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Language, Technology, Community Nexus: A Case Study of Erub Mer

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Abstract and Figures

Australia has the highest rate of language loss in the world. From the over 250 languages spoken before the arrival of Europeans, only around 13 are still considered strong today (Marmion, Obata, & Troy, 2014). Erub Mer, a language indigenous to Erub (Darnley Island) in the eastern Torres Strait, is one of many Australian Indigenous languages to have rapidly declined in speakers since colonisation. While Erub Mer is now considered critically endangered, the Erubam Buaigiz (people of Erub) are actively working to reverse this, using a technology-based solution to document, teach and ultimately revitalise their language. This paper considers Erub Mer and the Erub community as a case study of both the causes of language endangerment and the community-led, technology-supported solutions to counter this endangerment. After charting the colonial influences that led to the decline of Erub Mer, we explore how technology can and is supporting community initiatives to revitalise language on this island. By sharing early learning from an ongoing case study of Erub, we affirm that the nexus between language, community and technology holds promise for revitalising endangered languages in Australia and abroad.
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Fillmore, N., Bemrose, D., & Gutchen, L. (2019). Language, Technology, Community Nexus: A Case Study of Erub Mer. Causes of Language
Endangerment: Looking for Answers and Finding Solutions to the Global Decline in Linguistic Diversity. Presented at the Foundation for Endangered
Languages Conference XXIII, University of Sydney.
Language, Technology, Community Nexus: A Case Study of Erub Mer
Naomi Fillmore
Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation
208 New South Head Road, Edgecliff NSW 2027, Australia
[naomi.fillmore@alnf.org]
Don Bemrose
Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation
1
208 New South Head Road, Edgecliff NSW 2027, Australia
[don.bemrose@artd.com.au]
Lala Gutchen
Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, My Pathway
Lot 154 Banidun Hill, Erub, Torres Strait QLD 4875, Australia
[l.gutchen@mpath.com.au]
Abstract
Australia has the highest rate of language loss in the world. From the over 250 languages spoken before the arrival of Europeans, only
around 13 are still considered strong today (Marmion, Obata, & Troy, 2014). Erub Mer, a language indigenous to Erub (Darnley
Island) in the eastern Torres Strait, is one of many Australian Indigenous languages to have rapidly declined in speakers since
colonisation. While Erub Mer is now considered critically endangered, the Erubam Buaigiz (people of Erub) are actively working to
reverse this, using a technology-based solution to document, teach and ultimately revitalise their language. This paper considers Erub
Mer and the Erub community as a case study of both the causes of language endangerment and the community-led, technology-
supported solutions to counter this endangerment. After charting the colonial influences that led to the decline of Erub Mer, we explore
how technology can and is supporting community initiatives to revitalise language on this island. By sharing early learning from an
ongoing case study of Erub, we affirm that the nexus between language, community and technology holds promise for revitalising
endangered languages in Australia and abroad.
Introduction
Erub (Darnley Island) is located in the north-eastern region of the Torres Strait Islands and is home to around 328 Erubam
Buaigiz (people of Erub), according to the 2016 census (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016a). The traditional language
of the Erubam Buaigiz, Erub Mer, is part of the Eastern Trans-Fly of the Papuan language family and is closely related
to Meriam Mir, spoken on neighbouring Mer (Murray Island).
The linguistic and physical proximity of Erub Mer and Miriam Mir has led to their frequent amalgamation in research
and reporting (Florek, 2005). For example, the 2016 Census recorded 217 Meriam Mir speakers (Australian Bureau of
Statistics, 2016b) but did not enumerate Erub Mer speakers separately. There are, however, sufficient lexical and
phonological differences between the two languages for the Erubam Buaigiz to assert that their language be considered
an independent language rather than a dialect of Meriam Mir. As one community member affirms: “Our language is
Meriam Mir to most people, but it’s not, it’s more than that, that’s only through association over time. I’m not calling it
a dialect anymore because it's not” (Participant 4).
