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Taking Indigenous languages online: can they be seen, heard and saved?

A billabong on SBS website My Grandmother’s Lingo, which takes viewers on an interactive journey through the Marra language. My Grandmother's Lingo

Taking Indigenous languages online: can they be seen, heard and saved?

With our digital world dominated by English, minority and endangered languages struggle to be seen and heard. A new interactive documentary launched online today by SBS, My Grandmother’s Lingo, attempts to add one more language to the mix and raise awareness of the plight of small languages.

In a beautiful, poignant digital installation, Angelina Joshua of Ngukurr guides participants through a sensory-rich tour of her heritage language, Marra, now spoken fully fluently by only three very elderly people.

Angelina explains that she didn’t have the opportunity to learn her own language but is now realising that long-held desire. Her story is enmeshed with her ancestry, and learning Marra as an adult clearly brings Angelina a sense of joy and pride:

It was pretty cool when I first learned my first sentence… My dad if he would’ve been alive and my grandmother, they would have been over the clouds. ‘Gosh, my baby girl can speak Marra’. It’s an amazing feeling.

A strength of My Grandmother’s Lingo is its interactivity, inviting viewers to learn and say a selection of Marra words, evoking the act of breathing life into this imperilled language. Watching a crow soar, we learn its name in Marra: wanggarnanggin. As we repeat the word for house – radburr – we build a community. A new community of Marra speakers, perhaps.

Angelina Joshua, who tells the story of her family and language in My Grandmother’s Lingo. Supplied

Angelina Joshua’s grandmother was one of the last people to learn Marra as a first language. She grew up on her traditional country in the Limmen Bight River district of the Gulf of Carpentaria with little contact with Europeans. At around twelve years of age, in the 1940s, she was brought to the Roper River Mission knowing no English but went on to have a long career as a community health worker. She never forgot her mother tongue.

After her retirement, I, along with a number of her own family members, had the privilege of working with her to document and learn some of her language Marra before she passed away in 2013.

Despite there now being only three people in the world who can tell a story in Marra in expressive detail, Marra and other endangered languages in the area are not disappearing out of sight. The Ngukurr Language Centre – where Angelina works – is a local Aboriginal organisation doing what it can to support the community’s seven or more threatened Aboriginal languages.

As someone who is already attached to the language and the language group, I’m not ashamed to say that I was so emotional on my first viewing of My Grandmother’s Lingo that I could not speak back to my computer until my tears were under control. How will those less attached receive My Grandmother’s Lingo? I’m interested to know.

Can technology really save a language?

With so much of the planet’s linguistic diversity under threat, what role do technology-based projects like My Grandmother’s Lingo have in mitigating the loss of Indigenous languages? It’s a difficult question to answer.

One parameter is resource distribution. When funding to support Indigenous and minority languages is scarce, allocating resources to one project or language means another misses out. How do you prioritise?

A campfire in My Grandmother’s Lingo. Supplied

Is paying a linguist to spend a year compiling a basic dictionary more useful than a year of oral language lessons in a local school? Is a carefully designed commercial publication that took a year to make more useful than a stapled black and white reader run off an office computer that took a week to produce?

Likewise, evaluating project outcomes is tricky. Is quantifying the number of new words and sentences learned the key outcome? Or the skills developed via the process? How can the intangible be assessed, such as the sense of pride and strength a community gains via a great grassroots project?

The glossy end-product of a language project may not reveal much about how community stakeholders benefited from the process. If you come across an article with claims that a language will be “saved” by a new app or website, keep in mind that “apps don’t save languages. People do.

(Note: headlines like those are likely to be examples of journalists inflating the value of the story, not overstated claims made by project participants.)

Finding a place in the digital domain

There is no disputing that Indigenous and minority languages need a place in digital domains if they are to remain vital. The proliferation of social media – including in remote communities – may not be as detrimental to small languages as you may immediately think.

A portal in My Grandmother’s Lingo. Supplied

How we communicate on Facebook and messaging apps is similar to how we talk face-to-face, more so than traditional writing genres of letter-writing and emailing. So Tweeters and Facebookers naturally produce writing that is like spoken language and, hey presto, many people instinctively use their first language on social media. Recent research found, for example, that Nkep speakers in Vanuatu are using technology to extend the use of their language, rather than limit it.

Twitter users can voyeuristically follow global social media activity in small thanks to the ingenious Indigenous Tweets site. Its catalogue of languages and those who tweet in them lets you see who is tweeting in Māori, Tetun or Inuktitut to name just a few.

Technology-based developments for minority languages are not always reliant on well-meaning outsiders. In Nigeria, for example, millions of Yorùbá speakers are faced with their language being dropped from formal education in favour of English.

Technology is a crucial issue for the ongoing health of Yorùbá because computers and devices cannot create the tone markings above and below Yorùbá letters to allow the language to be written properly. Yorùbá writer and linguist Kọlá Túbọsún, is leading the YorubaName.com project, which has, among other things, created keyboards allowing Yorùbá speakers to easily type their language.

But what does a project like My Grandmother’s Lingo mean for the Marra language? It can’t replace the community-embedded work that Angelina does at her local language centre, nor can it claim to be an community-led project like YorubaName.com. It features only five Marra words, so the language learning aspect is largely symbolic. Its main function is to raise awareness of the plight of Marra and other endangered languages, and it does so marvellously.

As a linguist and academic, my preoccupations are with clinically representing and analysing knowledge. My Grandmother’s Lingo’s approach is different. It focuses on making users feel something. By the end, visitors to the site will likely share Angelina’s desire to see the Marra language exist long into the future, in any medium.



You can see My Grandmother’s Lingo here.