Can You Preserve a Language?

Discover Woolaroo, the app that uses machine learning to preserve languages on the brink of extinction

By Google Arts & Culture

Person immersed in words, Waterfall of Meaning (2019/2019) by People + AI Reseach (PAIR)Barbican Centre

Machine learning may seem like something from the future, but this cutting-edge, contemporary technology is also being used to protect and preserve our shared past and cultural heritage. 

Woolaroo provides a translation for the word "tree" in Māori

Woolaroo is a pilot experiment using ML and image-recognition to teach and promote endangered languages such as Yugambeh and the language of the Māori, as well as Calabrian Greek, Yiddish, Louisiana Creole, Nawat, Sicilian, Tamazight, Yang Zhuan, and Rapa Nui. 

Tree in Queensland, Australia

How does it work?

Simply take pictures of your surroundings, choose a language, and receive real-time translations, letting you know the word for each object in your photo.

Woolaroo provides a translation for the word "tree" in Yugambeh

Try it here, or scroll on to find out more about the launch of Yugambeh and Māori languages on Woolaroo...

Pandanus mat (2008) by Djibigula DhyagungaMuseum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT)

Why is it important to preserve these languages?

Nantzin Paula López, Náhuat speaker, Santo Domingo de Guzmán - El Salvador by Mauricio KabistanIILA - Italo-Latin American Institute - Biennale Arte 2015

Language distinguishes a particular area or community, where words that describe a unique cultural practice or idea may not translate precisely into another language, especially English. 

With their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, UNESCO (2010) says languages are of strategic importance for people and the planet.

Maori women, New Zealand (1890 - 1920) by Arthur James IlesMuseums Victoria

For example, Te reo Māori, the Indigenous language of Aotearoa New Zealand, stems from an ancient world. It is the vehicle to understanding the intricacies of the Māori world including te taha wairua (spiritual world) and te taha kikokiko (physical world).

As the saying goes in Māori, “Ko te reo Māori te tatau ki Te Ao Māori”.

“The Māori language is the door to the Māori world.”

Berber Bride Unveiled (1994) by Carol Beckwith & Angela FisherAfrican Ceremonies

A changing world is putting the heritage of languages like Māori, Rapa Nui, the Tamazight language of the Berber peoples, and the Australian aboriginal language of Yugambeh, under threat.

As Yugambeh Museum CEO Rory O'Connor says, "When I was a kid we could sit around a fire, or the old people might take you for a walk along a riverbank. But we don't have those opportunities anymore.”

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa - Untitled (2012) by Ronnie TjampitjinpaImago Mundi

But he’s optimistic about new opportunities to share language and culture. “Instead this is our campfire for our children," he said at the launch of the Woolaroo app at the Yugambeh Museum, holding up his mobile phone.

Pandanus mat (2008) by Djibigula DhyagungaMuseum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT)

How does Woolaroo work?

Tree in Queensland, Australia

Recent technologies in language revitalisation have included translated interfaces for a selection of computer applications, mobile technology, physical self-service machines and social media.  Now, they’re being used to save heritage languages.

Woolaroo provides a translation for the word "tree" in Yugambeh

"This thing is amazing," O’Connor said. "Basically you hold your phone up and take a photo, and the Aboriginal words come up to describe it." 

Kōwhai are small trees native to New Zealand.

Te Aka Māori-English, English - Māori dictionary, the dictionary attached to the Kupu app, was developed by John Moorfield. 

Woolaroo provides a translation for the word "tree" in Māori

Kupu, which means ‘word’ in the Māori language, was launched during Māori Language Week in September 2018 and enables users to take a photo of something in their surroundings, identifies it, and offers the Māori translation in real-time.

Triangular skirt made of pandanus palm. Garment, naytjin, Marrangu 2, Millierpilling, Darbilla Creek, Eastern Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia, 1900 - 1936 (1930 - 1936) by Unknown maker, Arnhem Land, AustraliaMuseums Victoria

Uncle Allan is a frontline worker in the battle to reteach the Yugambeh Aboriginal language to the children of south east Queensland, where the language has not been spoken fluently for many decades.

"Our dictionary doesn't list a word for shoe," Uncle Allan explained excitedly at the Yugambeh Woolaroo launch. "So when kids ask me what to call it in Yugambeh, I have been saying Jinung gulli - a foot thing.”

“Well in this meeting today I have discovered lots of other Aboriginal people call it that as well. This makes me very confident to keep going!"

Wurreka (1999) by Judy WatsonMuseums Victoria

Google's Chris Rollings is head of the team that put Woolaroo together, and had particular excitement for the Yugambeh project, calling it a “career highlight”.

"We loved the story about how Aboriginal people thought of pictures as being like shadows, which is why we named it Woolaroo - Yugambeh for shadow."

Untitled (1998) by Timmy Payungka TjapangatiArt Gallery of New South Wales

The museum’s language officer, Shaun Davies, was equally enthusiastic, describing how the Yugambeh language adapts with the times.

Reflecting on the transition of the language from the Bush to the home, he relates some new, innovative words: “The freezer is jirin bin - frosty place. The phone is a gulgun biral - voice thrower. Toast is ngun buren - warm bread.”

i bin learn (2012) by Deann GrantMuseum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT)

Davies sees the Woolaroo project as another step into the future for this ancient language. Rollings is excited to expand. "There is a lot of excitement out there with X other languages uploaded and as we learnt from the Paris conference, an amazing amount of interest," he said. 

"And personally I think it will be really great to look back in ten years and be able to say - I was part of that." A sentiment no doubt shared by all involved.

Woolaroo provides a translation for the word "tree" in Yugambeh

Ready to try Woolaroo for yourself? Click here to get started!

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