While Meriam Mir and Erub Mer are both considered ‘severely endangered’ languages (Torres Strait Traditional
Languages Centre, 2019), locals of the two islands report (and our observations and interactions confirmed) that Meriam
Mir today has more speakers, both in terms of total number and frequency of use. Erub Mer has been in steep decline
since European colonial contact, leaving only a handful of fluent speakers and an unknown number of semi-speakers
(Shnukal, 1988, p. 3). While no official statistics exist, Erub Elders inform us that fewer than 10 speakers, mostly over
the age of 60, can maintain a fluent conversation in Erub Mer. Nevertheless, initial results from a baseline community
survey show that around 57 per cent of females and 27 per cent of male participants agree or strongly agree that they use
some Erub Mer words and phrases in everyday conversation. While the number of speakers is not the sole indicator of
1
Authors affiliation at time of writing.
Fillmore, N., Bemrose, D., & Gutchen, L. (2019). Language, Technology, Community Nexus: A Case Study of Erub Mer. Causes of Language
Endangerment: Looking for Answers and Finding Solutions to the Global Decline in Linguistic Diversity. Presented at the Foundation for Endangered
Languages Conference XXIII, University of Sydney.
the ongoing viability and use of a language (Bhatti & Troy, 2017; Moore, Pietikäinen, & Blommaert, 2010),
intergenerational* transmission* of* Erub* Mer* is* also* restricted,* with* most Erubam Buaigiz speaking Yumplatok
(Torres Strait Creole) as their first language (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016a; Shnukal, 1988).*
In adopting a critical, decolonial, and Indigenist approach to our research (Denzin, Lincoln, & Smith, 2008; Rigney,
1997; Smith, 1999), we acknowledge that “language endangerment does not occur in socio-political vacuums” (Davis,
2017, p. 54). Languages become endangered when conquest, oppressive policies or economic needs cause language shift
(Hinton, 2011, p. 310) and, often, intergenerational trauma (Fjellgren & Huss, 2019; Williams, 2011). This paper begins
by exploring some of the complex historical processes and uneven dialectic relationships that have contributed to the
near demise of Erub Mer (Leonard, 2017, 2018; McCarty, 2014), understanding “Indigenous languages as elements
embedded in communities, histories, and spaces rather than extracted from them” (Davis, 2017, p. 54).
This paper focuses on solutions to resist and reverse this situation. We consider the role of community-led, technology-
supported language education and revitalisation projects, using the Erub Mer Living First Languages Platform project as
a case study. While the role of technology in language revitalisation has already been reviewed (see for example, First
Languages Australia, 2015; Rice & Thieberger, 2018), this paper will concentrate exclusively on the nexus of technology
and community-managed language programs. We examine one community and their individual technology of choice,
but this experience may inform others interested in leveraging technology and empowering communities to revitalise
Indigenous languages in Australia and abroad.
Community members rarely serve as primary sources in scholarly publications on language (Leonard, 2018). We
recognise the primacy of Indigenous voices (Rigney, 1997) and this paper will foreground insights, observations, and
reflections from the Erubam Buaigiz community collected through semi-structured interviews.
2
By beginning with
Indigenous perspectives’ (Coburn, Moreton-Robinson, Sefa Dei, & Stewart-Harawira, 2013, p. 122), we give weight to
Erub Buaigiz voices compared to academic sources in understanding their language, history, and aspirations.
The nexus of community leadership and technology support for language revitalisation offers renewed potential for the
sector, but more importantly, for First Nations people in Australia and abroad. In presenting the Erub Mer language
journey, including its current progress using the Living First Language Platform, we recognise the ongoing nature of this
work. We are committed to both broadening and deepening our understanding of this field, and expect to adjust, refine
and correct our thinking and practice over time.
