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Cambridge researcher develops smartphone app to map Swiss-German dialects

Researchers at the Universities of Cambridge, Zurich and Bern have developed a smartphone app to crowdsource and map Swiss-German dialects, a recent paper in PLOS One reports

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Cambridge

Map of Language Distribution in Switzerland

image: This is a map showing the distribution of languages in Switzerland. view more 

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How do you like those Apfelüberrests? Cambridge researcher develops smartphone app to map Swiss-German dialects

Researchers at the Universities of Cambridge, Zurich and Bern have developed a smartphone app to crowdsource and map Swiss-German dialects, a recent paper in PLOS One reports.

Researchers from the Universities of Cambridge, Zurich and Bern have taken advantage of "crowdsourcing" to gather new information on the spread of dialects in German-speaking Switzerland, which has been recently published as a paper in PLOS One.

Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining information by gathering contributions from a large group of people, especially online. It capitalizes on the principle that "none of us is as smart as all of us".

One of the first accounts of collecting data about languages using what we would now know as crowdsourcing was the German dialect survey conducted by Georg Wenker in the 19th century. Now, over a century and a half later, Dr Adrian Leemann of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues have updated Wenker's ideas and developed an online smartphone-based app to gather information on Swiss-German dialects.

The Dialäkt Äpp, freely available for iOS devices is based on a simple 16 question survey which can be taken in a matter of minutes on your phone. From this, the app predicts a user's home dialect location, which they can then confirm or alter to reflect their real location. Underlying the 16 questions are 16 maps from the Linguistic Atlas of German-Speaking Switzerland, which documents language use in Switzerland around 70 years ago. This allows Leemann and his team to determine how dialects have changed and developed over this time.

The app has proven very successful, and has been downloaded over 90,000 times, becoming the most popular free smartphone app in Switzerland upon its release. The app remained in the top three German educational apps in Switzerland for several months.

The potential to map dialects in this way taps into public interest in local history and culture, both in Switzerland and elsewhere. Shortly after the app's release, the New York Times published their own online Dialect Quiz, to predict a user's form of American English. The quiz swiftly became the most popular content for the Times for the year. A version of the app has also been produced for use in the UK, and has proven popular amongst English speakers, who can decide between terms such as "splinter" or "spool" to describe a small shard of wood, or attempt to settle the long-held argument about how to pronounce "scone".

Dr Leemann said:

"The use of crowdsourcing methods to investigate language change is, at present, unusual. Generally, scholars of language work with very small samples of speakers, in one or just a few locations. Crowdsourcing apps like this one have the potential to complement existing data collection techniques and to provide evidence that the traditional method cannot hope to gather".

The Swiss-German app uses a set of key words to predict where a user comes from. For instance, the word Äpfelüberrest (apple core) has local dialect variants including Bütschgi and Grölbschi, depending on where in Switzerland you are. The greatest numbers of Swiss German speakers were found in Zurich, Bern and Aargau. The app revealed that "prediction accuracy", the likelihood of a user's dialect matching the maps from the Linguistic Atlas, was higher among older speakers, especially those over 60. The worst predictions were for those aged 15-20, indicating how local dialects have changed, particularly in younger generations.

"These mismatches between the Atlas data and self-reported data from the app suggest linguistic change in progress", Leemann said. "Greater mobility, and modern mass-media, increases the range of variant dialects that people may come into contact with, which favours the transmission of more frequently used and geographically widespread variants of the language over rarer and more isolated dialects".

Dr Leemann said: "At the time we did not suspect that this would open up a new research paradigm for collecting vast amounts of dialect data. We wanted to create an app that conveys that fascination the Swiss have with dialects and smartphone devices (there are probably very few countries in the world where the density of iPhones is higher than in Switzerland). The app enables a playful exploration of Swiss-German dialects with modern day, fun and easy to use technology".

The use of smartphone apps for social and scientific research potentially heralds a new era in linguistics. Similar apps, based on the same principles and architecture, have been developed for other languages including American English, British English and Austrian and German dialects of German. Apps for French and Japanese dialects are currently under development by Leemann and his team.


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