Google’s Arts & Culture team has recently launched Woolaroo, a new tool for learning and preserving Indigenous and vulnerable languages. Woolaroo is available as a mobile app for iOS and Android, and utilizes image detection technology to provide users with vocabulary words describing the various features of their environment in one of ten different target languages. The app is also open source, meaning that communities of speakers can edit and add to the app’s dictionary and improve the app’s ability to teach users the target language.
“Crucial to Indigenous communities is that Woolaroo puts the power to add, edit and delete entries completely in their hands. So people can respond immediately to newly remembered words and phrases and add them directly,” reads a blog post written by Rory O’Connor, the chief executive officer of the Yugambeh Museum, which helped provide data on the Australian Yugambeh language for Woolaroo.
Speakers of each language can also add audio recordings of individual words as they expand the word list for their language, which may be used to help learners improve their pronunciation.
Woolaroo derives its name from a Yugambeh word meaning “shadow,” which has been noted to be the closest word in the language to the word “photo.” Users can scan their environment using the phone camera to focus on specific objects in their environment, and the app will identify the items in the environment and provide users with a translation of the word into the target language — for example, if a user takes a picture of a tree, the app will show the user the Yugambeh word “tullei,” which means “tree.”
Currently, the app offers users the opportunity to learn words in Yugambeh, Calabrian Greek, Louisiana Creole, Yiddish, Māori, Nawat, Sicilian, Rapa Nui, Tamazight (also known as Berber), and Yang Zhuang. Most, if not all, of these languages have declining speaker populations and a complex historical relationship with the predominant languages in their geographical regions — Yugambeh, for example, only had one recorded native speaker of the language as of 2005, and has been the focus of numerous revitalization efforts in recent years. Calabrian Greek, meanwhile, a Greek dialect of disputed provenance spoken in some southern Italian villages, is slightly more robust, counting some 2000 speakers — and yet also finds itself in danger as almost all younger Calabrian Greeks have abandoned the language for Italian.
While the app is optimized for use on a mobile device, it is also accessible from a desktop computer.