Background: causes of language endangerment
3
The British anthropologist, Alfred Cort Haddon, documented the effects of colonialism on Erub language and culture
over a century ago. In selecting neighbouring Mer (Murray Island) as the site for his research, Haddon stated:
“…they [Meriam Islanders] lie out of the track of what little commerce there is, neither are they frequented by pearl-
shellers nor bêche-de-mer fishermen, consequently the natives have not mixed so much with the Europeans and other
alien races as has been the case at Erub (Darnley Island) and the western group of islands.” (Haddon et al., 1901, p.
vi)
The Erub population was significantly reduced through inter-island (see Lack, 1963) and early-colonial (see for example,
Ganter, 1994; Lawrence & Reeves Lawrence, 2004; Mullins, 1994) conflict as well as by diseases introduced to the island
(see Florek, 2005). Both Erub Elders and the historical literature cite this as a factor in the more rapid decline of the Erub
Mer language compared to Meriam Mir. Estimates from 1879 (quoted in Florek, 2005) put Erub’s population at only 80,
a reduction of over 80 per cent from the original population of 500. During the same period, the Mer population also
decreased by 47 per cent from 700 to 374, but with larger numbers, they were better able to cope with the pressures of
colonial contact.
More recently, migration for employment and education continues to influence Erub’s population and thus Erub Mer’s
vitality. Although no statistics are available, “a rough calculation the Elders got themselves in a meeting” (Participant 5)
estimates that there are several thousand Erubam Buaigiz diaspora living on other islands of the Torres Straits and
2
These interviews form part of a wider AIATSIS approved research project (HREC approval reference number EO118-13032019)
that aims to understand the contextual, social, and other factors that have supported or limited the implementation of this project.
3
We are committed to privileging and promoting Indigenous research within a critical, Indigenist and decolonial framework, but
acknowledge and lament that colonial research methods, which have excluded and devalued Indigenous knowledge, have limited the
Indigenous sources available within the early linguistic, ethnographic, and historical academic literature drawn on in this section. Yet
“Indigenous communities contain their own wealth of stories about their histories, and, in this sense, the communities themselves
constitute ‘archives’” (O’Brien, 2017, p. 20), and so we present reflections from Erub Elders and participants to enrich and verify non-
Indigenous sources.
Fillmore, N., Bemrose, D., & Gutchen, L. (2019). Language, Technology, Community Nexus: A Case Study of Erub Mer. Causes of Language
Endangerment: Looking for Answers and Finding Solutions to the Global Decline in Linguistic Diversity. Presented at the Foundation for Endangered
Languages Conference XXIII, University of Sydney.
mainland Australia an estimate that is consistent with wider migration trends across the Torres Strait (Australian Bureau
of Statistics, 2018; Shnukal, 2001).
The remaining community on Erub had also to contend with the multiple colonial industries and institutions that
established bases on the island over time: “All sorts of people came here; we had no escape. If they had gone to another
island, if the pearling ground was in another place and they went there maybe [things would be different] but it happened
to be here, so that’s why I think we must have input into language building in the Torres Strait” (Participant 5).
The London Missionary Society (LMS) arrived on Erub on 1 July 1871, a date now commemorated annually as the
‘Coming of the Light’ festival. Due to its proximity to Papua New Guinea, their long-term target for evangelisation was
Papua New Guinea (PNG) but the missionaries used Erub as their base in the region: “[the missionaries’] primary task
was evangelise PNG. But they said they can’t go directly to PNG; we will go to the Torres Strait Island because Australia
has already been established […] they say we need a safe base off the mainland, and they take Darnley” (Participant 5).
According to Erub Elders and historical accounts, Chief Dabad, Erub’s leader at the time, was more accepting of
missionaries than his counterparts on other islands, likely in the hopes of protecting his people from threats from other
islands and more hostile colonists (Burke, 2011). Missionaries on Erub discouraged the use of traditional language,
prohibited cultural practices, and destroyed sacred sites, lest they led to the “recrudescence of paganism(Haddon et al.,
1901, p. 35). Mer also had a missionary presence, but after years of resistance to “LMS anti-traditionalism” (Burke, 2011,
p. 60), cultural and linguistic practices re-surfaced under the more lenient Anglican administration in the 1920s30s
(Sharp, 1993; Wetherell, 2001).
