Donlin Gold supports initiative that uses technology to save Yup’ik language

yugtun.com

Donlin Gold is helping to underwrite a ground-breaking project that will change the way Alaska Native languages are taught and learned.
The project allows users to look up and learn Yup’ik words through a website even if they don’t know the language.
“Our Alaska Native languages are endangered, with some having gone completely dormant with no current speakers,” said Daniel Walker, superintendent of the Kuskokwim School District. “Much of culture is linked to language, and without it, a culture is also in danger of going dormant. Just as importantly, language and culture help our students connect with their identity as Alaska Natives, an important precursor for academic success.”
Donlin Gold Community Development and Sustainability Coordinator Vernon Chimegalrea said, “Donlin Gold wants to work with those in our region to ensure cultural preservation for years to come. As a linguist, seeing our language being preserved is a passion of mine. This project is a new and innovative way to work towards preserving our language.”
The project is called “Yuarcuun” and is the brainchild of Christopher Egalaaq Liu, a Yup’ik speaker who grew up in Bethel. “Yuarcuun” is a Yup’ik word meaning “a tool to find what you’re searching for.” The project’s website, yugtun.com, uses technology to break a word into its elements or find the assembled word for the phrase a user seeks.
This approach changes the way Alaska Native languages are taught and learned, overcoming one of the biggest challenges in preserving and revitalizing them. Educational institutions typically use European translation and teaching tools even though Alaska Native languages have very little in common with European languages. Many Alaska Native languages are complex constructions that pack a lot of meaning into individual words. For example: Using a base to which suffixes are appended adds additional context, so a simple Yup’ik word – such as “pissuryullrunrituk” – can tell us “The two did not want to hunt.”
Yugtun.com has an accompanying text-to-speech function that allows users to hear the words spoken aloud and assists with proper form. With Yuarcuun, a user can learn the logic behind the language, building a firm foundation that boosts understanding and retention.
Liu says nearly all Eskimo/Aleut languages follow the same grammatical structure, so Yuarcuun “will hopefully augment existing language-revitalization efforts … impacting nations across Alaska, Canada and Greenland.”
Liu began working on the project while he was a graduate student in electrical engineering at Stanford University. “My focus has been in automatic language translation, speech recognition, text-to-speech and app development. It became apparent to me that many techniques in computer science could be revolutionary if applied to the Yup’ik language.”
Liu hopes having resources for the Yup’ik language readily available will increase its reach and fluency among Alaskans. One of the greatest challenges, he said, is getting individuals to quiet the voice in their head that tells them it is too late to learn a new language. He wants individuals to use Yuarcuun to challenge themselves and have fun learning a new language.
Down the road, Liu hopes to keep improving the Yup’ik translator, add regional dialect options, launch an app and expand the project to other Alaska Native languages.
The Bethel native attended Ayaprun Elitnaurvik and earned his undergraduate degree in cognitive sciences from Rice University, in Houston, Texas. He has been an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, research scientist at the University of Washington and a special assistant at the Alaska Federation of Natives.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center is the nonprofit sponsor for the initiative. In addition to Donlin Gold, Liu has received support from Calista Corporation, Bering Straits Native Corporation, Bethel Native Corporation and Alaska Federation of Natives.
Anyone can explore Liu’s work at yugtun.com by simply entering a word, adding adjectives, a verb phrase, tense and noun endings to see how the Yup’ik word is transformed.

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