App teaches early literacy for East Arnhem Land children in Yolŋu Matha language

Indigenous language app
Remote north-east Arnhem Land Yirrkala School students using the Yäku ga Rirrakay app. Image: Loredana Ducco.

Young children in remote north-east Arnhem Land are using a new Indigenous language app to learn early literacy skills in their first language, with the app being presented today at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra.

The Yäku ga Rirrakay app has become a part of daily classes for children at the Yirrkala School in the small town on the east coast of Arnhem Land’s Gove Peninsula, introducing phonics skills in their first language of Dhuwaya, a Yolŋu Matha language.

Developed and piloted over seven years by an interdisciplinary team led by University of Melbourne linguist Professor Jill Wigglesworth, the Dhuwaya language iPad app is unique in teaching children how to recognise, break down and blend together sounds to make words entirely in their local language. These are important and transferable skills for learning to read both Dhuwaya and English.

Professor Wigglesworth, who has a long-standing connection with Yirrkala School, worked closely with Dhuwaya speakers, and Elder Yalmay Yunupiŋu, Yirrkala educators Robyn Beecham and Jake Stockley, Northern Territory Government Department of Education linguist Melanie Wilkinson, and software engineer, Fardin Elias, to develop the app which teaches phonological awareness in a culturally appropriate way.

“We chose to develop an iPad app, rather than use a more traditional approach, because the children at Yirrkala – like children everywhere – are very familiar with modern technology and engage better when using it,” Professor Wigglesworth said.

The Yirrkala School has offered bilingual education in Dhuwaya and English for over 40 years, but a lack of classroom resources to deliver Indigenous language programs, particularly digital resources, has been a challenge. The app was first launched at Yirrkala School on Tuesday 13 September.

Yirrkala School teacher linguist Yalmay Yunupiŋu helped ensure the app was developed with cultural considerations front-of-mind.

“We wanted an app to help teach kids how to read in their first language, Dhuwaya Yolŋu Matha,” Ms Yunupiŋu said.

“But writing and reading is a balanda [white people] way of learning. We didn’t want to make a balanda app for balanda kids, we wanted an app for Yolŋu kids to learn Yolŋu Matha. An app that aligned with Yolŋu kids’ language and worldview.”

While other Indigenous language apps exist, most are designed to teach Aboriginal languages to non-Aboriginal Australians.

Several other Indigenous language groups have expressed interest in adapting the app for their own first languages, which could see the development of vital digital resources to help primary teachers and local team teachers & teaching assistants improve local language literacy in remote Indigenous communities.

Professor Wigglesworth joins colleagues from across Australia, including Yirrkala, at the AIATSIS symposium “Strengthening Australian languages: Between policy and practice” being held 26-27 September.