Keyman lets people type in more than 600 different languages. (ABC North and West SA: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
Silenced for decades, Indigenous languages are being heard on ABC radio, TV and digital platforms
An international software firm developing smartphone keyboards specifically designed to write in traditional languages is helping people protect their language.
- The Keyman program helps create digital keyboards for traditional, non-majority languages
- “Language champions” and communities across the world contribute to the keyboards’ development
- The program is beginning to introduce autocorrection and predictive text
The project, called Keyman, allows people to type in one of more than 600 different languages, none of which are majority languages.
A majority language is one spoken by large groups of people such as English, Spanish, or Mandarin.
Keyman has been developed by not-for-profit company SIL International, and lead software developer Marc Durdin said it was created in 1993 originally for the Lao language.
“We had people in other parts of South-East Asia discover the program and ask to adapt it to other languages, then we made it more accessible,” he said.
“But as we started to expand out into other languages, we made it more language agnostic so that it would provide the resources to allow you to adapt it to a language, but not actually have any language knowledge.
“So it’s not me producing keyboards for all these languages, it’s the communities producing keyboards for themselves.”
Marc Durdin is lead developer for Keyman, software designed to help people digitise traditional languages. (ABC North and West SA: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
Mr Durdin said Keyman relied on “language champions” to put their language forward to be digitised.
“There’s a tool called Keyman Developer that you can use to create a keyboard layout,” he said.
“Because that tool doesn’t care about the language, it means we’ve had 500 to 600 people contribute keyboard layouts for different languages.”
Keyman has been reinvented and improved since its inception, and Mr Durdin said predictive text and autocorrections were now being introduced to the program.
A smartphone keyboard for the Dulkw’ahke language of the interior part of British Colombia, Canada. (Supplied: Keyman)
Predictive text is when a smartphone keyboard guesses what the next word you plan to type is, based on the structure of the sentence.
“Adding in predictions means you have to have language data,” Mr Durdin said.
“You have to create a dictionary or list of the words in the language and include that with the keyboard.”
He said there were a lot of new challenges to make predictive text possible, such as how to collect that data, how to distribute that data, and who owns the language.
“There’s been a long history of abuse with languages, with majority languages preventing the use of [traditional] language,” Mr Durdin said.
“People are very wary in sharing their language data because it might be abused, it might be taken, it might be used commercially, and they don’t want to see that happen.”
Keyboards for Indigenous Australians
While Keyman is used to create new keyboards for traditional languages, some Australian Aboriginal languages can use an ordinary keyboard.
David Strickland is a linguist based in Alice Springs, and has been working with the Anmatyerr people about 200km north of the town.
David Strickland is a linguist working on the Anmatyerr language, north of Alice Springs. (Supplied: David Strickland)
He said while some Indigenous languages, such as those in Arnhem Land, use specially adapted keyboards, the Anmatyerr language uses a standard one.
“To represent the sounds that are different [to English] we might use combinations of two or three letters,” he said.
But he said some letters, including ‘Q’, ‘O’, ‘S’ and ‘F’, aren’t used because the sound is not present in Anmatyerr.
“There’s no language word for some concepts, especially technological things, so you’re going to be using the rest of the keyboard for English anyway,” he said.
Technology reviving Bangladeshi language
Bivuti Chakma is someone who Mr Durdin would call a “language champion”.
He’s a Bangladeshi man who is dedicated to ensuring his language is protected.
He has created a keyboard layout for his language, Chakma, which was made available in July 2016.
He said his language was considered “endangered”, but the Keyman program was keeping it alive.
“From my birthdate, this language has been extremely neglected,” he said.
“The young generation have recently expressed interest in learning the language after the Chakma language became digital.”
Mr Chakma said up to one million people were now speaking his language in countries including Australia, the United States, Canada, and Japan.
He said it was up to those people to keep the language alive.
“In the future, it will become more difficult and the language will be lost one day due to the lack of practise,” he said.
“For the protection of Indigenous languages, minority language-speaking groups have to come forward as I am doing now.
“When the language is digital, I expect people to automatically practise it.”
Protecting the languages of Papua New Guinea
Stanley Kaka has dedicated his life to preserving the Enga language, one of more than 800 languages in Papua New Guinea.
But he said that many of those languages were becoming endangered.
Stanley Kaka is a traditional language advocate based in Papua New Guinea. (ABC News: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
“The Enga language, the original Enga language, is fading away,” Mr Kaka said.
“The young ones, when they go to school they learn to speak English, so it means the original Enga language is no longer their language.
“It’s a custom, it’s a tradition, it’s a way of life that is disappearing.
“If we lose the Enga language we are losing songs [and] we are losing our traditional initiations. The customs and traditions will die out.”
Now, in an effort to preserve his language, Mr Kaka has been speaking with elders, recording their voices, and writing what they say in Enga.
He also wanted schoolchildren in Enga Province to be taught in their traditional language.
“By doing that we can preserve our Indigenous language in the country,” Mr Kaka said.
He said he was working to include two new letters for keyboards, which will make typing in Enga possible.
“So that we can use the alphabet, and then the two Enga letters, to write the Enga language,” he said.
One of those letters, ‘ē’, makes a long ‘E’ sound, while the other, ‘ŋ’, makes a ‘eng’ sound.