Aug 14

Preserving the Yugumbir language

A game changing system is currently being developed by linguistics expert and software developer Joe Mamone, Griffith University and the Global Phonetics Institute through ASF’s support. This new system has the potential to preserve and restore the endangered languages across the world, and may also revolutionise the teaching of modern languages.

The system is currently being used to decode the critically endangered indigenous Yugumbir language which could be learnt within a few weeks using this new system.

Around 200 years ago, there were up to 750 different Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia. However, now there are thought to be less than 150 indigenous languages that are regularly spoken, with 130 of those being classified as being highly endangered.

Local indigenous Kombumerri elder Graham Dillon, 84, is one of very few remaining speakers of the Yugumbir language. This language has relied on its oral tradition to pass down the language and culture from elders to new generations. Dr Dillon said that:

“This is a world-first that will allow our language, history and culture to be analysed, decoded and preserved in perpetuity. UNESCO states that a language is largely considered extinct when it’s spoken by only a few elders and that one of the 7000 global languages dies every 14 days. At my age, I was growing increasingly concerned the Yugumbir language would ultimately be lost – I’m so thrilled our language is saved.” Mr Mamone’s phonetic code, used in the Yugumbir project, has possible applications for revolutionising the way people learn a new language, or markedly improve the use of their own.”

Billy James from the Global Phonetics Institute said that the Yugumbir language has been decoded and that it will take around three months to program it into the software. Mr James added that “a child can learn a simple four-colour code in a matter of weeks and speak the language exactly the way it was traditionally spoken – without the assistance, knowledge or guidance of an elder. It then follows that these languages can be easily taught in our schools.”

ASF Group Executive Director David Fang remarked that “it is of great importance that there is software for conserving the history and culture of the Gold Coast. It is pleasing to note that the Commonwealth Games organisers are giving high priority to creating significant presence of indigenous culture and we can see great potential uses for the Yugumbir language as part of the festivities”.