June 2020 Field Report – First Amazonian indigenous dictionary phone app and more

Acaté and Matsés Complete First Dictionary Phone App for an Amazonian Indigenous Language

In the latest from our ongoing initiative with the Matsés to support bilingual education and intergeneration transfer of ecological knowledge, Dr. David Fleck reports on the milestone development of the first-ever dictionary phone app created for an Amazonian indigenous language, an extraordinary illustrated taxonomic encyclopedia of rainforest animals developed for cell phone, and more.

The Matsés are in many ways the most traditionally conservative indigenous group in Peru, yet a traveler might be surprised to observe the widespread use of cellular telephones in Matsés villages, particularly among the youth. Young adults hand down their outdated phones to children. While not all Matsés own one, they all have access to them and, despite the lack of internet or cell phone service in Matsés territory, they spend a lot of time using cell phones to listen to music, watch videos, take and edit photos, and play video games. This is actually a trend in indigenous communities throughout the world, mirroring non-indigenous communities. Linguists are taking advantage of this technological opportunity to create dictionary applications and other electronic pedagogical materials for indigenous languages.

In November 2019, Acaté Amazon Conservation completed the Matsés-Spanish-English dictionary application for use on cellular telephone (only Android phones, for now), which can be downloaded for free from the Google Play Store. This is represents an important milestone as the first dictionary phone application created for an Amazonian language. The Matsés dictionary app is not simply a digitized word list, but one of the most comprehensive and well-organized dictionaries available for any language that lacks a long written tradition. The dictionary is based on 25 years of lexicographic work by linguist David Fleck in collaboration with Matsés speakers.

Features that make Acaté’s dictionary app a sophisticated reference and a useful pedagogical tool include:

  • 794 color illustrations, all drawn by Matsés artist Guillermo Nëcca Pëmen Mënquë

  • Definitions in standard Spanish, the local (Loreto) dialect of Spanish (when different from standard Spanish), and English

  • Matsés, standard Spanish, local Spanish, and English indexes, all with search functions

  • Scientific names of almost all plants and animals

  • Cross-reference links to synonymous entries and variant forms

  • Sample sentences with Spanish translation

  • Notes on usage, grammar and cultural relevance

  • Includes archaic words, newly coined words, and phonologically-modified borrowings from Spanish (with notes indicating these categories)

Composite of two screenshots from the dictionary app illustrating synonyms and sample sentence ©Acaté

matsés dictionary app

Composite of two screenshots from the app illustrating notes ©Acaté

matsés dictionary app

Screenshot example of Spanish index and entry illustrating scientific names and search features ©Acaté

Of course, there is no such thing as a complete or final dictionary. There is always more that can be added and revised. In particular, Acaté would like to produce a second edition of our dictionary application that would include audio files associated with words and their definitions, more illustrations, definitions in Portuguese (since one third of the Matsés reside across the river in Brazil), and incorporation of feedback from the Matsés from this first version.

Matsés taxonomic book

    Matsés Taxonomic Encyclopedia of Rainforest Animals for Cell Phone

    Another extraordinary electronic pedagogical resource created as part of this project is a comprehensive encyclopedia illustrating all of the types of animals present in Matsés territory in taxonomic order. This book, formatted for viewing on Android-platform cell phones, introduces students to taxonomy using the fauna with which they are familiar, helps them learn the Matsés names of the lesser-known animals in their territory, teaches the local Spanish names, and can also be used to learn early (word-level) reading skills.

    Excerpt from taxonomic encyclopedia

    Excerpt from taxonomic encyclopedia ©Acaté

    The 125 page taxonomic book contains 480 animals, all illustrated by Guillermo Nëcca Pëmen Mënquë. The book was written based on many years of work with Matsés elders matching their names for animals with scientific taxonomic names, when living with the Matsés. This year we are planning to add sound files to the book. 

    taxonomic encyclopedia

    Excerpt from taxonomic encyclopedia

    Excerpts from taxonomic encyclopedia ©Acaté

    Advanced Introduction to the Ecology of Birds

    The third product of this phase of Acaté’s education initiative over this past year is a 101-page book on bird ecology, which has been printed and is available as a pdf as well.

    Matsés bird ecology

    This book forms part of our ongoing publication of ecological readers, designed to facilitate the intergenerational transfer of traditional ecological knowledge and assist Matses students in learning to read. More than doubling the amount of native language books available for Matsés children, each volume features watercolor drawing by Matsés artist Guillermo Nëcca Pëmen Mënquë and natural history information provided by Matsés elders in the Matses language with a Spanish translation.

    Owl excerptThe Advanced Reader series, initially piloted in the Advanced Introduction to the Ecology of Mammals, is designed for 4th to 6th grade students and conveys a greater depth of ecological information than the elementary readers which are designed for Matsés children in early primary school. 

    Distributing the ecology readers

    Distributing the ecology readers ©Acaté

    Distributing the ecology readers

    We would like to express our gratitude to Nouvelle Planète who generously financed this project.

    Dr. David Fleck

    Dr. David Fleck in the Matsés community of Estiron ©Acaté

    Acaté Amazon Conservation is a non-profit organization based in the United States and Perú that operates in a true and transparent partnership with the Matsés people of the Peruvian Amazon to maintain their self-sufficiency and way of life. Operating at the leading edge of conservation, our initiatives have included the first indigenous medicine encyclopedia as well as projects with original methodology in sustainable economic development, traditional medicine, medicinal agroforestry, nutritional diversity, regenerative agriculture, biodiversity inventory, education, and native language literacy. Donations are tax-deductible and go directly to fund these on-the-ground initiatives that operate with unparalleled transparency.

    If you missed it, take a look at our December 2019 Field Report on the landmark completion of the five-year Matsés Indigenous Mapping Initiative in which the Matsés mapped and demarcated for the first time their entire ancestral territories in Peru. The resulting maps, written in their language, are comprehensive cartographic records of their ancestral territory, history, land use and culture. This extraordinary accomplishment by the Matsés was reported on by leading environmental news site Mongabay.com as well as in a must-see video short produced by our partners at Xapiri:



    All content and images copyright 2020 Acaté

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