Further, the pearling and bêche-de-mer industries began in the Torres Strait in the 1860s, and by the 1870s numerous
operators were active on Erub (Ganter, 1994). These industries brought an influx of people from various backgrounds
(including South Sea Islanders, Australian Aboriginal communities, Filipinos and Indonesians) onto Erub, many freely
seeking employment and business opportunities, but many more through indentured labour and ‘blackbirding’. Children
on Erub and Ugar became the first to creolise English and Torres Strait traditional languages in the 1890s. From Erub the
new ‘Darnley tok’ creole spread quickly as a lingua franca across the region (Shnukal, 1988, 2001).
With Torres Strait Creole having originated on Erub, some Erubam Buaigiz feel a greater responsibility for revitalising
traditional languages of the Torres Strait: “Darnley people are more obligated to fix the language because as we speak
today, Torres Strait people look on people on Erub and language as damaging people of the Torres Strait. So, we must
begin the run to revitalise Language more than anybody” (Participant 5). However, the same Elder recognised that
revitalising Erub Mer need not create a dichotomy between Creole and Erub Mer, noting that “if you want to speak
Language go ahead and set a program and teach Language, but if you set out to stop Creole, you’ll fail. The Creole
language, you must understand, is here to stay […] but there is nothing stopping you from learning [Erub Mer]
Language”.
The Torres Strait formally came under Queensland colonial government control in 1879, further threatening Erub
language and culture (Lawrence & Reeves Lawrence, 2004). From 1904, the region came under the ‘Aboriginals
Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897’. Under the Act, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,
including the Erubam Buaigiz, were prohibited from using traditional languages or performing cultural practices, or risk
removal to another reserve (Reynolds, 2000).
The exclusion of Indigenous languages from education is a well-used tool for colonial assimilation (De Korne & Leonard,
2017; Smith, 1999; Thaman, 2019) and has been a primary driver of language endangerment globally (McCarty, 2004).
From the onset of colonialism up to the present, schooling on Erub has been limited by successive policies of ‘English
only’ as the medium of instruction (Lawrence & Reeves Lawrence, 2004; Shnukal, 1988). Formal education, under
Missionary governance until 1915 and the state government thereafter, had the explicit or concealed aim of assimilating
Indigenous children into Western society (Hogarth, 2018). These policies severely hindered the intergenerational transfer
of Erub Mer. According to local anecdotes, Meriam Mir was better represented in the education system on neighbouring
Mer, and Erub Elders fluent in Erub Mer credit this in part to spending time studying on Mer: “No one [teaching at the
school on Erub] considered language important […] Only a few sensible old men on Murray saw the wrong and said we
gotta speak our language [in schools] and that’s why I went to school there” (Participant 5).
Looking forward: solutions to language endangerment
After reviewing the history of Erub and establishing European colonisation as the primary cause of Erub Mer’s
endangerment, this section looks at how the community is implementing solutions to reverse the situation. Consistent
with a critical, Indigenist, and decolonial approach (Rigney, 1997; Smith, 1999), Indigenous voices continue to be
embedded in our discussions on the actual and potential role of technology in community-led language revitalisation.
Fillmore, N., Bemrose, D., & Gutchen, L. (2019). Language, Technology, Community Nexus: A Case Study of Erub Mer. Causes of Language
Endangerment: Looking for Answers and Finding Solutions to the Global Decline in Linguistic Diversity. Presented at the Foundation for Endangered
Languages Conference XXIII, University of Sydney.
Erub Mer Living First Language Platform
Erubam Buaigiz had been looking for solutions to reverse the language shift on the island for many years. They held
sporadic Erub Mer language classes in the community and primary school, but with Elders passing away and knowledge
dwindling, it became increasingly important to find a solution that would allow language to be heard, read, experienced,
and ultimately spoken into the future: “with our Elders being few now, this thing is not only preserving language but,
in a sense, also preserving them: their teachings, their beliefs […] We lost so many Elders before us, but we are grateful
that we still have a few Elders left and with the technology we can absorb what we can from them” (Participant 7).
