With an estimated 90 percent of the indigenous languages in Australia now endangered, that cultural knowledge could disappear within three decades. My Grandmother’s Lingo is an interactive animation where you progress to the next chapter by speaking a word from the Aboriginal Marra language, thus breathing life into a language that’s spoken fluently by just three people.
The roughly 10-minute experience was launched this month by the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), an Australian public media network. It’s part game, part documentary, as it follows the story of Angelina Joshua of Ngukurr in southeast Arnhem Land to rediscover her grandmother’s language. According to First Languages Australia, in the late 18th century there were somewhere between 350 and 750 languages in Australia. Much like how colonialism in the United States and Indian boarding schools prohibited indigenous languages, many Aboriginal languages in Australia were similarly lost under oppressive government regulations. Similar to the 2014 release Never Alone, based on Inupiat culture, My Grandmother’s Lingo considers how gaming technology (here voice-activated interactions) can engage diverse users with underrepresented indigenous stories.
Joshua, who also works at the Ngukurr Language Centre, collaborated with illustrator Jake Duczynski, who is Gamilaroi, and musician Kuren, who is Wiradjuri. “This story needs your voice,” the first screen reads, and as it progresses you learn the word for “black crow”(“Wanggarnanggin”), “river” (“balba”), and other fragments of Marra, the bird flying faster and the river flowing farther with each enunciation.
At the conclusion, you can pin your location on a map, adding a star to the constellation of places where Marra has now been spoken. It’s not a language lesson — you won’t leave My Grandmother’s Lingo with any full sentences — yet it brings a humanity to a culture and its language through the simple action of asking you to say its vanishing words aloud.