Heritage languages get a boost from Transparent Language and SIL partnership

Dr. Gary Simons, Chief Research Officer for SIL International, says, “What we are hoping to do through this program is release language learning materials for hundreds of languages by developing an automated way to take content created by users of our software tools and turn it into language learning products.”

Turning language data into learning resources

(July 2015) More than 7,100 languages are spoken in the world today, but only about 100 typically receive attention from the commercial world. If you wake up one morning and decide that you want to learn your heritage language and it’s Italian, Spanish or Mandarin, you’re in luck—resources abound. But if your forefathers spoke Arta, a language of the Northern Philippines, gaining fluency in their language will pose much more of a challenge. However, a new partnership between SIL and Transparent Language aims to improve access to learning resources and also support the documentation of endangered languages.

Transparent Language is a leader in computer-assisted language learning. In 2013, the company launched the 7000 Languages Project, which they describe as, “a non-profit effort to make world-class language learning technology available to language teams working with lesser-known and under-resourced languages.”

SIL has access to a wealth of language information through its relationships with language communities in more than 100 countries. A key element of the project is SIL’s FieldWorks Language Explorer (FLEx) software, which enables fieldworkers to collect and study language data. SIL software developer Greg Trihus believes that FLEx is “the ideal ‘front end’ for producing Transparent Language products.” Creating a straightforward pathway from FLEx to Transparent Language’s learning tools will allow language information to be shared with the local community and others in a user-friendly way.

For some languages, the process of building the database will include the development of a standard way to write the language (an orthography) or a font for a special script that the language community uses. SIL brings to the partnership extensive experience with writing systems, including the development of fonts for languages written with complex, non-Roman scripts.

Pilot project to yield learning resources for Cherokee

The first pilot project will involve the Cherokee language and a third partner, Bacone College (Oklahoma, USA). The goal of the project is to provide a self-paced, online program for Cherokee language learners.

Although the Cherokee population numbers 314,000 people, only about 10,000 speak the language. At last count, only 130 people spoke Cherokee as their first and only language. However, there is a growing movement in the community to encourage active use of the language and pass on the community’s linguistic heritage to a new generation. Bacone College has been at the center of those efforts.

SIL previously collaborated with the Cherokee Nation Foundation on the Cherokee Electronic Dictionary. In 2014, Bacone contacted SIL about a possible collaboration to repeat the process of electronic dictionary publishing for many other Native American Tribes in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

Rev. Kyle Taylor of Bacone College Baptist Church performs the Pawnee Southern Straight Dance.
Photo courtesy of Mandy Lundy.

The college’s vision is to create a center where Native American students can receive training for documenting their own heritage languages and cultures as part of a BA in Communications. They also hope to offer consulting and services to tribes too small to set up their own language documentation teams.

The Cherokee project is the first of many on which SIL and Transparent Language plan to collaborate. This will be the first test of the partnership’s efforts to easily flow data from a FLEx database into the Transparent Language world, making that data accessible for language learning resources.

The goal of the first Cherokee project is to create multimedia lessons and flash cards from the previously-developed Cherokee dictionary. The next step will be to produce “immersion environments” from annotated texts (conversations or stories from mother-tongue speakers).

SIL’s Steve Echerd, Project Manager for the Cherokee pilot program, says, “We realized that connecting SIL’s documentation and analysis technologies with Transparent Language’s documentation and language learning technologies would benefit hundreds of language communities.”

Related links