• Bulli-based illustrator and Kamilaroi man Jake Duczynski helped to bring the language of Marra to life in the SBS interactive animation 'My Grandmother's Lingo' (Photographed by Matthew Venables for SBS)Source: Photographed by Matthew Venables for SBS
For illustrator Jake Duczynski, a tragic event that occurred while he was working on ‘My Grandmother’s’ Lingo’ gave the project a powerful new personal meaning as he sought to help preserve one of Australia’s many disappearing Indigenous languages.
Genevieve Dwyer

6 Oct 2016 - 6:59 AM  UPDATED 6 Oct 2016 - 9:39 AM

Jake, 25, is an illustrator, animator and director who, along with SBS and locals from the community of Ngukurr in Arnhem Land, have helped create SBS’s unique and powerful new interactive, My Grandmother’s Lingo.

Bringing to life the critically endangered Indigenous language of Marra, My Grandmother's Lingo aims to help preserve the language through a unique animated online game that is powered by the voice of the user.

The project was inspired by the words of Angelina Joshua, a local to the remote community of Ngukurr, on the Northern Territory’s Roper River, who is determinedly working to learn, preserve and pass on her language, of which there are only three fluent speakers left in her community.

“In my eyes, it’s the preservation of Angelina’s language and native tongue,” explains Jake. “It’s sort of almost her desperate attempt to salvage what’s left of it and absorb as much as she can before the three elders that remain in the community pass on.”

It became more of a dedication to those women in our lives. Something that I hoped would embody a small piece of their worth. Something that I'd be proud to show them.”

Hailing from the Kamilaroi nation and now based in the Illawarra region south of Sydney, Jake might be on the opposite side of the country to Angelina, yet he found that her story (and the mission she was on) really hit home for him.

“We’re the Kamilaroi mob,” Jake explains to NITV. “That’s where [Angelina’s story] resonates with me. 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.”

In fact, it was part way through his work on the project that Jake suffered the loss of his grandmother, meaning that project took on an even greater personal resonance.

“The death of my last remaining grandmother in the middle of this project, made this story as much my own as it was Angelina's,” he explains.

“It became more of a dedication to those women in our lives - and less of a job that I was concerned with how many extra hours it would take to be successful.

“It became something that instead, I hoped would embody a small piece of their worth to everyone. Something that they themselves would respect - and something I'd be proud to show them.”

In My Grandmother’s Lingo, Jake has animated the dialogue of Angelina. As she narrates a story in Marra, encouraging the user to join in, Jake’s animated illustrations of butterflies, billabongs, fish and brolgas flit their way across the screen, bringing her words to life.

“A lot of the inspiration came from rock and early paintings” says Jake. “I just tried to incorporate that authenticity into the animations. It’s important to have images that look authentic.”

Not that it was always an easy process for Jake. Not being from the Ngukurr region, he learned a lot along the way 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.

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

“We started with a dragonfly – and then realised we couldn’t use the dragonfly because it was part of someone’s story - who was from Ngukurr.”

“So it was a lot of drawing and then brainstorming ideas and symbols, then showing people up in Ngukurr and they’d give feedback on what we can and can’t use.”

While he illustrated the flora, fauna and landscape of the Roper River region in South East Arnhem land, surf-lover Jake was working out of his beachside home-town in the Illawarra – South of Sydney.

“I illustrate and animate, down in a little town called Bulli, down the South Coast. I just work out of an old timber mill with a bunch of painters and sculptors and other illustrators. There’s a guy there who shapes surfboards who we all bounce our surf talk off.”

“It’s nice to have a creative community, both to bounce ideas off and also gather a bit of inspiration from as well. So yeah, it’s a great environment.”

It was amid this coastal community he finally recently got to cross paths with his fellow collaborator on the project, earlier this year.

“I met Angelina when she came to Bulli. She was writing a book with one of the academics at Wollongong University. So yeah, she came down and funnily enough was staying in Bulli – where I live and where I work.

“She’s a very passionate lady – doing big things. She’s super-driven to represent Ngukurr and her people and show the world Marra, and let everyone learn Marra. So that’s super-positive. It was really great to meet her.”

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

“I don’t know how to speak a sentence but we obviously know words – generally ones that are not quite appropriate for most general conversations,” laughs Jake. “But that’s what sticks – when you’re a kid especially.”

“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.’”

The loss of his own grandmother as he was working on the project made Jake’s longing to learn the Kamilaroi language and traditions stronger than ever.

“I definitely wish I had the opportunity to do what Angelina’s doing,” he says.

“I still remember lullabies and things like that - that you remember as a kid, that your grandmother would sing to you – that’s completely lost.”

“Then obviously traditions and culture itself – like the practices of our people, that’s gone with the wind.”

Now, when it comes to younger generations of Indigenous kids Jake feels that the teaching and preservation of traditional languages is more essential than ever.

“I think it’s really important - especially in the later generations,” Jake says.

“There seems to be a lack of respect. I think it comes with not knowing, and not being educated.

“This distance almost caused a lack of respect – from not being embedded in their culture, which is fundamentally based in respect and appreciating what your elders tell you.

“I think it’s definitely important to instill that in young kids”.

As to whether he’ll be dropping by to visit Angelina in Ngukurr anytime soon?

“I’d love to go up to Ngukurr, sit on the Roper River and catch a few barramundi and just live off the bush clock for a while. Just leave all the phones and laptops and everything at home – that’d be great.”

Below: Jake discusses the process of working on My Grandmother's Lingo:  



Learn Marra and immerse yourself in My Grandmother’s Lingo here.

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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.
Angelina Joshua: the incredible woman behind 'My Grandmother's Lingo'
Angelina Joshua suffered a shock aneurysm at the age of 23, followed shortly after by the sudden loss of her Grandmother. Surprisingly, it was these two cataclysmic events would set her on her current path, passionately striving to keep her Grandmother’s lingo alive.
What is language extinction and why should we care?
Almost half of the roughly 6,900 languages spoken around the world today are endangered. Scarily, the rate of extinction is accelerating and there is a whole lot at stake.