Kupu, a groundbreaking app that teaches the Māori language, is scaling up to schools

The internet’s first code was written in English, and as it has taken over global communications, English has become the default language online for many people. But as a result, smaller indigenous languages are suffering.

But just as technology has helped English spread, it can also be used to support indigenous languages. That’s exactly the idea behind Kupu, a picture-taking app that uses Google’s image-recognition software to show Kiwis the Māori words for the objects around them. You take a photo, and the app provides a list of Māori words that identify the objects in the image. Kupu, which launched in September of last year, received more than 250,000 downloads in its first few weeks, has done 4.5 million image translations today, and won national recognition with the 2018 Supreme Māori Language Award.

This week, Kupu is getting an update, just in time for the country’s Māori Language Week—and Fast Company‘s Innovation by Design awards, for which Kupu is the 2019 winner in the learning category. While Kupu was already being used in schools, the app’s new version will be compatible with tablets (which are more popular for educational use than phones) and online, with a new web-based application.

The app will also feature a new section where users can save translations that they want to return to. They’ll also be able to set notifications to help with learning new Māori words over time. Users can now use their front-facing camera in the app to see what Kupu thinks of their selfies as well.

[Image: Kupu]

Kupu got its start in a brainstorming session between Google’s Sydney office, the New Zealand telecom provider Spark, and the digital agency Colenso BBDO. Dean Pomfrett, the design director at Colenso who designed the app, decided to create a user experience that was simple and friendly. While initially the prototype showed the top 30 objects that Google’s API thought were in the image the user has taken, Pomfrett decided to only show the top handful of results. But while the image recognition piece was working, the initial prototype relied on Google Translate, which the team quickly realized wasn’t very accurate in Māori. Instead, they decided to use the Te Aka Maori Dictionary, a digital compendium of translations run by researchers at the Te Ipukarea Research Institute. Pomfrett and the Colenso team also worked with Māori tribes called Iwi to ensure that the app was culturally appropriate.

[Image: Kupu]

While this dictionary is a more accurate source of knowledge than Google Translate, the app still provides room for users to leave feedback about translations, especially because different regions of New Zealand use different Māori words for particular objects. All this feedback goes back to the researchers behind Te Aka, who then make decisions about what to add to the dictionary. The dictionary is also richer than just word meanings, and Pomfrett hopes that Kupu will one day also feature some of the history and stories behind various words alongside their spelling.

Ultimately, Kupu isn’t a fully fledged language learning tool. Instead, it’s designed to increase the vocabularies of Kiwis. “Right now, there might be 100 Māori words in common usage for every Kiwi, words like mana [which roughly translates as status or prestige] that everyone knows and uses,” says Dan Wright, the executive creative director at Colenso. “Our goal for Kupu is that it’s popularizing a selection of words from the Māori language so that 100 words is 1,000 words in a couple years.”

The Colenso team has a long list of goals for where Kupu can go from here. For instance, the team wants to integrate Kupu into social media sharing through stickers in Instagram Stories or Snapchat and to make it easier to learn pronunciations by adding sound to the app.

It’s projects like Kupu that give indigenous languages a chance in an English-dominated internet.

“There is a sense, as a young country like New Zealand that starts to grow in terms of pride and confidence . . . that we need to own all of that, that we need to be unified and protecting our identity,” Wright says. “Māori culture is a huge part of that identity.”



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