CAN TECH SAVE TE REO

Idealog - - TECH SPEAK -

As the proverb says, ko taku reo taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku mapihi mau­ria ( “my l an­guage i s my awak­en­ing, my l an­guage i s the win­dow to my soul”). But with the num­ber of peo­ple who can hold a con­ver­sa­tion i n te reo l ook­ing to new tech­nolo­gies for re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion – and i n the hope that i t could get new speak­ers on board, too. Ben Mack l ooks at the New Zealand en­trepreneurs merg­ing te reo with tech.

It’s no se­cret that in­dige­nous lan­guages around the world are at risk of ex­tinc­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the UN, at least 43 per­cent of the es­ti­mated 6,000 lan­guages spo­ken in the world are en­dan­gered, while the Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion pre­dicts that half of these could be gone by the end of the cen­tury.

Ini­tia­tives such as the Google-backed En­dan­gered Lan­guages Project are ag­gre­gat­ing videos, lan­guage les­sons and other forms of me­dia to save at-risk lan­guages such as South­ern Saami (only spo­ken by around 600 peo­ple in cen­tral Swe­den) and Ainu (only spo­ken by about 10 speak­ers in the is­land of Hokkaido in Ja­pan).

Back home in New Zealand, te reo Māori is slightly less ob­scure. It is one of our three of­fi­cial lan­guages along­side English and sign lan­guage. But re­cent data shows that there is cause for con­cern. Ac­cord­ing to the last Cen­sus, just 3.7 per­cent of the New Zealand pop­u­la­tion can hold a con­ver­sa­tion in te reo Māori, or 23.1 per­cent of peo­ple who are Māori.

And yet thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of in­no­va­tive tech­nolo­gies, po­lit­i­cal will and cul­tural re­nais­sance, there may be hope yet of pre­serv­ing New Zealand’s na­tive lan­guage. Or bet­ter yet, te reo might not only be able to sur­vive, but in­crease in usage due to more peo­ple be­ing able to learn and prac­tice the lan­guage via tech­nol­ogy.

Af­ter all, lan­guage is a unique re­flec­tion of the peo­ple us­ing it. The Lin­guis­tic So­ci­ety of Amer­ica said, “much of the cul­tural, spir­i­tual, and in­tel­lec­tual life of a peo­ple is ex­pe­ri­enced through lan­guage.”

En­trepreneurs such as ReoBot founder Ja­son Lovell recog­nise the im­por­tance of us­ing new medi­ums to help keep lan­guages alive.

“When I was learn­ing te reo Māori, I would seek out op­por­tu­ni­ties to prac­tice but when you have a fam­ily, a job, this be­comes dif­fi­cult,” he says.

The so­lu­tion he came up with? Cre­ate the world’s first te reo Māori chatbot.

“ReoBot is de­signed to al­low peo­ple to prac­tice ev­ery day con­ver­sa­tional te reo Māori in their own time at their own pace: on the way to work, at home, or when­ever they can spare five min­utes,” Lovell says.

ReoBot works by en­cour­ag­ing the user to in­ter­act and re­spond in te reo Māori through a se­ries of short con­ver­sa­tions. Ques­tions such as “would you like a cof­fee?” and “how are you?” or “how is the weather?” help guide the user through a short con­ver­sa­tion in both te reo Māori and English. Avail­able through Face­book Mes­sen­ger, the ReoBot can be used at any time on any de­vice for free.

“Whether you know noth­ing or just a few phrases, you will find this use­ful to start a chat,” Lovell says. “And if you are a be­gin­ner, it will keep the reo Māori you know top of mind so you’re more likely to go into a daily sit­u­a­tion and use it.

“ReoBot is not a teach­ing app, nor is it de­signed to re­place teach­ers or be used as a translation ser­vice. What it can do is pro­vide teach­ers with a tool to help their stu­dents with con­ver­sa­tional Māori, es­pe­cially young kids who have grown up with tech­nol­ogy and mo­bile phones.”

Speak­ing of kids, it’s a key de­mo­graphic tech­nol­ogy is at­tempt­ing to

We want to use this tech­nol­ogy as a tool to help chil­dren de­velop strong self- i den­tity, by pro­vid­ing them l i fe l es­sons and knowl­edge from dif­fer­ent cul­tural folk­tales. These sto­ries ed­u­cate chil­dren about di­ver­sity, moral­ity and cul­ture, both their own and i nter­na­tion­ally, through folk­tales i n a unique and fun man­ner.

reach in or­der to pass on te reo. Af­ter all, ran­gatahi (youth) will one day be the ones re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing the lan­guage alive.

