Bethel native works to program a “Yup’ik Siri”

(Photo courtesy of Christopher Liu)

YK Delta communities are keeping Yup’ik alive through immersion schools, bilingual media, teacher training programs, and speaking the language at home. And now, Bethel native Christopher Liu is doing his part to bring his language into the 21st century.

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Liu is a grad student at Stanford who is studying electrical engineering and specializes in speech processing and optimization. He’s interning at NASA this summer, working to determine the best pathway for their new orbiter’s long trip to Mars. And when he’s not crunching numbers at NASA, Liu’s training a computer program to recognize Yup’ik speech.

When asked if he was trying to build a Yup’ik Siri, Liu laughed.

“I think that’s the hope,” Liu said.

Liu’s mother is from Nunapitchuk and he attended Ayaprun Elitnaurvik as a child in Bethel. In an era of smartphones and increased globalization, he hopes that his speech recognition program will help bring Yup’ik into the Internet Age.

“Many other people in my generation don’t speak Yup’ik anymore,” Liu said. “And everyone’s checked into their phones and English media. Having access to Yup’ik through technology is one way of allowing it to persist and making it easier to use.”

Liu’s project faces a number of challenges. Existing speech recognition programs struggle with Yup’ik.

“There are sounds in Yup’ik that don’t exist in English,” Liu explained, “which is why you can’t just speak in Yup’ik to an English Siri.”

And in comparison to many other languages, Yup’ik’s grammatical structure is also unique.

“You can basically fit two sentences of English into one word of Yup’ik, sometimes,” Liu said. “So, the English sentence ‘do you want to play cards?’ In Yup’ik, that’s a single word.”

Christopher is training the program to recognize Yup’ik from scratch, and that means it needs data. If Christopher’s going to build “Yup’ik Siri,” he needs to compile 100 hours of recorded, fully transcribed conversations to feed into the software. He’s asking Calista, the Lower Kuskowkim School District and other local organizations for help.

“I’ve been fortunate to receive some recordings from KYUK of their Yup’ik newscasts and Yuk to Yuk,” Liu said. “If everyone worked together to get all the recordings together, it could be very helpful.”

It’s still not clear if Christopher’s program is going to work. He says that it’s a process of trial and error, starting from scratch and learning from your mistakes. It can get tedious, but as Christopher goes through hours of tapes, he says that his own Yup’ik is improving.

“I’ve had fun listening to old tapes and old recordings of elders,” Liu said. “I get a chance to learn more about traditional knowledge. I always think of Ellam Yua. I still don’t know yet what it means fully, but that was the religion that existed here before Christianity. And I’m still trying to learn what that means. I think I should know what it means.”