A fortuitous meeting during the National Aboriginal Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week activities of
2017 (appropriately under the our languages matter’ theme) led to an Erub community leader inviting the Australian
Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF) to bring their technology solution to the Torres Strait.
ALNF has worked with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Elders since 2010 but more rigorously
since 2016 to develop a digital solution that uses principles of speech pathology and early childhood development to
support language revitalisation and education. The solution, named the Living First Languages Platform (the Platform),
aims to harness technology and empower communities to collate, organise, share and teach language elements as a multi-
sensory, interactive collection of language and literacy knowledge.
The Erub community and ALNF have been working in partnership since the beginning of 2019. Following onboarding
and introductory training in the technology in January and April, the Erub community leads and manages the Platform
project with coordination from the local language facilitator (Author 3). By partnering with the Indigenous Knowledge
Centre and the local community development program provider, My Pathway, a range of community members have been
trained to use the Platform and have contributed to it through the year.
Phase One of the project includes community-led documentation of Erub Mer graphemes, words, phrases and stories.
This phase has already exceeded our and the community’s own expectations (seen Figure 1), especially since this is the
first effort to document Erub Mer independently from Meriam Mir that the Elders can determine. While the project’s
long-term goal goes beyond simple documentation, this phase is an important precursor to education and revitalisation
efforts. The resulting data provides critical linguistic resources to support language learning (Child Language Research
and Revitalisation Working Group, 2017) and presents them in an accessible, pedagogically-oriented format (Hinton,
2011). Given the ongoing merging of Erub Mer and Meriam Mir in official records and statistics, the Erubam Buaigiz
regard this as an important step: “the main hope is that we preserve as much as we can in the time we’ve got, that can
really add a record that distinguishes our language from every other. I think that’s important and will add to the future in
a way we don’t really appreciate at the time” (Participant 4).
Figure 1: Erub Mer Platform growth
The long-term goal for the second phase of this project is to use the collected content for teaching and learning activities,
both within and outside school. The link between language knowledge and a range of academic, health, well-being and
other benefits for Indigenous children and adults has been well-proven (for example Australian Bureau of Statistics,
2008; Dockery, 2010; Jones, Chandler, & Lowe, 2011; Kral, 2009; Marmion et al., 2014; Williams, 2011).
The Platform’s design leverages ALNF’s expertise in speech pathology and early childhood best practice, and develops
users’ phonological awareness, oral language, and domain-specific vocabulary. Given the limitations of printed books,
particularly in low-literacy, remote environments, digital materials are more appropriate for language learning (Wilson,
2011). This phase will value and develop the skills of local educators (as opposed to teachers posted temporarily to the
island), recognising their important and ongoing role in improving academic and affective outcomes and in decolonising
the education system (Guenther & Disbray, 2015; Peacock & Prehn, 2019).
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Dec-18 Jan-19 Feb-19 Mar-19 Apr-19 May-19 Jun-19 Jul-19 Aug-19 Sep-19 Oct-19 Nov-19 Dec-19
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Fillmore, N., Bemrose, D., & Gutchen, L. (2019). Language, Technology, Community Nexus: A Case Study of Erub Mer. Causes of Language
Endangerment: Looking for Answers and Finding Solutions to the Global Decline in Linguistic Diversity. Presented at the Foundation for Endangered
Languages Conference XXIII, University of Sydney.
Community-led
“We, Indigenous peoples of the world, assert our inherent right to self-determination in all matters” (“The Coolangatta
Statement on Indigenous Rights in Education,” 1999). This includes the right to access and own the resources,
technologies, and methodologies used to document, store or teach their languages (Aboriginal Languages Association,
1981; Rigney, 1997; Smith, 1999). Yet, Indigenous language resources collected or developed through conventional
methods are mostly inaccessible to communities due to their physical location, technical or specialist format or simply
because their existence is not known to the community (Bird & Simons, 2003; Hill & McConvell, 2011; Moore et al.,
2010; Stebbins, Eira, & Couzens, 2017).