The peo­ple be­hind Ti­tan Ideas are well aware of this. On Wai­tangi Day, they col­lab­o­rated with Ngāti Whā­tua Ōrākei (a hapū, or sub­tribe, of the wider Ngāti Whā­tua iwi) to launch the world’s first aug­mented re­al­ity (AR)-en­abled Māori al­pha­bet colour­ing ‘book’ known as Zippy's 3D Colour­ing App. The ‘book’ takes kids on ad­ven­tures through ed­u­ca­tional cul­tural sto­ries.

Ti­tan Ideas founder and CEO Abhi Kala and lec­turer in dig­i­tal me­dia at Auck­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy no­ticed that AR and VR could have a pow­er­ful ef­fect on the way chil­dren learn and how sto­ries are passed on.

“Im­mer­sive tech­nolo­gies bring the phys­i­cal and vir­tual worlds to­gether,” he says. “We want to use this tech­nol­ogy as a tool to help chil­dren de­velop strong self­i­den­tity, by pro­vid­ing them life les­sons and knowl­edge from dif­fer­ent cul­tural folk­tales. These sto­ries ed­u­cate chil­dren about di­ver­sity, moral­ity and cul­ture, both their own and internationally, through folk­tales in a unique and fun man­ner.”

Dr Jan­nie van Hees, from the New Zealand Coun­cil for Ed­u­ca­tional Re­search, says AR can play an im­por­tant role in help­ing to help pass on a lan­guage and cul­ture – in­clud­ing te reo Māori.

“Zippy’s Tales is a hugely ex­cit­ing lever and ini­tia­tive which opens up many lenses on cul­tur­ally in­clu­sive ped­a­go­gies in the school­ing space. It also opens up a win­dow for fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ties, in­di­vid­u­als to ‘tell their sto­ries’ and gift these pre­cious ‘truths of be­ing and see­ing’ to their own young ones, and us as a so­ci­ety and coun­try.”

Toys that teach te reo

Zippy’s Tales is also far from alone in us­ing tech to pass te reo onto chil­dren. In 2016, Hōhepa Tuahine and Kristin Ross – who learned te reo at univer­sity, but wanted to teach the lan­guage to their chil­dren – launched Pipi Mā, the world’s first te reo Māori-speak­ing dolls.

As Ross told The Reg­is­ter: “We saw how our el­dest daugh­ter re­acted to an Elsa (from Dis­ney’s Frozen) speak­ing doll and thought, ‘Ha! We need a Māori-speak­ing doll that does the same thing.’”

Win­ners of the Peo­ple’s Choice at last year’s New Zealand In­no­va­tion Awards, each of the dolls has a tra­di­tional Māori name (Pipi, Hura, Tī­toki and Pī­tau Pōtiki) and a unique char­ac­ter­is­tic, such as Hura’s feath­ers in his hair and pounamu around his neck, or Pipi’s pois and the moko on her chin.

Ac­cord­ing to Tuahine: “Pipi Mā takes the best of pop cul­ture and Māori cul­ture to cre­ate a prod­uct that em­beds the idea and be­hav­iour into our chil­dren that the Māori lan­guage is cool.”

Māori lan­guage ad­vo­cate and re­searcher Kahu­rangi Maxwell says the toys are im­por­tant be­cause they help en­cour­age the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of te reo Māori from an early age – and kids could more likely to con­tinue us­ing the words they learn through­out their lives.

“Par­ents rais­ing chil­dren in te reo Māori are cry­ing out for such toys and re­sources to sup­port their ef­forts in the home and kura (school) but in a way that is fun and much like many of the other toys out in the mar­ket. Pipi Mā will change the way kids learn, speak and un­der­stand Te Reo and will help fam­i­lies to feel more con­fi­dent in their ev­ery­day use of the lan­guage.”

Screen­ing process

Toys may be one way to help kids learn a lan­guage, but there’s an­other area that ev­ery kid can get be­hind: car­toons.

Sea­son two of Tākaro Tribe, cre­ated by Cinco Cine Film Pro­duc­tions, be­gan screen­ing on TVNZ 2 this past May. Show­ing week­days at 6.40am, each episode cov­ers the ad­ven­tures of five wood­land sprites named af­ter Māori vow­els who live in the en­chanted Wao Arapū (“Al­pha­bet For­est”), along with Pāpā Rakāu (“Tree Fa­ther”) and Kōkā (“Pond Mother”). The char­ac­ters are voiced by Māori ac­tors and per­form­ers, in­clud­ing some of the cast of the te reo ver­sion of the Dis­ney film Moana.

