Student creates Chamorro-Carolinian Braille system

Posted on Mar 11 2021

Harris Mowbray, an International Relations major at American University, Washington, D.C., recently took a year off from school to use his programming and linguistic skills to create a Braille system for the Chamorro and Carolinian alphabets, paving the way for giving blind people in the Chamorro and Carolinian communities the ability to read.

“I imagine that the Bible will probably be the first thing printed in Chamorro/Carolinian Braille, but it can also be used to let blind people navigate the internet, write things down, and even send text messages,” he said.

Despite having never been to Guam nor the Northern Mariana Islands, or even meeting anyone from Guam or the CNMI, Mowbray said he was able to research everything he needed to know about the history, culture, and languages of the islands from Wikipedia. After his experience with the project, Mowbray said he certainly wants to visit the CNMI and Guam when it’s already safe to travel.

Mowbray taught himself programming and linguistics when he was in high school, motivated in large part by his personal interest. Yet despite not having any formal education or work experience in linguistics, Mowbray was hired to use programming to help a Native American tribe revitalize their endangered language so that everyone in the community could learn the language. To do this, Mowbray learned how to read Braille and developed a way on how to write their alphabet in Braille, so that the blind can read. It took Mowbray a couple of months before he fully understood how many other languages need Braille standards and lack them, including languages with tens of millions of speakers.

Harris Mowbray

In less than two months, Mowbray managed to create about 40 Braille alphabets for smaller languages around the world and tried to reach out to the speaker community to get them to adopt it.

“It’s extremely hard to reach the people in charge and advance through the bureaucracy of a foreign country. So far, five to six languages have accepted my Braille proposals so far, but they are all very small, although much larger languages are in the process of considering my Braille proposals,” said Mowbray.

He then systematically searched the internet for languages that contain rare characters (such as Chamorro’s “å” and Carolinian’s “ė”) and that led him to the indigenous languages of the CNMI and Guam, with the goal of developing Braille standards if they don’t exist yet.

Mowbray said his goal is simply to help as many people around the world as possible through this project. He also said he earns no money from this project but also it doesn’t cost him anything to do.

“I just want to use my skills to improve the world [by] assisting minority language communities as well as visually-impaired individuals,” Mowbray said.

He is far from being done, though. Mowbray said he needs the help of authorities who “regulate” the Chamorro and Carolinian languages to approve the standards so that Braille books can begin to be printed. He said this does not require funding; he just needs the help of these language experts to recommend or make any changes in the books beforehand. He is confident, though, his proposals are very good and were created in a logical way.

Mowbray said that he made Chamorro and Carolinian Braille around a week and a half ago. It took him under 20 minutes to complete both of them.

“I am pretty experienced at making Braille alphabets at this point and I have a program that helps me, which speed things up,” said Mowbray, “I have been making Braille alphabets since mid-January. I made my first three Braille standards in November/December but I hadn’t realized the potential scale of the project at that point and I was very slow at it.”

He said nobody else is involved in his project other than himself. “I just want the government and language authorities to go over my project and approve it, ideally very quickly because it’s not that complicated and it would be best to start using it as soon as possible,” he said. “I hope that the Chamorro and Carolinian communities accept my project and start using it. …I have other ideas [that] I believe can help these two languages, which I would like to discuss with the language authorities in order to help the language. I also want to spread this project to cover more languages in the Pacific such as Marshallese and Nauruan,” said Mowbray.

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