We concur that language reclamation and revitalization can not be successful if not locally-anchored and steered by
speakers or potential speakers” (Fjellgren & Huss, 2019, p. 26) and that a wide range of benefits stem from increasing
awareness and opening up language work to communities (Hill & McConvell, 2011). Although the technology was
developed by ALNF, Erubam Buaigiz, coordinated by the local language facilitator (Author 3), are responsible for
implementation of the program on the ground. In a traditionally oral culture, complementing technology with place-
based, human guided training, through formal workshops, informal meetups, and an ongoing, paid local facilitator role,
is both necessary and effective (First Languages Australia, 2015; Sherwani, Ali, Rosé, & Rosenfeld, 2009).
The model employed on Erub resembles the ‘three-way’ relationship described by Hill and McConvell (2011), whereby
outside specialists, proficient language speakers and younger community members share complementary skills and
knowledge while working together to achieve a common goal of reclaiming a language. However, while all three roles
add value, once the community is comfortable with the technology and processes, the outsider’s role quickly becomes
less prominent.
Initial training workshops included Erub community members of different ages and from various backgrounds and two
ALNF staff members. In an informal, flexible setting, they worked through a process similar to what Winschiers-
Theophilus, Bidwell, and Blake (2012) describe as “being participated”. Like others, we found it beneficial to
complement digital with non-digital resources embedded in structured, locally relevant activities (Carew, Green, Kral,
Nordlinger, & Singer, 2015; First Languages Australia, 2015; Sherwani et al., 2009). During workshops, the local
language facilitator used a modified Rapid Word Collection (SIL International, 2012) list of semantic domains to
naturally elicit language knowledge from the group for input on the Platform. These prompts proved useful and the
community decided to continue working through the domains independently during their own meetings and workshops.
In this way, the language content housed on the Platform is community-generated.
While arguably lacking the “rigour” of conventional academic approaches, like Winschiers-Theophilus, Bidwell, and
Blake (2012, p. 95) we argue that such an approach is “enriching” in that “local appropriations of methods […] reveal
how communities construct the objects and relations of enquiry” (see also Bidwell, Winschiers-Theophilus, Koch
Kapuire, & Rehm, 2011). Furthermore, community-generated content eschews the frequent bias that more academic
methods often have towards perceived “fluent first speakers” and a static view of language. Rather, it recognises that
semi-speakers also offer valuable insider knowledge and contemporary adaptations that can complement the knowledge
from Elders in the community (Child Language Research and Revitalisation Working Group, 2017; Dorian, 1994).
The risk of this approach is that conservative penchants for ‘pure’ language content may cast doubt on the quality of the
content collected. Dorian (1994) shows how such attitudes have impeded language revitalisation efforts in Australia and
abroad. Some participants have already detected these attitudes from some community members not involved in the
project: “I think some of the words people will probably disagree with. I guess this morning we came up with the word
and we went here and there, and people were saying that’s not how you say it!” (Participant 8). While this is an inevitable
risk of a community-generated approach, to counter this perception and safeguard cultural integrity, an ‘Elder approval’
step is included as part of the Platform’s standard workflow. This allows identified Elders to approve, reject or edit
content before it is displayed as final. The main Elder involved in this project concurs that this process picks up errors or
other issues with content: “Whatever they [younger people, other participants] record, at the end of the day […] the
language savvy people [the Elders] will correct things and make it right(Participant 5).
While Elders’ knowledge of language and culture is invaluable, younger semi-speakers possess insider knowledge of the
community and culture, strong digital literacy skills, and, often, a heightened interest in reclaiming their heritage
language, making them important stakeholders and proponents of technology-supported language revitalisation
(Grinevald, 2003; Hill & McConvell, 2011). Including younger semi-speakers also takes pressure off Elders, particularly
when only a small number of fluent Elders remain, who often have other commitments and responsibilities within the
community (First Languages Australia, 2015; Hornberger, 2017).