The show is pri­mar­ily aimed at chil­dren from two to five years old, but any­one can fol­low along. To help view­ers learn te reo, Tākaro Tribe uses rep­e­ti­tion, com­edy and mu­sic, with char­ac­ters work­ing out what ob­jects they en­counter are used for, and how the ob­jects’ names are spelled in both English and te reo.

The show has also been well re­ceived. As Amie Mills, chil­dren’s and dig­i­tal com­mis­sioner at TVNZ, told Idea­log: “The Māori pop­u­la­tion is young, and grow­ing in Aotearoa and we be­lieve in the im­por­tance of fos­ter­ing bi­cul­tur­al­ism and bilin­gual­ism in the con­tent we make avail­able to our tamariki.”

But as in­no­va­tive as Tākaro Tribe is, it still can’t es­cape one fact: fewer peo­ple are watch­ing TV and are mov­ing to­wards on de­mand. Yet although over­all tra­di­tional TV view­er­ship is stag­nat­ing, one area that is on the rise – es­pe­cially among kids – is video games.

With the most pop­u­lar games now of­ten mak­ing more money than Hol­ly­wood block­busters, and Aotearoa’s games in­dus­try con­tin­u­ing to set records for rev­enue year-af­ter-year, it would seem an ideal medium to help bring te reo to new au­di­ences. Award-win­ning lo­cal game de­sign­ers Steve Sal­mond and Moritz Sch­lit­ter are help­ing to do just that with their mul­ti­player brawler game Gra­bity. To do so, they teamed up with Jack Po­taka and Te Whainoa Te Wi­ata from the Univer­sity of Auck­land to make the te reo Māori ver­sion of the game avail­able at the same time as the English ver­sion, which launched in late May.

Po­taka says work­ing on the project was a treat. “I am a bit of gamer too,” he says. “Te Whainoa and I have been work­ing hard to make sure we cap­ture the essence of the game, while also main­tain­ing the in­tegrity of te reo Māori in the process.”

Sch­lit­ter and Sal­mond formed in­de­pen­dent game stu­dio Team Ninja Thumbs in 2016, and have been work­ing on Gra­bity for the past two years. With ba­sic words and phrases in the game in te reo, the rep­e­ti­tion can be­come in­grained in play­ers’ minds, and the visual medium means play­ers can con­nect a te reo word to some­thing they see hap­pen­ing on the screen.

Games for sur­vival

Given their pop­u­lar­ity, games – and gam­i­fi­ca­tion – would seem to be a good way to reach new au­di­ences. It’s cer­tainly some­thing Adele Hauwai and SeeCom, a so­cial en­ter­prise de­vel­op­ing the world’s first dig­i­tal in­ter­ac­tive Māori sign lan­guage game, are well aware of.

As Hauwai ex­plains: “There are so many ben­e­fits to learn­ing sign lan­guage. It’s not just for deaf peo­ple. We ed­u­cate par­ents how to com­mu­ni­cate with all chil­dren us­ing te reo Ro­tarota (sign lan­guage), even par­ents of chil­dren with autism or with slow speech devel­op­ment or learn­ing chal­lenges.”

Ini­tially set up in Novem­ber 2016 to teach ba­sic sign lan­guage to par­ents and care­givers of babies, SeeCom has be­come much more than that. For in­stance, in the past year, SeeCom has been recog­nised with mul­ti­ple awards for its prod­ucts and ser­vices, which also in­cludes sign lan­guage posters and flash cards in te reo.

“We’ve had strong in­ter­est from par­ents of chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties, health work­ers, so­cial work­ers, ka­iako teach­ing te reo Māori and school teach­ers,” says Hauwai. “It’s a win-win for all com­mu­ni­ties – even open­ing up em­ploy­ment and ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple with health lim­i­ta­tions but have the com­pe­tency and pas­sion to teach te reo ro­tarota (sign lan­guage).”

But back to that game. The sign lan­guage game traces the gamer’s body move­ments and signs to make the char­ac­ter do some­thing in the game. “If you sign ‘jump’ the char­ac­ter jumps, or sign ‘swim’, the char­ac­ter swims,” Hauwai says.

The game has pro­gressed be­yond the pro­to­type stage, and now SeeCom are re­search­ing pro­duc­ing a full ver­sion. “We are test­ing it in dif­fer­ent mar­kets to see how dif­fer­ent users in­ter­act with the game, and we are look­ing for in­vestors and fund­ing to get it to mar­ket,” says Hauwai.

This isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky plan, ei­ther. SeeCom has won sev­eral awards in the past cou­ple of years. These in­clude Launch­ing Lead­ers (LDS-BPA) 2016, the Dig My Idea Māori In­no­va­tion Awards (Open Cat­e­gory) and the Kōkiri Awards 2018. Hauwai also re­ceived a Māori en­tre­pre­neur bur­sary to at­tend the So­cial World En­ter­prise Fo­rum this past Septem­ber in Ōtau­tahi (Christchurch).

Ac­co­lades aside, Hauwai says there’s a greater mis­sion. “What we are do­ing is try­ing to de­velop hands-on learn­ing that is fun, ed­u­ca­tional and will help peo­ple to com­mu­ni­cate.”

SeeCom has been sup­ported by the Waikato In­no­va­tion Park busi­ness growth team, which has helped with ad­vice and fund­ing to grow. The group is funded by the Re­gional Busi­ness Part­ner Net­work (RBPN), which is sup­ported by New Zealand Trade & En­ter­prise (NZTE) and Cal­laghan In­no­va­tion.

Kahu­rangi Tay­lor, a Waikato In­no­va­tion Park busi­ness growth ad­vi­sor, says SeeCom’s game has a lot of po­ten­tial for teach­ing a new lan­guage to peo­ple of all ages. “It’s a re­ally cool game and some­thing that ev­ery­one will en­joy.”

Apps and the fu­ture

An­other app de­signed with young peo­ple in mind – in this case, chil­dren five years old and younger – that at­tempts to gam­ify learn­ing te reo is Pā­papa. In short, Pā­papa teaches 20 dif­fer­ent, ev­ery­day te reo words through drag-and-drop ac­tiv­ity games. Ac­cord­ing to de­vel­oper James Porter, the idea is that the app can help en­cour­age fam­i­lies in Aotearoa and in the wider ao (world) to use te reo.

On the topic of the wider world, up in Te Tai Tok­erau (North­land), Te Hiku Me­dia are work­ing on a te reo Māori ver­sion of Ap­ple’s uber-pop­u­lar Siri. As tech­nol­ogy as­sis­tant Keoni Ma­h­elona told RNZ: “Young peo­ple, our mokos, ran­gatahi, are on Snapchat and In­sta­gram, and they’ve got mo­bile de­vices, but these de­vices don’t speak te reo Māori. If we want our in­dige­nous lan­guages to have a place in the fu­ture, they are go­ing to need to be on these de­vices and on the plat­forms.”

To help de­velop a te reo-speak­ing Siri, Te Hiku have launched the Kōrero Māori project. For the project, mem­bers of the pub­lic can record them­selves read­ing sen­tences in Te Reo on Te Hiku’s web­site. Then, the in­for­ma­tion will be used to cre­ate a dig­i­tal te reo model. It’s been pretty suc­cess­ful so far, too, with more than 400 peo­ple pro­vid­ing 33 hours of record­ings.

Ac­cord­ing to Te Hiku man­ager Peter Lucas Jones, the idea of the project is dig­i­tal lan­guage preser­va­tion – and also nor­mal­i­sa­tion of Te Reo for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

So with chat­bots, car­toons, high-tech toys, video games, AR colour­ing books, apps, and more, it would seem there are quite a few pos­si­ble high-tech so­lu­tions to help te reo not only sur­vive in the 21st cen­tury, but see it thrive well into the fu­ture.

While time will tell if tech­nol­ogy does in­deed suc­ceed in boost­ing the 3.7 per­cent of peo­ple in Aotearoa that are able to hold a con­ver­sa­tion in te reo, at the very least, these new medi­ums can help pre­serve and tell our unique cul­tural sto­ries.

Young peo­ple, our mokos, ran­gatahi, are on Snapchat and they’ve got mo­bile de­vices, but these de­vices don’t speak te reo our i ndige­nous l an­guages to have a place i n the fu­ture, they are go­ing to need to be on these de­vices and on the plat­forms.

Top: Tākaro Tribe, a show teach­ing the Māori lan­guage that screened on TVNZ 2. Be­low left: Gra­bity, a New Zealand-made game that of­fers play­ers a te reo Māori ver­sion. Be­low right: The world's first aug­mented re­al­ity Māori al­pha­bet colour­ing book, Zippy's 3D Colour­ing App.

Top right: SeeCom founder Adele Huawai. Mid­dle: Pipi Mā founders Kristin Ross and Hōhepa Tuahine. Bot­tom left: Ti­tan Ideas and CEO Abhi Kala.

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