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Speaking the language of engagement

Volume 10 Number 6 June 9 - July 13 2014

Artist Nadia Faragaab with Dr Nick Thieberger. Photo: Peter Casamento.
Artist Nadia Faragaab with Dr Nick Thieberger. Photo: Peter Casamento.


The power of partnership will take its place on an international stage next month as an innovative Somali-English Language Dictionary app is launched on iOS and Android platforms. Kate O’Hara talks to the creators of this new and, importantly, free resource.

When Somali Australian artist Nadia Faragaab first got in touch with academics at the University of Melbourne, she brought with her a challenge. 

It was early 2013 and a few initial phone calls eventually led her to the door of Dr Nick Thieberger, Australian Research Council QEII Fellow at the School of Languages and Linguistics (SOLL) and one of the founding members of the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures project (PARADISEC).

The challenge: can we create a free, accessible and interactive language resource for Somali speakers around the world?

Twelve months down the track the app approval team at Apple certainly thinks so.

Drawing on extensive community consultations with significant Somali diaspora, here in Melbourne and across the globe, Ms Faragaab and Dr Thieberger have created a 26,000-word Somali-English dictionary app which will be available for free download from both Android and iOS platforms. Part-funded by a Vice-Chancellor’s Staff Engagement Grant in 2013, the app was given the go-ahead in late May and will be officially launched in the coming weeks.

Ms Faragaab, director of Somali arts and culture organisation Burji Arts, says the partnership project is an innovative first.

“In my art I work with a lot of themes around language, and quickly became aware of the fact that there weren’t any free resources for Somali speakers,” she says.

“Through Burji Arts I contacted Nick, who was doing this sort of documenting work in other languages.

“The challenge was there – we’d tried this once before, to create a working Somali dictionary, but it was unsuccessful because we got a developer overseas to record a list of words and it was terrible. What we really needed were developers in Melbourne that we could work closely with, and linguists who know what they’re doing.”

With a particular interest in language and technology, and developing new ways of dealing with dictionaries and textual representations, Dr Thieberger helped to develop the concept, drawing on the example of the highly successful Ma’ Iwaidja Aboriginal language app.

“We discovered a Somali dictionary in the library which dated from 1980, and with limited funds and resources available, I suggested Nadia get in touch with the editors and ask if we could use the content for our project,” Dr Thieberger says.

“The Ma’ Iwaidja project is a great template for this type of app - it’s a dictionary but it also has phrases, and is really aimed at people who want to be able to communicate in that particular Aboriginal language.

“So we took that 1980 Somali dictionary and entered all 26,000 head words into the app program. My role was to undertake the textual work - that’s a lot of computational pulling apart and making it fit into structured fields. It will be an iterative process where we’ll continuously be improving the base content and updating to reflect changes in language.

“The idea is to build it once and have multiple ways of viewing, like a website, an app and then maybe comparative word lists. All these kinds of things you can do if you construct the material properly.”

As Dr Thieberger and Ms Faragaab finalise work on the app’s first iteration, the depth of engagement across other, non-technological areas of work continues to expand.

The capacity for this fledgling partnership to influence and support teaching and learning streams at the SOLL is only just beginning to be realised. 

While her art has a particular focus on language systems and attempting to address an absence of Somalia and Somali culture in libraries, galleries and pop culture, Ms Faragaab saw the benefit of enrolling in a post-graduate diploma in linguistics to bring a theoretical voice to her stories. She took part in a field methods course last year, while two current honours students have also started exploring Somali language themes as part of their research.

An up-coming trip to the US will provide Ms Faragaab with opportunities to share the new language app and explore new ways to expand the project beyond 2014.

“In developing the project we’ve worked broadly across Melbourne, but also been in touch with other significant Somali diaspora around the world, like in Minnesota,” she says.

“So we’re connected to those communities and always getting really positive feedback. When we launch the app, we’ll be asking these same users to also record Somali words which can then be uploaded to our website for inclusion in the next edition.”

Far from being a static project, the current language app will depend on this interaction and continually updating content to remain relevant. While the ongoing costs of curating the information will largely be borne by Burji Arts and in-kind support – including funds from the Melbourne Social Equity Institute and the Faculty of Arts Engagement Committee - the task of now building a user base through cost-effective means looms large. 

“Social media has a significant role to play in fundraising and communication efforts, as do on-going conversations with potential new funding sources,” Ms Faragaab says.

“It can seem like a big undertaking – and of course it is – but we are very committed to the project.”