Select Page

Visualising Endangered Stories

Illustrated Bilingual Books Save Oral Languages


Jul 3, 2018 | Articles

What do you get when you put an artist together with a linguist? URECA supervisor Assoc Prof Alexander Coupe from NTU’s Linguistics and Multilingual Studies (LMS) and URECA Co-Supervisor Miss Joan Marie Kelly, a Senior Lecturer at NTU’s Art, Design and Media (ADM), have created just this very collaboration.

A Perfect Partnership

Assoc Prof Alec Coupe works with the Ao people, a major tribal community of Nagaland, North East India, to document their threatened language and culture. He first began collecting data in 1996 and lived with the community in 1999. During this time, Assoc Prof Coupe documented their stories – folktales that he later used as a basis for writing the grammar of the Mongsen Ao language — which he eventually wrote about in his dissertation.

Five years ago, Joan Kelly, a visual artist teaching at ADM, met linguist František Kratochvíl who was conducting language documentation work and he introduced her to Assoc Prof Coupe. Miss Kelly hit upon a revelation: researchers from the humanities have access to a wealth of stories that need to be told. Meanwhile, ADM faculty create books and films but they always need content. Linguists documenting indigenous languages inevitably record their folktales and this provides the perfect content for ADM. In particular, the Ao corpus contains many short stories suitable for the time constraints of the URECA program and consequently Miss Kelly decided to mentor a number of students who were working on Ao stories.

This was the origins of a special partnership between LMS and ADM. Creating illustrated, bilingual reading books of village folktales marries artistic skills with linguistic documentation. Linguists like Assoc Prof. Alec Coupe, who work with indigenous groups speaking minority languages, know that spoken languages lacking a written script face serious endangerment in today’s globalised world. Of the approximately 7,000 languages currently known in the world, one dies every two weeks. The disappearance of these languages is not just a linguistic loss but a cultural tragedy.

By producing illustrated books written in the community’s own language, village children can start reading in their own languages and this one step towards saving their mother tongues. To encourage readership among children, the books are made more attractive by the artistic skills of talented ADM students such as Year 3 student Casey Kwokdinata, one of the students who has undertaken a URECA project of this nature. Casey’s project Illustrating Oral Folktales of Indigenous Communities seeks to create visuals for a folktale centred around creatures that can speak.

Empowering Communities

“Giving people a written language is a really good way of empowering them,” Assoc Prof. Coupe explains. To be able to read and write allows the development of pedagogical materials that facilitate language learning. For the Ao tribe in Nagaland, developing a writing system and pedagogical materials also levels the playing field compared to the children in Delhi, who generally have greater access to educational materials. These Hindi-speaking children are also able to learn about their world in their native tongue, another way they have an advantage over the Ao children.

The full benefits and possibilities of this project have yet to be fully realized. The initiative could help maternal health by publishing materials in the local language to teach and educate mothers on pregnancy and how to bring up healthy children. And because of their bilingual nature, the books may even be a first step to introducing indigenous oral languages like Mongsen to English speakers outside of their community, which would be a unique form of cultural exchange. Furthermore, projects like these do not only aid indigenous communities but the ADM students as well. A friend of Assoc Prof Coupe from the Angami tribe was so impressed by the illustrated books that he decided to pay another ADM student to produce some for his own community. In this way ADM undergraduates are supporting minority communities and also establishing their careers.

To date, Assoc Prof. Coupe has completed three collaborative works with ADM under the URECA programme. Miss Kelly has undertaken even more and has produced 14 books, one film and an interactive website. She has worked with linguists such as Lauren Gawne of La Trobe University, Australia, who researches the Syuba people in Nepal. Work on the Syuba language involved the School of Engineering in creating an interactive website of the Syuba language, Nepali and English. Featuring about 1200 words, the website includes a language learning game in which the player walks through a virtual village and meets different people to learn the words. Other collaborations include one with the School of Mathematics, from which a student produced a book with the Syuba people documenting their traditional weaving, an important part of their cultural heritage.

Representing Cultures

Although she focuses on the artistic side of the storybook, ADM student Casey Kwokdinata also has an important role to play in ensuring the culture of the Ao tribe in Nagaland is represented accurately. To make sure that she was portraying them and their animal folktale in a fair and truthful manner, Casey conducted research on animals in North India before embarking on the project. Assoc Prof. Coupe shows her illustrations to the Ao people to ensure that the drawings are culturally appropriate and accurate.

Casey usually studies aesthetics but this project enables her to learn about language documentation and cultural differences. The project is sensitive and does not come without challenges. The researchers are sometimes asked: “Why are you making images of their cultural heritage? Why not help the indigenous people to do the drawings themselves instead of just approving and giving feedback?”

One consideration is that ADM and LMS have the resources to create a finished product that the indigenous people can hold as a physical representation of their culture and one that comes to mean a lot to the communities. Many tribes are poor and many of the villagers work from morning to night just to survive. Their children walk for two hours every morning to get to school. Furthermore, using the films and documentation provided by the linguists, the ADM students can transfer images of the people, houses and landscapes directly into the book or film. When the people of these indigenous groups recognise themselves and their home, they identify with the books and their own stories. This makes the books that much more meaningful for them. Recalling a visit to Nagaland with Assoc Prof. Coupe, Miss Kelly recounted how the Naga people loved the book so much that they hugged and kissed the gratified content creators. Assoc Prof. Alec Coupe says “I earned my doctorate and established my career by working on these languages, so it is satisfying to be able to give something back to the communities that helped me with my research. It is also particularly gratifying to see someone read in their own language for the very first time.”

Even so, visualising and drawing someone else’s culture will always be a daunting task and is no trivial responsibility. The key for Casey is to ensure that she has conducted research into all the relevant background information she might need and to communicate well with Assoc Prof. Coupe and the Ao people. This way, she can receive comments, constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement, thereby avoiding any misinterpretation of culture.

URECA ADM students who have worked on projects involving the Angami people have a slightly different way of ensuring accuracy of cultural representation; they work directly with the Angami community right here in Singapore. Their proximity means that the students can actually meet the community, show the drawings to them in person, and receive feedback directly. This arrangement not only gives the students greater confidence in their work but also fosters a special connection between them and the Angamis.


Folktales of indigenous communities are passed down orally for generations. By introducing a writing system and illustrating their folktales, an integral component of the community’s culture and history is preserved. This collaboration is a deeply rewarding venture for Assoc Prof. Coupe, Miss Kelly and Casey. Clearly, they aren’t just making children’s picture books but making a difference to culture and the life of the community.