Rallying For a Cause
The fight to preserve indigenous language

BY Janine Oliveira, Juliana Rebelatto, Teddy Bengtsson

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in its proclamation of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, “Indigenous peoples are often isolated both politically and socially in the countries they live in, by the geographical location of their communities, their separate histories, cultures, languages and traditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the marginalization of indigenous peoples around the world, having a negative impact on the world’s linguistic diversity.

And yet, indigenous peoples are not only leaders in protecting the environment, but their languages represent complex systems of knowledge and communication and should be recognized as a strategic national resource for sustainable development, peace building and reconciliation.”

Ozias Yaguarê Yamã Aripunãguá, 47, Nheengatu translator

Building bridges, not walls

In an effort to embrace inclusivity and break down the metaphorical walls that isolate such rich and important cultures, Motorola Mobility, a Lenovo company, saw an opportunity to help protect two endangered indigenous Latin American languages, Kaingang and Nheengatu, by implementing them into their mobile phone interface. The company hopes that not only will these cultures be integrated into the current digital landscape, but able to do so in their native languages. This is especially helpful for prolonged survival as more and more of the new generations are able to use phones in their mother tongue.

The invitation for RoundTable Studio (RTS) to be part of this initiative was received as a clear reminder that we’ve come a long way from the French/Italian/German/Spanish (FIGS) concept. As a specialist Latin American language services provider, our focus is naturally on Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, as these are the native languages of around 94% of the region’s 650 million population. For comparison, Kaingang is spoken only by around 20,000 people in southern Brazil, and Nheengatu by some 6,000 in the Amazon region, if summed with speakers from Colombia and Venezuela. Back then, knowledge of these two languages (especially in the technology context) was limited, never mind professionally understood.

The scope of the project involved close to 200,000 words of UI content to be processed over a six-month period. There were no shortage of practical and logistical challenges, and COVID-19 restrictions added to them.

How the initiative was born

While Motorola is committed to embracing inclusivity, the ideation of this language revitalization initiative came in 2020 from a problem identified by the globalization team. They noticed LatAm indigenous languages had no technological representation in digitized form started researching ways Motorola could change that story.

Acknowledging there were several native LatAm indigenous languages in danger of extinction over the years, they then partnered up with Campinas State University (UNICAMP), the state university of Campinas. Wilmar da Rocha D’Angelis, professor of the Linguistics Department, who has been researching anthropological linguistics, cultural anthropology, and language education for over 40 years, headed up the partnership. He was key in bringing the first phase of the Indigenous Language Revitalization initiative to life, marking a key first step in this journey.

A tablet engraved in the Cherokee language

Phase one: Nheengatu and Kaingang

Motorola’s focus has been on threatened languages, based primarily on the UNESCO definition (for example, when children no longer learn the language as a mother tongue in the home). Priorities were also based on historic background, the number of native indigenous scholars of these languages, and on the percentage of the native population speaking the language. Nheengatu / Yeral (Brazil) is severely endangered, according to the UNESCO definition.

This facilitated the engagement and the process for language digitalization into our smartphones. Before getting started, our team had several meetings with D’Angelis, who brought his linguistic expertise on indigenous languages to the project. From there, they defined the language team structure and the processing model to be applied.

They identified issues that would require special attention, including cultural awareness that would be key to ensure efficient communication and collaboration. Also considered were language, technical, and training aspects, as well as productivity metrics. Being the first software localization project done with a multinational company, for most of the linguists, it meant a very different experience from their previous translation work — meeting productivity targets and delivery dates, as well as considering character limitations; learning to interpret string tags, IDs, and descriptions from core developers; understanding TM leverage; and contextual applicability in the user interface of a device.

John Toineeta, Museum of the Cherokee Indian guide, sees the Cherokee UI for the first time
with Juliana Rebelatto, 
globalization manager and MBG head linguist at Motorola.

Equipment shipment and setup turned out to be challenging due to the remote locations in the Amazon region with limited transportation options, bad weather conditions, and system installation happening remotely from a Buenos Aires office.

Training was also conducted on a proprietary in-context review tool developed by Motorola to ensure high-quality localization. That included consistency in terminology (both existing and newly created terms through neologism for these languages), layout, and other language-related conventions.

Motorola’s globalization engineering and internationalization teams had to collect the locale data for the selected languages as they were not present in Unicode. Portuguese Unicode CLDR data was used instead of English as the source language, since Brazilian Portuguese was more convenient for the Nheengatu and Kaingang translators. The localized data was then consolidated into the Unicode CLDR XML data, while a native keyboard also had to be created from scratch to be added into Android.

