Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

James T. Collins
James T. Collins

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

September 14, 2009

Center for Southeast Asian Studies wins
$534,000 grant to create online dictionary of Malay

DeKalb, Ill. — Malaysia boasts the oldest written language in Southeast Asia, a growing modern economy, a population of more than 27 million people and a cordial relationship with its frequent trading partner, the United States.

Yet, no American universities teach the Malay language on a regular basis, and the best English-to-Malay dictionary was written more than a century ago, according to James T. Collins, director of NIU's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Led by Collins, the center is working to fill a critical need by building a high-quality multimedia online learner’s dictionary of modern Malay. The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded NIU with a grant of $534,000 over three years for the project.

“There has been no new Malay-English dictionary for quite some time, and online resources currently are very limited and sometimes inaccurate,” Collins says.

A linguist, Collins has worked in Malaysia and Indonesia since 1968. He lived and taught in Malaysia for the previous 14 years before coming to NIU in 2008 and is considered among the foremost authorities in the United States on the Malay language and dictionary creation.

“The Malay language was established as a written language 1,300 years ago, giving it the same historical depth as English,” Collins says. “But it has been neglected in Southeast Asian studies in the United States.

“That’s a deficit that needs to be remedied, given the actual importance of the language, not only in Malaysia and Brunei, but also regionally and historically,” he says. “The historical role of Malay culture and language is of central importance to understanding the development of world trade, the world’s modern commercial system and the present powerful trend toward globalization.”

The new dictionary will be available on SEAsite, an NIU-operated interactive Web site that already offers language and culture training programs in Burmese, Indonesian, Khmer, Lao, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Thai. First established in 1997, SEAsite is among the most-used free resources for Southeast Asian languages and culture on the Web.

The Malay dictionary project team members all have special expertise in online dictionary creation or Malaysia. In addition to Collins, they include NIU Professors Jim Henry and Robert Zerwekh in computer science, Patricia Henry in foreign languages and literatures and Eric Jones in history. NIU undergraduates and graduate students, along with a native speaker of Malay, will be hired to assist with the project as well.

The Malay dictionary will eventually have as many as 8,000 entries and boast audio pronunciations, photographs and video to help put word usage into context. It also will possess an encyclopedic quality, allowing users to click to find embedded additional information within the site.

“This is going to be linguistically more sophisticated than our other language sites and will also include multimedia elements,” says Jim Henry, who invented SEAsite’s online dictionary technology and further developed it with Zerwekh. “We’re also actually going to collect current materials in Malaysia—such as pictures, videos or examples of language usage—rather than depend exclusively on existing materials or things that have been done in the past.”

Henry says SEAsite’s past efforts have been extremely successful. The language areas of the site get thousands of hits each day from across the globe.

“The language resources on SEAsite are primarily used by scholars and students of Southeast Asia, but they’re also used by government workers, military personnel, tourists and a wide variety of others who, for whatever reason, are seeking language instruction,” Henry says.

“We’re like a radio station—we broadcast our product over the Internet. But we have no way to specifically identify audience members. We do know SEAsite reaches a lot of people.”

The new online dictionary is part of a larger effort by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies to develop SEAsite resources on Malaysia and Brunei. The university also hopes to expand classroom offerings in the area of study.

“We’ve occasionally taught courses in the language of Malay at NIU in the past—in fact I’m teaching one this semester,” Collins says. “But the courses all have been at the intermediate and advanced levels, typically for those already fluent in Indonesian, which has some similarities. We want to teach the language on a regular basis and hope to offer an introductory course in Malay as soon as next fall.”

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