'Palayi' (watch out) and 'walykumunun' (excellent) are Ngaanyatjarra words that will soon be common in our vocabulary. It's the first time a software game focuses on incorporating Indigenous language with modern technology.
Laura Morelli

12 Oct 2016 - 2:08 PM  UPDATED 12 Oct 2016 - 4:38 PM

Australia might be a sunburnt country, but it’s also a land of sweeping games. 98 per cent of homes with children have computer games, and, at least an hour and a half is dedicated to interactive entertainment per day. So, why not create a game fit to explore Indigenous languages and cultures?

Creating such a game is the focus of Game Maker: Ngarlpuputju, a project of the ‘Tjaa Yuti – Western Desert Verbal Arts’ team, together with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL).

Ngaanyatjarra linguist, Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis says the endless runner game Tjinari (meaning someone always on the go) is not only entertaining but educating Ngaanyatjarra schoolchildren during its development phase.

“The whole process is exciting for them and us. We have recorded the children’s voices for the game so when they go to play the game, it will be their own voice or a friend’s voice that gives the warning ‘palayi’, meaning ‘watch out’ and when they successfully complete a task or navigate the obstacle they will hear their own voice saying ‘walykumunun’ meaning ‘excellent’.”

The ANU and CoEDL Research Fellow and ARC Discovery Indigenous Fellow says this Indigenous language game will establish cultural awareness from a young age.  

“We are hoping that this will be a template for other languages; especially other desert languages and we show people all around the world that Aboriginal languages are living.”

“It’s very important because we’ve moved into this new digital age and we see many children playing video games – most of which are in English and the characters on the game have English names too. So kids will be introduced to our language from a young age through this app,” Lizzie said.

Aboriginal students like Charlotte at the Warakurna Campus of Ngaanyatjarra Lands School in Western Australia are continuing to help the team refine the game adding ideas as they go along.

“It was fun to help make the game and then also be able to play it... I liked that it was in Ngaanyatjarra”

The game will comprise seven levels of activities, the key character has to find the right plant to give to a traditional healer to save a young girl. The runner faces obstacles such as giant animals, with all the challenges being culturally appropriate with some Ngaanyatjarra word activities. 

Once completed, the game will be available to download onto Android devices and tablets.

Linguistic anthropologist Dr Inge Kral hopes the game will set an example for all Indigenous groups from around the world.

What is My Grandmother's Lingo?
Introducing My Grandmother’s Lingo – a new interactive animation that highlights the plight of Indigenous languages by exploring Aboriginal culture and the endangered Aboriginal language of Marra.

“It’s important to show to the Aboriginal kids their language is in a modern environment so they can value their culture,” she said.

“We are hoping that this will be a template for other languages; especially other desert languages and we show people all around the world that Aboriginal languages are living.”

There’s been an international interest in the game, with school teachers from Norway contacting Ms Kral for permission to utilise the program in their classrooms so kids can learn how to blend old and new.

“We have the traditional language which is culturally valued and then the software program which enables young children to actively learn a lot about desert language and culture.”

The program has been a huge collaboration with several skills such as ANU student Conor Tow, who has drawn all the images to depict desert landscapes, plants, animals, monsters and concepts and ANU tech programmers such as Jiamou Sun, Qiancheng Wang, Jixuan Cao and Shuaichen Song.

Indigenous Elder Lizzie says the main goal is for everyone to enjoy the game.

“It’s meant to be a fun game, where you explore dreamtime and you just want to keep playing forever,” she said.

Project underway to document #Ngaanyatjarra, Australian language over 60,000 years old https://t.co/tjrNnE1sOV pic.twitter.com/QQnfvaaULt

“There will be some elements of literacy which adds to the language but it’s not meant to be didactic, it’s meant to be how all other kids from around the world use games and have fun.”

“Kids are already playing candy crush all the time, now we just want to add a new element of language to it. We’re hoping it won’t be just the kids but adults too.”

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.
When a word can mean so much: the language of identity
A project to revive near-extinct traditional languages and teach them at primary school is getting remarkable results in a Central Queensland community.
A phone app is helping preserve Australia’s Indigenous language
An initiative from the First Peoples’ Cultural Council in Canada.