Community Lives: Treasure languages

I think it’s fair to say that in the language industry we regard translation as the foundation stone of our business. So imagine my complete astonishment when I recently learned about a project that is recording a language without any plans for translation into other languages — a language that we would label endangered. And to top it all, this language uses no writing system: it is transmitted orally, depending on new blood to perpetuate its long history.

My astonishment morphed into wonderment after browsing the Aikuma Project website — speakers of orally-transmitted tongues eschew the idea of endangerment by adopting the term “treasure language.” Treasure is, of course, precious, and this term opened a door to a fantastic new world based on the simple act of storytelling. The Australian Aboriginal Bininj Kunwok people, along with other speakers of such languages, are embracing the notion of a “treasure language” instead of patronizing terms such as endangered, ethnic, heritage and so on.

I knew of Professor Steven Bird as a prominent contributor to computational linguistics and coauthor of Natural Language Processing with Python. In the book’s brief bio, Bird was listed as a professor at Melbourne University in his native Australia and at Berkeley in the Bay Area, California. I found a link to his website while I was carrying out research on current work with endangered languages and it resonated strongly because of his unique take on the oral tradition. When I reached out to discuss his work further, I was truly flabbergasted to learn that he had resigned from his tenured professorship, relocated to Australia’s Northern Territory and was conducting fieldwork with the local aboriginal population. In fact, Bird is a volunteer in the local, aboriginal-run elementary school in order to establish legal residency in a protected region, and he has also recently accepted a professorship at Charles Darwin University.

Treasure languages

“Treasure language” is a term coined by the Rama people of Nicaragua. A visit to, an Aikuma-supported project, set the context for the work Steven Bird is involved with. Their question “Have you spoken your treasure language today?” was a challenge that I had not anticipated. At various gatherings, stories are told in the original language and the audiences, whether fellow speakers or not, are engaged in a wonderfully fulfilling community experience of sharing. As a native Greek, I had some familiarity with the oral tradition, and not just from Homer and the earliest ancient Greek literature; one of my grandmothers spoke Vlach, a language with a complex history and little committed to written form. In fact, there is a bardic tradition across the whole region of the Balkans into Eastern Europe and Armenia.

I was also reminded of trips to the ancient theater at Epidaurus and their superb productions of ancient Greek dramas in the original. Many in the audience were unable to follow the ancient language, but they managed to laugh and cry at the right places and to applaud at the catharsis. Steven Bird likens treasure language gatherings to audiences at the opera. When we witness such oral transmissions, we respond to the cues of the language and the delivery of the speaker or singer and our emotions are engaged in collectively feeling the experience. In this wired world of the 21st century, we are still connected to a past that stretches back into antiquity and we must work on its survival. We know that oral cultures, such as found amongst the ancient Celts, lost vast bodies of law, literature, history and lore when its speakers were killed off. That’s how tenuous the spoken word is. It can vanish in the span of a single generation, but I realized that our oral traditions don’t just survive, they persist.

The role of technology for aboriginal languages

Bird studied computer science at the University of Melbourne before completing a PhD in computational linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. His academic career spans universities located in the US, Europe and Australia and he has conducted fieldwork on endangered languages in West Africa, Amazonia, Central Asia, Melanesia and Australia. At present, he is based in West Arnhem in Australia’s “Top End,” working on the Bininj Kunwok language.

The subject of aboriginal languages in Australia is complex. From an 18th century, precolonial maximum of around 250, the number of languages in present use numbers about 150, most of which are considered endangered. Although to inject a positive note, some 12-15 aboriginal languages are being taught to children as their first language. Languages in danger of extinction are not, of course, confined to Australia, and there are many initiatives underway to preserve them. But we tend to have a preoccupation with written language, and as a result have lost the art of memory and listening.

What is unique about this project is that it works with an unwritten language, avoiding the process of committing it to writing. At first Bird felt uncomfortable to be learning in this way, having to rely on speech for revision and learning, trying to avoid the accustomed loop of learning through writing. He found he had to retrain his brain, a tough undertaking for anyone who has undergone the full program of academic training followed by a career based on research written and published with a well-developed set of rules. Even the oral presentations given in lecture halls and at conferences, even TED Talks, are supported by PowerPoint presentations, notes and so on. I’m sure we can all identify with his experience of an oral culture shock.