The project overall required coordinated effort (and some creativity), due to challenges mentioned previously. Not only that, but after project kick-off, the teams encountered some technical issues that meant a slower start to the project. The RTS engineering team worked on workarounds for special characters issues used in the target languages. Another issue was caused by one of the special characters using the Greek version instead of the Latin one. Motorola’s engineering team had to make a database replacement with RTS focusing on getting the keyboard settings fixed and the team applying characters correctly. For example, first-week productivity only reached 20% of the targeted volume, even though it was forecasted conservatively and expected to increase gradually. Moreover, the software strings contained a unique technical vocabulary that at times had to be conveyed for the very first time in these indigenous languages, presenting a tough but exciting challenge.

All communications between Motorola and the linguists of this first phase of the initiative were channeled through RTS. In this sense, the people involved in the project had to be extra attentive to capture messages accurately and transmit them in the same way. This project was an extraordinary and hugely rewarding experience for RTS. Having the chance to interact daily with the teams in the indigenous communities and get to know them, not just professionally, allowed the team to understand just how important this initiative is.

From a device user-experience perspective, the language update is seamless. Through the usual, simple language selection option, Nheengatu and Kaingang are shown as two more languages to be selected among the other 80+ languages supported.

Top left: Cherokee scholar Benjamin E. Frey from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with Juliana Rebelatto. Bottom left: John Ross, a translator from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Center; Bobbie Smith, a translator from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma; Right: Juliana Rebelatto with Chief Richard Sneed (EBCI).

Phase two: Cherokee

In a 2022 partnership with the Lenovo Foundation, Motorola has taken the commitment to digital inclusion a step further by announcing the arrival of the Cherokee language into the UI on their devices that support Android 12 (the Motorola Edge+ being the first North American device to support it, with all subsequent North American and global devices to follow). With this initiative, they worked towards delivering a mobile experience that embraces all of our users and contributes to the survival of indigenous languages and cultures.
The work makes Motorola the first smartphone manufacturer to support the Cherokee language.

“With this initiative, we are working toward delivering a mobile experience that embraces all of our users and contributes to the survival of indigenous languages and cultures,” said Renata Altenfelder, Head of Global Brand at Motorola.

When selecting the Cherokee language as the next phase of this project, the team analyzed many factors, including the percentage of speakers to indicate loss of language, access to technologies, and availability of linguistic and scholarly expertise. While there are over 400,000 Cherokee people in the United States (the largest of the 567 federally recognized tribal organizations in the country), less than 2% are first-language speakers. With support of the Cherokee language on Motorola devices, Cherokee citizens will have access to a fully localized mobile phone user interface for the first time.

Citizens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and the Cherokee Nation use technology like many other Americans, which means they have a smartphone in their pockets. But this might not be the case for the roughly 178 first-language EBCI speakers remaining, since they are, for the most part, elderly.

“Any time a business can incorporate the Cherokee language into its product for mass citizens to learn, it’s a win, not just for Cherokee Language preservation, but for the perpetuation of all Native languages,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.

Cherokee scholar Dr. Benjamin E. Frey, American Studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, led the language research and was instrumental to this phase of the project. It will help bridge the gap between elders who may not use technology much but know the language and the youth who might otherwise see the language as a relic of the past.

By combining language and technology, the team demonstrated that the language’s continued vitality and viability will be a part of the Cherokee future. In doing so, we hope to not only help preserve the language but also the history, culture, and identity of those who speak it.

The completion of this project would not have been possible without the participation of the Cherokee Nation, EBCI linguistic experts, and Motorola’s language service providers and partners: RoundTable Studio (RTS), TransPerfect, and RWS.

“I think what is happening with Lenovo and Motorola is that they recognize that there is a responsibility that goes with technology,” said Chief Richard G. Sneed, 28th Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, in an interview with Juliana Rebelatto. “There is a lot of power that goes with having technology… in being the keepers of that technology. To see firms that are not just interested in profit but instead see their creation as a tool to enrich humanity and then to put the resources behind that to make it happen. … I applaud that!”

Cherokee Scholar Dr. Benjamin E. Frey is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

What is next

Moving forward, Motorola will continue to conduct research alongside indigenous communities and engage with regional teams to enrich Motorola experiences and the lives of their consumers.

“In the future, our goal is to continue to research and deliver on this revitalization project by including other endangered indigenous languages, as well as work to open-source Cherokee language data via motorola.com and share our process of digitization with other globalization professionals,” said Janine Oliveira, Executive Director of Globalization Software at Motorola Mobility. “We hope this initiative and milestone will inspire more actions towards revitalization within our industry, seeing more digitally inclusive technology.”

Janine Oliveira is the executive director at Intelligent Devices Group, Lenovo.
Juliana Rebelatto is Lenovo Mobile Business Group’s globalization manager and head linguist.
Teddy Bengtsson is the founder and director of RoundTable Studio.



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