Google is almost ubiquitous and seemingly all-powerful.  Virtually all of us use it and are, wittingly or otherwise, subservient to its algorithms and data collection capabilities.  Quite a lot of us regard it as evil … while silently clicking on a new search.  Others, mainly in the advertising world, find that its ability to connect with customers makes its alleged sins easily forgivable.  For a lot of charities, it is undoubtedly a good thing, offering them free advertising on a massive scale.

In the world of translation, Google is the enemy for many. Google Translate is a quick and easy way to communicate, albeit not always accurately, for a raft of major languages.  Its problem is that it doesn’t do nuance or have the skills of a bona-fide specialist translator, but for many people that’s not an issue: they simply want a fair representation of what a snatch of foreign words means. However, there is no guarantee that this is what you will get.

In the same way that the Google Grants that charities receive are an unmitigated boon, so too is their latest venture. Called Woolaroo, it’s a new tool for learning and preserving indigenous and highly vulnerable languages.  This, in my view, is an excellent thing, albeit in some instances it may be far too late to save some of them.

Google’s Arts & Culture team has developed Woolaroo as a mobile, open-source app for iOS and Android. It uses image detection technology to provide users with vocabulary words describing the various features of their environment in one of ten different target languages. The fact that the app is open source allows communities of speakers to edit and add to the app’s dictionary and improve its ability to teach users the target language.

At present, the Woolaroo app allows users to learn words in Yugambeh, Calabrian Greek, Louisiana Creole, Yiddish, Māori, Nawat, Sicilian, Rapa Nui, Tamazight (also known as Berber), and Yang Zhuang.  Almost all of these languages have declining speaker populations which, coupled with a complicated historical relationship with the dominant language(s) in their area, means they are in serious danger of extinction.  For example, the Yugambeh aboriginal language of southeast Queensland, Australia hasn’t been spoken fluently for decades, with only one recorded native speaker of the language in 2005.

Woolaroo is a Yugambeh word meaning “shadow.” Users of the app scan their environment using the phone camera to focus on specific objects in their environment, and the app identifies items and gives users a translation of the word in the target language. Thus, for example, if you take a photo of a tree, the app will give you the Yugambeh word “tullei,” which means “tree.” People who actually speak these threatened languages can add audio recordings of individual words to help grow the word list for their language and this in turn will help learners improve their pronunciation.  No matter what you think of Google, this is an excellent initiative and one for which they should be applauded.

Fiona Woodford, Head of Language Services, Global Connects