get,” he said.

“There was no malice and certainly no financial motive. That was the furthest thing from my mind.

Digital solution to age-old dilemma

December 19, 2008 (original)
IN THE most remote parts of Australia, one computer can be shared between 100 people, with only a handful knowing how to turn it on.

But even there, says a University of Sydney linguist, Aidan Wilson, there are “thousands of mobile phones”.

That’s why Mr Wilson and his colleagues at the university’s Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures hope their indigenous mobile phone dictionary will be a hit.

It is based on Kirrkirr, an interactive dictionary developed at the university that shows not only the meanings but also how words are connected to others.

But while Kirrkirr is comprehensive, it is not so portable. By putting its contents onto phones, Mr Wilson hopes that indigenous language speakers all over Australia will be able to use the often-endangered language of their forebears.

He also hopes it will assist non-native speakers working with Aboriginal communities.

Last week, Richard “Nambrimbrii” Green, also known as “Dr Greenthum” on Koori Radio, saw a Dharug dictionary downloaded to a mobile phone at a community meeting in St Marys, and said it would inspire older speakers and students.

It translates the words collected by linguist Jackie Troy in a dictionary she compiled based on the diaries of First Fleeter William Dawes and others. It also plays a recording of them being spoken.

The technology was trialled in South Australia where descendants of the Kaurna people have been using the dictionary as part of a decade-long language revival project.

One of the benefits of the Kirrkirr program is that it is free for communities to use but cannot be copied if posted online, Mr Wilson said.

It protects the work – and the sensitivities – of linguists and native speakers.

Joel Gibson


SBS World News report on a documentary series First Australians, and the state of indigenous languages in Australia. Features a few screenshots of Kirrkirr in action: