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Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
23rd September 2008

Along with the use of mobile phones for fieldwork and dictionaries (noting that the latter wouldn't work (yet) in Africa due to the lack of 3G phones that could run the required software), another information and communication technology that has applications in endangered languages research and language support is radio. In Australia the Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) has been in operation since the1970's and is well known for its promotion of central Australian Aboriginal languages.

I have recently heard of two other more grass roots instances of community radio stations broadcasting in indigenous languages. At a workshop on "Engagement and Activism in Endangered Languages Research", Maurizio Gnerre of Universita Orientale in Naples spoke about the use of radio in two Latin American communities, as his abstract states:

The Shuar (Upper Amazon, Ecuador, 55,000 people) established one of the earliest indigenous radio services in the Americas in the late 1960s. That radio service played an outstandingly important role in Shuar political, cultural, educational and linguistic awareness. During the last decade, the neighbouring Achuar (a cultural-linguistic minority, compared to the Shuar) also started to operate their own radio station, aiming mostly to counteract the overwhelming Shuar influence on their own culture and language. Another much more recent case is that of the Huave (Southern Mexico) radio service in San Mateo (9,000 speakers), which has been active for a few years only. This has been enough to trigger a new shared attitude of linguistic creativity and, possibly, even recent demands for language revitalization in other Huave pueblos, where local linguistic varieties are obsolescent. In both the Shuar and the Huave cases, radio broadcasting has stimulated new forms of linguistic creativity.

Today I was speaking to Carlos Chirinos, manager of the SOAS student radio station OpenAir who has been involved with a project in Congo-Brazzaville:

Radio Biso na Biso is the first community radio station to broadcast in the 15 indigenous languages spoken in the FSC-certified concessions of Congolaise Industrielle des Bois in Northern Congo-Brazzaville. In addition to celebrating their unique cultures, oral traditions and musical styles, the radio station gives local indigenous people a platform to discuss and learn about the issues they face in the context of industrial forestry operations, and about the need for the company to obtain their free, prior and informed consent to operations in their traditional forest areas.

Biso na Biso is recruiting journalists from each indigenous group in the concession to produce programmes in local languages that speak to peoples concerns and interests. This YouTube video shows one of these journalists, the Baka Paul Aboyo, alias Mandero, journaliste internationale, making one of his first programmes for Biso na Biso."

One of the languages that the station will broadcast in has just 200 speakers. Carlos has been to Congo-Brazzaville twice to help set up the radio station (see photos here) and is writing his dissertation on the use of radio to support communication for indigenous peoples. He also mentioned today that through a grant, hundreds of wind-up radios have been distributed to the Baka and other groups so that they can access the FM radio broadcasts. (Carlos has also been very supportive of our work in the Endangered Languages Project, especially helping to put up podcasts of Meet an Endangered Language that were created as part of our Endangered Languages Week 2008).


James McElvenney has pointed out to me that for the dictionary software he blogged about "a 3G phone is not required - all you need is a phone that supports Java ME". Well to the best of my knowledge, most phones in most of Africa (especially West Africa) are models (often recycled from 1st world countries) that don't run Java, so my point still stands. Using them for more simple things such as texting or calls to check data and/or analysis is of course not affected.

We have a radio broadcasting in "language". Our local indigenous television programming used to be terrific but now we have the national NITV rubbish which none of the locals watch.

And we don't have mobile phone coverage here - and I'm in Australia

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