Younger semi-speakers were hesitant to contribute content at first, lacking confidence in their language knowledge, as
Hill and McConvell (2011) and Moore et al. (2010) have also found: “People are actually shy, so they don’t want their
voice recorded or to say the word in case they say it wrong” (Participant 7); “Most people here are not game enough.
Fillmore, N., Bemrose, D., & Gutchen, L. (2019). Language, Technology, Community Nexus: A Case Study of Erub Mer. Causes of Language
Endangerment: Looking for Answers and Finding Solutions to the Global Decline in Linguistic Diversity. Presented at the Foundation for Endangered
Languages Conference XXIII, University of Sydney.
Shyness is a big thing in the community and when you talk about Language most people find it difficult […] for example,
if I sit there and say a word and someone says it back and it’s not pronounced properly, he will get shy. That’s all it takes”
(Participant 10). However, with guidance and prompting from Elders, most participants quickly realised that their
knowledge was more extensive than they initially thought: “We do our homework, so we try to write our songs in
Language […] then we sit with the Elders and they just correct word for word. Like ‘in this one you are talking about the
present, in this one you are talking about the past’. This sort of thing is how we learn.” (Participant 3) An advantage of
digital technology over print is that mistakes can be edited or recorded over in real-time, and once participants understood
this feature, they became less hesitant.
Technology-supported
“A digital revolution is sweeping across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities” (Rigney, 2016, p. 186).
While there is still a digital divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, personal ownership of mobile
phones, iPads, and tablets is on the rise (Carew et al., 2015; Dyson & Brady, 2013; Wilson, 2011), coinciding with
increased phone and internet coverage in remote communities. On Erub, 65.4 per cent of dwellings have internet access
(Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016a), and 4G connectivity across multiple networks has been in place since July 2018.
4
Technology, including smartphones and desktop computers, is also widely used in early childhood and primary education
in both urban and regional settings (Dwyer, Jones, & Rosas, 2019).
Technology has long played a role in documenting, revitalising, teaching and learning Indigenous languages. Yet
language speakers have too often been separated from the process of developing and using these conventional
technologies (First Languages Australia, 2015; Hobson, 2011; Rice & Thieberger, 2018). Returning control over content
and use of technology to speaker communities is a major ambition of this initiative.
The Erubam Buaigiz see technology as both a strength and a challenge for revitalising their language. Many participants
commented on the irony of using the same technology that has had a strong hand in diminishing their culture and
language, to now help revitalise it: “Technology has just had a really big influence. Even though we are a small
community, technology has taken over, so it’s good that this [project] is using technology to revive our language and it’ll
be easier for our children and their children, growing up in this era where technology is everything” (Participant 7).
Technology is constantly changing, and relying heavily on a particular technology-type puts the longevity and practicality
of language records and resources at risk (Rice & Thieberger, 2018). To minimize these risks, the Platform has been built
with the principles of “build once, use often” (First Languages Australia, 2015, p. 29) and portability (Bird & Simons,
2003) at the forefront. As a web-app, it does not require download or upgrades and works equally well across devices
and systems, making it less vulnerable to technology obsolescence. Being ‘language agnostic’, the design is easily
adaptable to other languages, reducing the financial and human costs of onboarding new language communities.
5
Using
a ‘mobile-first’ design strategy recognises that mobile phone ownership in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
communities is much than other forms of technology (see review in Dyson & Brady, 2013).
The relative accessibility of web-based technology has the potential to reach wider audiences by providing “opportunities
for people to participate in language learning activities that aren’t dependent on sites of language knowledge (locations
where speakers and teachers are concentrated) and at times that suit their personal circumstances” (First Languages
Australia, 2015, p. 21). Participants also see this feature as promising: “It doesn’t matter where you are, but you are able
to access the language, that is very important and that’s why I’m excited […] because of that reach eventually. You could
be living in New York and wanting to know Erub and get on the Platform for Language and hear from your own people
talking it and knowing it from having been there” (Participant 4). This feature is particularly important in the Torres Strait
given the high percentage of Torres Strait Islander diaspora living outside of the region (Australian Bureau of Statistics,
2018; Shnukal, 2001).
