Angelina Joshua in Ngukurr (Photo by Elise Derwin)
According to the UN, around half the languages currently spoken on the planet will die out by the turn of the century. That could mean up to 2,500 languages, or more. In Australia, a record number have already disappeared, and around 90 per cent are endangered. My Grandmother’s Lingo, an SBS digital media project, takes a step toward preventing that loss by documenting the Marra language, and enabling others to learn it too. The project builds on Angelina Joshua’s efforts to preserve her grandmother’s Indigenous tongue, and it recently won a 2017 Webby Award for Best Use of Interactive Video. We caught up with SBS producer Gina McKeon to find out how the project came about, what the response has been, and why preserving Australia’s Indigenous languages is so important. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you explain a little about how the site works?
My Grandmother’s Lingo is an online interactive documentary that combines voice-activated technology, animation and gaming to tell the story of Angelina Joshua. When you come to the site you are prompted to use your voice to unlock chapters in Angelina’s story. You play an active role in telling the story, and you interact with Angelina along the way.
“We also wanted to explore the global crisis that is language loss – Australia arguably has the highest rate of loss, with more than 90 per cent of Aboriginal languages critically endangered.”
How did you meet Angelina Joshua?
I met Angelina when I was working in the Northern Territory in Australia. I met her via a mutual contact who said, ‘You have to meet Angelina, she’s an incredible person’. And they were right. I spoke with Angelina on the phone a few times before I drove the seven hours from Darwin to her community, Ngukurr, where we hung out for a few days and I interviewed her.
How did My Grandmother’s Lingo come about?
I had the audio interviews I’d done with Angelina, which were originally made to go with a photo essay, but when I started working at SBS, I wanted to explore the idea of creating an interactive animation with the recordings. After initial concept meetings with the team at SBS, the idea slowly evolved into being a voice-activated, interactive animation. We got on board the animator, Jake Duczynski, who took the audio and the idea, and created the beautiful animations you see in the story. The creative developer, Boris Etingof, and I then worked closely with Jake to develop these animations into an interactive format. Boris is a wizard and weaved it all together with the voice-activation technology. At a later stage, we worked with the sound designer, Martin Peralta, and composer, Kuren, on creating the lush soundscape that really brings it to life and immerses you in Angelina’s story.
Why did you want to make this project?
I was so blown away after meeting Angelina in Ngukurr. She’s such a determined, passionate person who is working incredibly hard to help preserve her language (not just Marra either: she knows and is learning seven languages!). We also wanted to explore the global crisis that is language loss – Australia arguably has the highest rate of loss, with more than 90 per cent of Aboriginal languages critically endangered – and give Angelina a platform to tell her story as a young Aboriginal person living in a remote community who is working to preserve her culture through her language against the challenges she has faced. And we also wanted to innovate in how we told the story by pushing the boundaries of the documentary and online interactive genres by wagering that a story can use technology to help to preserve an Aboriginal language on the brink of extinction, and engage new and young audiences across Australia and around the world in a subject that might otherwise have limited appeal.
What sort of response has it gotten?
The response has been fantastic. It’s much bigger than we ever could have imagined. It’s really resonated with people across Australia and is now being taught in schools as part of the curriculum. It was also great to be recognised by our industry here when it took home the 2016 Multimedia Storytelling gong at Australia’s most prestigious journalism awards, the Walkleys. The international response has really blown us away though: Angelina and the team at Ngukurr Language Centre have received emails from all over, including one from a member of a community in remote Canada, I believe, saying the story hit home for them. It’s been such a big few months since launch: it’s won FWA Site of the Day, Awwwards Site of the Day, a SXSW Award, and now won a Webby Award. Someone came up to us when we were showing the story at the SXSW Innovation Expo Day and said it was now being taught in her class at UCLA! So, yes, it’s crazy wonderful to see how far the site is travelling and knowing people are really engaging with the story.