Bird also had to relearn, or at least reevaluate, the technologies we surround ourselves with and what we can use them for. “People are trying to use technology in this location. Facebook is popular with younger people. They’re feeling forced to use English in such contexts and so I’m hoping to show them how to write their language. Imagine that such technological presence helped with motivation to become literate in your mother tongue. Though the way Facebook corrects my painstakingly entered Bininj Kunwok text is infuriating. It sends the subtle, persistent message that this language doesn’t belong here.”

The assistance Bird and other field workers like him are giving to people seeking a healthy, continued cultural existence is to leverage the right data in order to do with audio what image recognition and machine learning are doing with pictures. And we can add translation to an already ambitious set of goals.

The importance of fieldwork

While talking with Bird, I was reminded of Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines. Part travelogue, part romantic fiction, the book recounts his experiences in the Australian bush. The word songlines still intrigues me. We’ve all heard stories about kids who learned English from listening to the Beatles. There is indeed something about songs that facilitate language learning. Perhaps it’s rhythm or repetition or something simply about being human. I can’t say it’s a foolproof way of learning grammar, but it’s a start. And when songs and singing are an integral part of everyday communication, why not join in! For the Aborigines, however, singing means considerably more than belting out a few numbers. It connects them profoundly with the land. The experience of performance trumps hitting the target of meaning. If as Chatwin put it, the song and land are one — how do you record that and localize it?

After Bird’s efforts at creating a software application that would facilitate oral language study failed, he concluded that he would have to undertake firsthand work in the field. Bird describes his current work as “conducting social and technological experiments in the future evolution of the world’s languages. Together with my students and colleagues, I am developing scalable methods for preserving disappearing words and world views for future generations of speakers and scholars. I am collaborating with speech communities in diasporas and ancestral homelands to design new approaches to language maintenance and revitalization.” He admits that the solitude that comes from being an outsider to a tight-knit community in a desperately harsh climate steeped in ancient traditions is a challenge. Doubly so since the tech-enhanced life we all embrace simply does not integrate well in such conditions. The compensation, however, is the enlivening experience that comes from immersion in such a culture and the rewards of attaining proficiency in a completely foreign language.


We assume that language is a tool to get ideas across and translation deals with the temporary frustration of not understanding a stream of articulated sound. We think of this barrier as a problem and we spend a lot of time and money to overcome it. Bird’s experience challenges this assumption by introducing the concept of the untranslatable, as beautifully encapsulated at A translation of a word is never just another word; there are layers of context spanning environment, intention and other frames of reference that must be accommodated. For example, the word dig is not just a simple verb; it is also digging for food, working upon the sacred land that offers its riches for human sustenance, and an act of tribal heritage. Until we place ourselves in situ we can only glimpse the depth of the spoken word in these circumstances. In turn, this implies why we need to help people to grow up speaking these languages. It’s important for our collective future to keep as many languages as possible by preserving the usage of words with their expression.

As for those indigenous communities who live using the Bininj Kunwok language, they continue their way of life. Land management, environmental and wildlife issues, women’s rights, arts, crafts and culture live on under the protection and care of a people committed to continuing their way of life. They may be one of the lesser-known groups in our vast community, and the pattern of their daily lives may seem incompatible with a wired world, but they can still take advantage of connecting with us all — under their terms!

The Bininj Kunwok website is found at It only seems fitting to give the last word to them: “We don’t want our Kunwinjku language to ever disappear. We want our children to grow up and then in turn teach it to the new generations so that our language will continue on forever.”

Or as the Bininj Kunwok people would actually say: “Kun-wok ngadberre, Kunwinjku, minj ngarri-djare kun-wok ngadberre ka-yakmen. Ngarri-djare wurdurd ngadberre kabirri-djordmerren wanjh bedmanwali kabindi-bukkan birri-kerrnge ba kun-wok ngadberre ka-djale munguyh-munguyh.”