Interactive journalism fights Indigenous language loss

How do you keep your audience’s attention through long-form pieces? Gina McKeon and the team producing SBS’s new online interactive documentary, “My Grandmother’s Lingo” — which won the 2016 Walkley Award for multimedia storytelling — carved out three core elements: a strong personal story, an issue of critical importance and a surprising format. Illustrations by Jake Duczynski.

It’s said that around the world a language disappears every two weeks. Australia arguably has the highest rate of loss, with more than 90 per cent of Aboriginal languages critically endangered. Like many young Indigenous people these days, Angelina Joshua didn’t grow up speaking her language, Marra. In her community, there are only three elders fluent in Marra left. Marra is one of the most critically endangered languages in the world.

The idea for “My Grandmother’s Lingo” came from spending time with Angelina in her community, Ngukurr, a small town on the Roper River in remote East Arnhem Land. I spoke with Angelina leading up to the trip, and once there, spent time recording and hanging out in town. During these long conversations and interviews, Angelina’s sense of humour, determination and passion emerged. Her character feeds into and is shaped by her tireless work learning and preserving Marra at the Ngukurr Language Centre. That is what we aimed to capture in the story, so these candid interviews — Angelina’s narration — form the spine of the interactive.

We also wanted to involve other Indigenous storytellers in the production. These included the animator, Jake Duczynski, and composer, Curtis (Kuren) Kennedy.

Jake is from the Kamilaroi nation and is now based in the Illawarra region south of Sydney, and even though he lives across the country from Angelina, he found her story really hit home.

“We’re the Kamilaroi mob,” Jake explained in an interview with NITV. “We had a similar story, in that a lot of our language is lost and the only remaining evidence of the language existed within the elders of our community – including my grandmother, who’s passed on now.”

Like many young Indigenous people these days, Angelina Joshua didn’t grow up speaking her language, Marra.

Growing up, Jake Duczynski was exposed to the language of his grandmother, but as with many other kids, never got the chance to learn it fluently.

“I think that’s why it the project resonated with me,” he explains. “The fact that it was this young girl who was similar to us — she was a little bit naïve when she was younger and was like, ‘I don’t need to worry about that.’”

Jake says his inspiration for the animation came from rock and early paintings. “I just tried to incorporate that authenticity into the animations.”

Consultation was an particularly important step in the production of “My Grandmother’s Lingo”. As is common for journalists visiting communities in the Territory, I had visited Angelina to record in Ngukurr but then returned to Sydney to finish the story. Ensuring the story was an accurate portrayal of her life and community was essential, and central to this was how Jake would interpret her story visually.

It wasn’t always an easy process for Jake. Not being from the Ngukurr region, he learned a lot along the way in talks with collaborators at NITV and people from the region about the significance of certain symbols and animals to the community up there.

“What we learnt was that you can’t just draw a collection of symbols and have them represent a community, when those symbols also mean something else to another community,” says Jake.

It hit me how important it really was to keep the languages going that have been around for years and pass it down from generation to generation.

A lot of the symbols they drew “were our own representations of animals in the area, which are part of people’s stories, and sometimes totems to people in the area”.

Angelina remained heavily involved throughout every stage of the production. This meant lengthy consultation with her elders and artists from the region to ensure her story, and the story of their language, was being represented accurately. Jake worked with Ngukurr artists Karen Rogers and Alan Joshua in developing his designs.

Curtis “Kuren” Kennedy, an 18-year-old musician, got involved to soundtrack the story.

“I thought the idea of it was really inspiring … and it’s a great feeling to be a part of it and try and do something about it,” says the Wiradjuri musician of “My Grandmother’s Lingo”. “I really didn’t think about [language loss] until it came across my desk … It hit me how important it really was to keep the languages going that have been around for years and pass it down from generation to generation.”

Along with Angelina’s vocals, Kuren’s ethereal sound design can be heard throughout, combining his signature electronic sound with a gentler beat and incorporating the traditional sounds of indigenous music.

As Kuren’s soundtrack interweaves with Angelina’s story and Jake’s stunning illustrated animations, the story aims to engage a new generation of Australians to learn and interact with the Indigenous language and, in some way, preserve Marra. It’s this interactivity that’s important: the way in which innovation and technology can play a role in engaging online audiences.

Innovation is at the core of SBS’s online documentaries. Our ideas about how we could amplify the spirit of the narrative with technology evolved.

Using aspects of game design in digital journalism can be a powerful tool.

With “My Grandmother’s Lingo”, we wanted to engage the audience in Angelina’s story while also telling the story of Indigenous language loss, so we decided to directly prompt a viewer to use their voice to tell the story using voice-recognition technology and interactive gaming.

We decided to use gaming because it directly involves the audience in how the narrative itself unfolds. It also suited the content in that it is essentially what Angelina does everyday — she learns words from her elders and teaches them on to younger people in the community, so as an audience member you become directly and personally connected to Angelina with her teaching you.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the way game designers think about structuring narratives: how a story unfolds, hooks in the audience and taps into their empathy, while keeping them entertained. Using aspects of game design in digital journalism can be a powerful tool.

The project is a wager that technology can be used to help to preserve an Aboriginal language on the brink of extinction, while engaging new and young audiences across Australia and around the world in a subject that might otherwise have limited appeal.

Angelina Joshua. Credit: Elise Derwin.

After we published the project, Angelina phoned us to say she loved how Kuren’s music and Jake’s pictures came together with her own story. “Incredible,” she said.

Her surviving grandmother and other friends and family have cried watching it with her. She has been contacted by people in other remote communities across Australia and from as far away as Canada to congratulate her on the work she is doing. “Looking at it, I just feel so proud of what I’m doing,” she says.

Gina McKeon is a multimedia journalist and producer with SBS. The SBS team behind “My Grandmother’s Lingo” are: Gina McKeon, Boris Etingof, John-Paul Marin, Jake Duczynski, Kuren, and Martin Peralta. Check out My Grandmother’s Lingo online: It won the 2017 Walkley for multimedia storytelling.