Can virtual reality help save endangered Pacific languages?
The Pacific is the most linguistically rich region in the world, with Papua New Guinea alone being home to a staggering 850 languages.
Yet experts fear that widespread language loss could be the future for the region.
To draw attention to the issue, and to document more Pacific languages, Australian researchers are trialling a new way of making their database of languages more exciting and accessible.
To do this, they are turning to virtual reality technology.
“We’ve got this fantastic resource — a database of a thousand endangered languages,” lead researcher Dr Nick Thieberger from the University of Melbourne said.
“But it’s not very engaging, it’s a bit dull, so we wanted to do something to change that.”
Over the past 15 years, researchers from Australian universities have been digitalising recordings of languages and storing them in the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC).
The database has documented more than 6,000 hours of recordings from over 1,000 languages.
Earlier this year, Dr Thieberger, Dr Rachel Hendry — a lecturer in digital humanities — and media artist Dr Andrew Burrell created a virtual reality experience using files from the database.
Audiences don a pair of virtual reality goggles, allowing them to “fly across” Pacific nations such as Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
As they do so, shards of light emerge that play clips of local languages.
“We really wanted to look at how we could make this database more exciting for people and to get them engaging with it,” Dr Thieberger said.
The VR display is currently only exhibited in museums, but the team is working on versions that could be accessed anywhere.
“We’re working on an iPad version as well as a Google Cardboard version which will mean people in remote communities can have a comparable experience,” Dr Thieberger said.
Dr Hendry said these types of immersive experiences will become more common.
“We’re only just seeing the start of this type of immersive representation, and not just with language data,” she said.
“Our technology and smart phone capabilities are growing every day and that’s exciting for linguists wanting to get this out into the public.”
Rare recordings ‘just sitting in homes’
It is hoped that with more public interaction with the database, people will help to expand the collection.
Much of the data in PARADISEC has come from researchers and the team are keen to get audio sent in from regular people.
“There are so many interesting recordings out there — clips taken on local people’s phones, tapes from tourists,” Dr Thieberger said.
“Much of this stuff is just sitting in homes, and it’s likely valuable to this collection.
“A good example is last year when we had some tapes arrive and it turned out to be the only known record of some of PNG’s languages.”
Why are Pacific languages in trouble?
Dr Thieberger said many languages in the Pacific are passed down orally, meaning a recording might be their only documentation.
It also means they are more susceptible to extinction because as older speakers die they take their language with them — unless it has been passed down to the next generation.
According to a UNESCO report on endangered languages, many languages are being replaced by ‘world languages’ such as English and French or being diluted through Creole languages such as Tok Pisin.
Dr Julia Miller is the data manager for the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at the Australian National University, and oversees the ANU’s PARADISEC unit.
Her research has involved fieldwork in the Morehead District of PNG.
Dr Miller said it’s a region that is important to document because it has so far bucked the language loss trend.
“Tok Pisin hasn’t become the dominant language there, so all the kids are learning languages of their mother as well as their fathers,” she said.
“I’ll be returning next year to do follow-up work and all of that material will be achieved in PARADISEC.”
Can this help revive endangered languages?
Dr Hendry said language revival is ultimately up to public will.
But this, she added, was where new technologies such as VR and language databases could help.
“It’s important to have these types of databases because linguists can pull audio from there and creating things like VR’s, create audio books where you can read along and re-learn languages,” Dr Hendry said.
“And with things like the VR, it really shows what is at stake.
“It’s not a policy paper, it’s you being immersed in languages that are at risk, that’s much more powerful for people and policy makers.”
Dr Thieberger is pragmatic when considering language revival.
“I’m not sure we can say we are reviving languages but by doing this stuff people will want to go into it and from that they can reintroduce something back to the community,” she said.
“It could be a song, a concept, or just a word — it might not sound like a lot, but it’s something.”