A New Thing

Something very new and exciting is happening at our house! We have a new arrival.

It’s a bird!

It’s a plane!

No, it’s an app!

While Kent and I were cloistered with our kids during months of lockdown last spring, we saw trips and plans blow away like sand. He typically travels to villages where they want to work on their writing system, but we would never want to be part of bringing a remote group Coronavirus. There was no end in sight to the lockdowns, and no guarantees that the pre-COVID world we freely traveled would ever return. We could see that Kent’s alphabet work needed to shift to a certain extent in order to continue. We urgently want to see languages written/recorded before they die out and disappear. We urgently want to see communities have access to important written materials, Scriptures, health manuals, etc.

One afternoon as we were pondering all this, we dreamed up a new thing. What if there was a cell phone app that would allow the rural, local communities to work on their languages without a lot of help and training, and we could consult at least in part, at a distance? We could get a computer program to do much of the work that we would usually do in a workshop setting in a village. We would need something low-bandwidth for Central Africa (where most of the remaining unwritten languages are in this region). We would need something that was easy to use for folks who don’t have computer experience. It would need to handle databases that can archive online. There were several criteria.

We spent a few weeks corresponding with various IT colleagues in our offices around the world, hoping to find that others had already developed something close. There was one program which did part of what we needed, but we soon learned that it would not be supported in the future. There was another more complex program which required extensive training, but sadly it required constant internet access, which does not work in Central Africa. So finally, Kent decided he would just need to learn programming languages and write the program himself.

We named it A to Z and T, as it helps identify the vowels (like A), the consonants (like Z) and the tone system (T) in languages. AZT is a Dictionary Checker, and Orthography Checker and can record and play back audio of each word in the context of phrases (in various tone frames). It has the potential to be able to build alphabet charts or alphabet books. This all used to be done on paper cards sorted into piles. Now the computer does the sorting, but we kept the cards in the logo.

It was amazing to see Kent’s decades of linguistics, phonology and tone research merge with his love of computers, and to see that God wastes nothing. It is ALL useful! Beginning in July, he began to construct the bare bones of the program. Along the way, I consulted on the interface and making it easy to use and easy on the eyes. We have often wished for a way to work together better, but never imagined it would be like this. We spent September and October adding various functions. It is not yet ready for cell phones, but it is working on computers.

And this week Kent is running it with language data for the first time. It could be the birth of a new era in language development. There is a lot of potential yet to come. We are praying that God would use AZT far and wide to accelerate writing systems for unwritten languages throughout Central Africa.

2 thoughts on “A New Thing

  1. This is the second conversation that I’ve been in today regarding the programming of complex situations. Praise God that he has gifted Kent with both linguistic and programming skills. That is a pretty unique combination. This surely speaks of God’s sovereignty in gifting his people to carry out his specific work.

    This year we are studying Genesis in BSF. I thought of the work that you are doing when we came to Babel and God dispersed the people by giving them different languages. What I find interesting is that each persons DNA can be traced back to Adam and Eve, because we all came from Adam and Eve. But when God confused the languages, he made them unique, such that there is no commonality between many of the languages. If God had not performed this miracle, we would find commonality amongst the languages similar to our finding commonality in the gene pool.

    May the Lord continue to bless the work of your hands, heart, soul and intelligence.

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