Community Collaborations

Stories about resources developed through partnerships between CoEDL and community experts



CoEDL members engaged with various communities across Australia and the region to conduct their research. From the Sydney Speaks project; to developing communication technology alongside lived-experience experts; to documenting language in the field — close community collaboration was the lifeblood of most of CoEDL’s work.

Often, these collaborations resulted in resources co-developed with and for the people CoEDL worked with. Resources like apps, posters and dictionaries can support language documentation and education as well as broader efforts like — as discussed below — public health outreach. The stories shared here highlight three such resources, emerging specifically from collaborations with Australian Indigenous communities.

The 50 Word Project

There are hundreds of Indigenous languages across Australia, but most people have heard only a tiny portion of them. Many Australians might struggle to recognise a single word.

The 50 Words Project — led by CIs Rachel Nordlinger and Nick Thieberger— seeks to record 50 words for every Australian Indigenous language in an interactive online platform to help people connect with these languages.

Working with Indigenous communities, the 50 Words team collected translations for common English words like ‘welcome’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’; phrases such as ‘what is your name?’; and terms for family members, animals and the local environment. These words are brought to life on a map. Words are presented along with recordings from speakers, each provided with community permission. Users can search the map by language or by a particular English word and can listen to variance from one language and region to the next.

“Most people don't know there is more than one Indigenous language, each with thousands of words,” said Nick. “Surprisingly, the sound systems used in Australian Indigenous languages are very similar across the country. Sometimes there are similarities in words spoken by people thousands of kilometres apart, but in other cases, neighbouring languages can have very different words for the same things.”

As well as highlighting the diversity of Indigenous languages in Australia, the project is also an important resource for language documentation and preservation. Bangerang man Kobe Atkinson, an early contributor, commented, “To see Bangerang Language on an interactive map along with many other First Nations Languages highlights how unique and diverse we are and recognises the importance of maintaining and continuing all of Australia’s First Nations Languages.”

The strength of project is that it does all this in an accessible and inspiring way. As Rachel notes, “It’s easy sometimes for Australians to think of Indigenous languages as something of the past, but by having the audio, it brings them to life. It becomes real, which is why it is so moving to hear the voices.”

The team developed a project guide that includes entertaining learning activities and instructions for using the collection, to assist schools and educators with using the 50 Words platform as a learning resource.

They hope the project will encourage people to learn 50 words in their local language and to discover and appreciate the diversity of First Nations’ languages around Australia.

50 words project
Yäku Ga Rirrakay

The Yäku ga Rirrakay (Sounds and Letters) app for teaching children phonological awareness in Dhuwaya entered the classroom in 2021 after six years of development and testing. To develop the app, Yolŋu community members and teachers from the Dhuwaya/English bilingual school in Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land — including Robyn Beecham, Yalmay Yunupiŋu and Jake Stockley — worked with software developer Fardin Elias, Melanie Wilkinson from the Northern Territory Department of Education and a group of linguists led by CoEDL CI Jill Wigglesworth.

A critical skill in developing literacy, phonological awareness is the ability to segment and manipulate a word using its simplest parts and sounds. Teaching phonological awareness commonly starts with taking a simple word like cat, breaking it down and sounding it out (C-A-T), then identifying how parts of the word can be blended with other sounds to make a different word (e.g., H-A-T).

While there are many resources that do this for native English speakers, there are hardly any such tools for Australian Indigenous languages. This is one of the primary challenges for delivering bilingual education in an Indigenous language and is what motivated the app development [1].

Dhuwaya has the benefit of phonological transparency, meaning that the pronunciation can be known exactly from the spelling and vice versa. English, on the other hand, has many words — like yacht or colonel — that defy standard patterns of pronunciation, making the language less phonologically transparent.

Phonological transparency makes teaching and learning phonological awareness more straightforward in a language like Dhuwaya, as children can more easily break down words and identify patterns. Furthermore, evidence suggests these skills are transferable between languages. For most children at Yirrkala school, English is not their first language. Using the app in Dhuwaya therefore provides a framework for learning phonological awareness first with a familiar language, then to apply these skills to English language and literacy learning.

Meticulous effort went into every step of designing the app, from maintaining immersion in Dhuwaya through in-language instructions, to ensuring design elements and motifs are culturally appropriate. The app was also designed in a modular format; this will allow different communities wanting to develop a similar resource in their own language to use the Yäku ga Rirrakay app as a template.

Already, other communities and bilingual schools have expressed interest in adapting the app to their languages. In this way, the team hopes the app will evolve into a resource for bilingual education across many other Indigenous languages.

COVID-19 Translations

The COVID-19 pandemic underlined the urgent need for coordinated interpretation and translation of health messaging for heritage, Indigenous, migrant and minority languages. 

In 2020, CoEDL assisted these efforts by establishing a resource and information clearing house for translated materials promoting COVID-19 health advice. While the resource is maintained by CoEDL Affiliates Ruth Singer and Mahesh Radhakrishnan, the entire CoEDL network — encompassing researchers at four universities and many collaborators in communities and interpreting services — helped to bring health messaging to vulnerable communities. 

Translation in this context is complex; translators must look beyond word-for-word conversion to convey key messages about actions like social distancing and hand washing in new and nuanced ways.

"While the health messages are absolutely critical, they also have to be culturally appropriate and delivered by the right people," CoEDL Director Nick Evans explained. "Messaging around restricting numbers at funerals and 'sorry camps' — where friends and family gather after a person's death — have had to be communicated very sensitively.”  

Nick also pointed out that ensuring the wellbeing of Indigenous Australian communities in a health emergency also requires ongoing discussions with interpreters and the development of new ways of talking about disease and epidemiology in First Nations languages. 

"There's also a lot of background teaching that has to be done first, like the basics of epidemiology, germ theory, what an incubation period is and why asymptomatic people still pose a danger. That's so much more than just translating five measures people should take," he said. 

In many ways linguists are perfectly suited to facilitate this kind of multifaceted translation. As Nick pointed out, "it's about taking apart a complex concept and rebuilding it using existing aspects of your language to convey the message and its importance. That takes real skill and intimate knowledge of a language and its speakers." The strong relationships CoEDL members forged with the communities they worked with through linguistics research meant they had this skill and knowledge.

The clearing house is still available and offers resources in Indigenous languages and in English aimed at Indigenous communities in remote areas.


Further information

For a deeper appreciation of the diverse range of CoEDL outreach and collaborations, explore the Outreach subset of the Connections data in map or list form.


Hero image: Language documentation notebooks. Image: CoEDL.

Image 1: The 50 Words Project map. Image: https://50words.online/.

Image 2: Yalmay Yunupiŋu uses the Yäku ga Rirrakay app with a student at Yirrkala School. Image: Jill Wigglesworth.

Image 3: A COVID-19 health warning translated into Yanyuwa language. Image: CoEDL.


Yäku ga Rirrakay[1] — Gillian Wigglesworth, Melanie Wilkinson, Yalmay Yunupingu, Robyn Beecham, and Jake Stockley. 2021. "Interdisciplinary and Intercultural Development of an Early Literacy App in Dhuwaya." Languages. 6 (2): 106.