Mon, Sep 28, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Saving the Amis language one megabyte at a time

Hoping to reverse the extinction of Taiwan’s Aboriginal languages, a diverse group of volunteers have come together to create the first Amis language mobile dictionary app

By Aaron Wytze Wilson  /  Contributing reporter

Amis dictionary group members Lafin Miku, left, and Miaoski Lin.

Photo: Aaron Wytze Wilson

A lack of online resources can make learning Taiwan’s Aboriginal languages incredibly difficult. But a new app called Moedict Amis dictionary (阿美語萌典—方敏英字典) has made learning the Amis language as easy as cecay, tosa, tolo (one, two, three).

A group of volunteers have come together to create the first ever Amis language dictionary app for mobile phones. The group includes both Amis and non-Amis, engineers and tech luddites — and even a former legislator and a Catholic priest.

The app’s development is not targeted at language enthusiasts but for the Amis to save their language from years of regressive government policies, and urban migration that has crippled the development of Aboriginal languages.

“We’re not just looking to preserve the language for future generations, but also hoping to set off a cultural revival for other Aboriginal languages,” says group member Tsai Wei-ting (蔡維庭).

FACING EXTINCTION

According to a UNESCO report in 2009, Taiwan’s Aboriginal languages are in serious danger of extinction unless drastic action is taken to preserve them.

Due to decades of regressive language policies under the Japanese and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) governments, people of Aboriginal background grew up and were educated in a language that is not originally their own.

Taiwan’s Amis are no exception. Although the government estimates the Amis population at a little over 200,000, the number of people who speak Amis as their first language is estimated to be lower than 10,000.

However, the exact number is not known because no government survey has been carried out to find it.

With such a rapid decline in native-speaking Amis, immediate action is needed to prevent further decline. However, the government’s response has been slow because it doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge how dire the situation is.

ALINGATO, AMIS FOR THANK YOU

Just as the Amis language is facing a critical juncture in its preservation, a group of software engineers and concerned citizens have come together to create an Amis dictionary phone app.

“We didn’t have too much interest from the Amis community at first, until Lafin Miku, who is Amis, stepped forward to help out with the project” says Miaoski Lin (林哲民), one of the app’s software programmers.

Lafin and Lin are part of the netizen collective g0v, a civic activist group that uses tech, new media and data to solve some of Taiwan’s biggest social and political problems.

Lafin has acted as a critical go-between for the group and the larger Amis community. “It’s a very meaningful project, but I was skeptical at first. Digitizing an entire dictionary is so tiring,” Lafin says.

Much of the Amis language is preserved in leather-bound dictionaries that are decades old, with very few of them making it online.

Converting them into digital content is an exhausting task, requiring weeks of monotonous scanning and data input.

To simplify the procedure, the group uses crowd-sourcing, a tactic that allows multiple group-members to work on the task of scanning and inputting at once.

The group has also been fortunate to have the help of two patron saints of the Amis language.

The first is former People First Party legislator Tsai Chung-han (蔡中涵), a respected member of the Amis community who has spent decades of his own time and money to compile an Amis-Chinese dictionary.

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