New reality for living cultures


17 September 2019

A group of Aboriginal primary school students is bringing culture and language to life using high-tech tools.

The Njulgang Digital Custodians Project uses augmented reality, the same technology that powers the once-popular Pokémon GO app, to engage and teach students.

A group of Dharawal Elders is working with 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from five primary schools in south-western Sydney on the project, which is run by the New South Wales Department of Education and the Aboriginal Education and Communities Directorate.

They’ve used technology to create a language-learning resource based on the Dharawal Dreaming Story – How the Animals Came to Dharawal Country. Njulgang means “We All” in the Dharawal language.

The aim of the project is to equip students with the digital skills they need to learn and preserve their language. Knowledge of Indigenous languages is considered central to maintaining strong cultural connections.

Participants were assisted by the Eastern Zone Gujaga Aboriginal Corporation and Indigenous technology company Indigital to find the right technology to capture, create and bring life to the Dreaming story.

As well as sharing the Dreaming story with Year 5 and 6 students, the Dharawal Elders taught them vocabulary and pronunciation. Then it was time to create the characters, including a goanna, starfish and whale.

The students used Microsoft Paint software to draw 3D images of the animals, and Minecraft to design the scenes for the story. Narration was voiced by the students in both English and Dharawal.

An app, Indigital Storytelling, brought sound and imagery together as an augmented reality picture on a phone, merging the digital and physical worlds. Holding a phone over a starfish or goanna drawing produces a 3D image of the associated word with a recording of its pronunciation in Dharawal and English.

Stuart Keast, deputy principal at Rosemeadow Public School, says participation in the project — and the app itself — is about “cultural sustainability”.

“Writing down these Indigenous stories is a way for students to learn about and maintain their Indigenous culture and history,” he says.

The technology allowed Elders and students to collaborate even when they couldn’t meet face to face. Keast says that one of the Elders, Uncle Ray, sent the school a sound file of 200 words.

“This meant the students could listen to the words whenever they wanted to and practise the correct pronunciations.”

An added benefit of the project was improved attendance and student self-assurance. The students started out shy, says Keast, but as they got to know the Elders, and worked with software developers, their self-belief and confidence grew.

Even students who didn’t take part in the project gained a greater appreciation of the Dharawal language and culture, says Keast.

The participating schools include Briar Road Public School, Bradbury Public School, Campbelltown East Public School, Rosemeadow Public School and Thomas Acres Public School.

Focus on Indigenous languages

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to raise awareness of the crucial role languages play in people’s daily lives.

In Australia, of the estimated original 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, only about
120 are still spoken. Of these, the Department of Communication and the Arts says approximately
90 per cent are endangered.

The UN says languages are at the heart of identity, cultural history and memory: “The ongoing loss of indigenous languages is particularly devastating as the complex knowledges and cultures they
foster are increasingly being recognised as strategic resources
for good governance peacebuilding, reconciliation, and sustainable development.”

The AEU is working in partnership with First Languages Australia to encourage schools to get involved in the Indigenous Year of Languages.

You can find classroom resources here.

This article originally appeared in the Australian Educator Spring 2019.