Yup’ik engineers team up to build Yugtun language learning apps

wo men smile at a camera in front of a rirver
Lonny Alaskuk Strunk (left) and Christopher Egalaaq Liu (right) in Seattle in 2018. (Christopher Egalaaq Liu)

Two Yup’ik engineers are carrying Yugtun, the Central Alaskan Yup’ik language, into the future using technology. Their latest project opens the door for a Yugtun autocorrect, grammar checkers and automatic subtitles on Yup’ik videos.

There are only a handful of Yup’ik computer scientists in the world, according to Christopher Egalaaq Liu of Bethel and Lonny Alaskuk Strunk of Quinhagak. The pair have teamed up to create what’s likely the most advanced Yugtun translation tool available online.

“There’s nothing like it,” Liu said. “It’s the first tool of its kind.”

Yugtun is the most widely spoken Alaska Native language. About 10,000 in the Bethel region are speakers, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Liu created the first version of yugtun.com, a simple online Yugtun-English dictionary, and presented it at the 2018 Alaska Federation of Natives convention. Liu said the new version of the website he built with Strunk and another friend can translate complex Yugtun words and even full sentences.

Take, for instance, the word “elitnaurvigmi.”

Liu explained that elitnaurvigmi, like most Yugtun words, has different parts to it: a base and an ending.

“‘Elitnaurvig’ for school and ‘mi.’ So, in or at the one school,” Liu said. “Previously we had no way, except by really someone who had studied linguistics, to be able to break down the word into its components.”

The website breaks down Yugtun words and sentences using technology Strunk developed during his master’s program in computational linguistics at the University of Washington. After completing his first major project combining Yugtun and technology, Strunk is already looking ahead.

“My main purpose right now is to have Yup’ik as a first-class language on the internet,” Strunk said.

That means creating Yugtun spell checkers, grammar checkers, and having websites displayed in Yugtun. Strunk and Liu plan to continue working together on future projects, given two shared skill sets: proficiency in Yugtun and computer science.

“Lonny is the only other computer scientist I know who’s Yup’ik,” Liu said. “Like, we’re the only, as far as I know. I don’t know anyone.”

Liu and Strunk both developed expertise in technology before language. From an early age, they each loved math and studied coding after high school. But something tugged at each of them, calling them closer to their heritage.

For Strunk, it came when he was studying abroad in Japan.

“And I got to the point where I was better at speaking Japanese than I was speaking Yup’ik, and it was kind of shameful for me,” Strunk said. “Just a shock that my own heritage language isn’t as strong, speaking-wise.”

He started supplementing his computer science degree with Yugtun classes.

Liu’s passion for Yugtun was ignited after taking a class with Dr. Walkie Charles at the Alaska Native Heritage Center when he learned Yugtun follows strict linguistic rules.

“I had no idea that there was this mathematically based system or these formal rules you can follow to form the Yugtun words,” Liu said. “It’s like the combination of math and Yup’ik.”

Liu and Strunk discovered they could use their math-centric brains to study Yugtun, help others learn it, and advance the language into the age of technology.

Liu has developed two mobile apps for the Lower Kuskokwim School District to help students learn Yup’ik. One is Yugtun LKSD and the other is Naaqerkat, which means “Books”. It guides students through Yugtun picture books.

Strunk hopes building Yugtun technology will support more Yugtun learners and educators.

“Knowing the language is such a big part of culture and identity, and knowing the language also brings in the Yup’ik worldview,” Strunk said. “Being able to access that knowledge and that worldview is so important.”

Liu and Strunk said they’re not operating out of fear of losing their language. Instead, they’re focused on helping people like them: Young people who want to become stronger in their language and forge deeper connections to their culture and heritage.

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