FEL grant report: Ambel trilingual dictionary

This is a report by Laura Arnold from University of Edinburgh concerning her project funded by FEL in 2017 (photos (c) 2020 John Flores).

From 2013 to 2018, I carried out a major documentation project of Ambel [ISO-639 code: wgo], an Austronesian language spoken by about 1,600 people in the Raja Ampat archipelago (West Papua province, Indonesia). Ambel is endangered, in that children are no longer learning the language, and the whole speaker community is under increasing pressure from the local variety of Malay.

Right from the beginning of the project, the Ambel community made it clear that they would appreciate a trilingual Ambel-Malay-English dictionary. There were several reasons for this, including:

  • to encourage the younger generations to learn the language;
  • to raise awareness of Ambel with the dominant neighbouring language communities;
  • to facilitate communication with the increasing numbers of western tourists in the region, many of whom do not speak Malay

Using the materials collected in the documentation project, my main Ambel collaborator Martinus Wakaf and I compiled a dictionary of 1,834 Ambel words, with Malay and English translations, and reversal entries. The dictionary also includes a guide on how to use it, written in Indonesian, and a pronunciation guide for the English words. Interested readers can download a PDF of the dictionary here. My other work on Ambel is listed on the publications page of my website.

I applied for funding from FEL to print the dictionaries in hardback, and distribute copies of the dictionaries in the Ambel villages. The plan was then to organise workshops to teach Ambel community members on how to use the dictionary, with one aimed at adults, and a second aimed at children of secondary school-age.

Using these funds, I self-published the dictionaries, and printed 30 hardbound copies. In each of the 11 villages where Ambel is spoken, I gifted one copy of the dictionary to the political head of the village (Indonesian: kepala kampung), and one to the chief elder of the village (Indonesian: bapak adat). In Kapadiri, which was my main fieldsite for the documentation project, I also gave copies to some of the people with whom I had worked most closely; and in Kabare, I gave some copies to a man who intended to hold informal lessons in Ambel language and culture. Finally, I deposited a copy in the library at the Center for Endangered Languages Documentation Universitas Negeri Papua, in Manokwari, the provincial capital, who were my partners during the documentation project.

Unfortunately, I was unable to hold the workshops I’d planned – problems with the UK-based printers and import regulations in Jakarta meant that the dictionaries only arrived in Raja Ampat one week before my visa expired. I haven’t been back to the villages where I distributed the dictionary since then, so I don’t have any first-hand information on whether or how the dictionary is being used.

However, I recently visited Raja Ampat for further fieldwork, to collect data on several other related languages spoken there for another major research project. While there, I met several of my younger Ambel friends in town, who told me that the dictionary is being used. It also seems to be a symbol of prestige, in that they are proud that their language now has a dictionary. For example, my travelling companion on this recent field trip was an Ambel man: whenever the conversation inevitably turned to language vitality in the villages I was working in, he would tell people about the Ambel dictionary, and how it has sparked an interest in the language in the younger generations.

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