Community members hope that this technology will help bridge generational divides: “Using that technology is bringing
the Elders closer to the next generation. Because we are going to be, you know, taking what they know and saving it for
the next generation to come through that technology” (Participant 7). Galla (2016, p. 9) concurs that technology “gets
youth involved even if they are remotely interested in the language itself; the lure of technology is one reason, and their
skills are valued by language practitioners, especially the Elders who may not feel comfortable directly using
4
This relatively high level of connectivity is of course not consistent across all remote communities, and even where connectivity is
available, purchasing data can be unaffordable for those on low incomes. With this in mind, the Platform has functionality that allows
users to experience content offline and add new content that will be uploaded when next online. An informal partnership setup on Erub
with the Indigenous Knowledge Centre allows participants to access the Centre’s physical space and Wi-Fi.
5
To date it the Platform been used by Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, and Thaynakwith language communities. While federal funding
has supported this phase of the Erub Mer project, through the case study we will explore sustainable funding models that minimize the
long-term financial burden to communities.
Fillmore, N., Bemrose, D., & Gutchen, L. (2019). Language, Technology, Community Nexus: A Case Study of Erub Mer. Causes of Language
Endangerment: Looking for Answers and Finding Solutions to the Global Decline in Linguistic Diversity. Presented at the Foundation for Endangered
Languages Conference XXIII, University of Sydney.
technology”. Gawne (2015) notes that digital language activities may also help bridge the ‘digital divide’ between
generations, and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
6
Participants agreed: “It’s good that this is using that
technology to bridge that gap” (Participant 7).
Languages become sustainable only when used in everyday life, and a ‘critical mass’ of community involvement will be
necessary for the sustainable revitalisation of Erub Mer (Disbray, Barker, Raghunathan, & Baisden, 2018). An ongoing
challenge in any language revitalisation efforts is extending awareness and interest in the project among the wider
community: “Majority of the people don’t realise what we’re doing here and how important it is to maintain Language”
(Participant 10). To date, around 10 per cent of the community’s total population have attended formal workshops (and
many more have attended informal activities), and participants hope to increase this representation going forward: “You
need total community support [for the project] and for them all to come and have input. Not only input from a small
group, you need the whole community […] [then] when we bring it in, they’ll run with us” (Participant 5).
Conclusion
Language issues [are] always people issues” (Warner, 1999, p. 89) and we acknowledge this truth in various ways in
this paper. First and foremost, using principles of critical, decolonial, and Indigenist approaches, Torres Strait Islander
voices have been privileged throughout.
Describing this initiative as ‘technology-supported’, we accept that “it is not technology that saves a language, it is
people” (Rice & Thieberger, 2018). Technology in and of itself cannot rescue an endangered language but it provides a
useful tool for community-led language revitalisation programs when designed for and used directly by speaker
communities (First Languages Australia, 2015; Galla, 2010; Rice & Thieberger, 2018; Wilson, 2011).
We have described one such tool that is supporting community-managed language work in the Torres Strait. The Erub
community, utilising their chosen technology solution (the Living First Languages Platform) is actively working to
reverse historical trends of language endangerment brought about by two centuries of colonial oppression. Although this
work is ongoing, the early reflections from the Erubam Buaigiz show that participants are both optimistic and pragmatic
about using technology to help revitalise their language.
As this activity and the associated research project evolve, we expect further evidence to emerge on the connection
between technology support and community leadership for language revitalisation. While focused on an individual
technology and community, these experiences may inform others interested in leveraging technology and empowering
communities to revitalise Indigenous languages in Australia and abroad.
Acknowledgments
We thank the Erubam Buaigiz contributors for allowing us to share their reflections on this project. In particular, we
gratefully acknowledge Uncle Kapua Gutchen, for generously sharing his knowledge of Erub history and language. We
also acknowledge the valuable support and feedback we received from ALNF colleagues in preparing this paper. This
work was supported through funding from the Department of Communications and the Arts Indigenous Languages and
Arts program.
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