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Opie the Robot helping preserve ancient languages in remote Aboriginal Australia

man and woman with robot
Grant Mathumba Thompson and Angelina Joshua from the Ngukurr Language Centre with Opie the Robot.

ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter

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A method, which would have once been considered in the realm of science fiction, is being used to teach children from a remote Aboriginal community their traditional languages.

Opie the Robot is a unique co-development between the Ngukurr Language Centre and the University of Queensland's (UQ) School of Information Technology.

The technology has been deployed in classrooms in the southeast Arnhem Land community, programmed to help teach heritage languages including Rembarrnga, Marra, Ngandi, and Wubuy, while Kriol is the interface language.

"Teachers have only 30 minutes per week to teach their heritage languages so the robot is a way for us to increase that time," UQ researchers and computer engineer Gautier Durantin said.

Making learning fun is key to Opie's success

Opie is programmed with several interactive language activities and memory games that encourage the children to identify, sound out, and repeat words back.

The device, powered by a tablet computer, also allows for the children's language skills to be recorded so that teachers can track their progress.

Grant Mathumba Thompson works at the Ngukurr Language Centre and teaches Ngandi to the local children.

His language and voice were recorded for Opie's operating system and he is excited about the robot as a teaching tool.

woman and man with robot
Mr Thompson demonstrates Opie the Robot to ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie at the Puliima Language Conference in Cairns.

ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter

"This is a fun way to learn; the kids are always playing [with Opie]," Mr Thompson said.

"Hopefully this is the new way to learn and teach languages that are 60,000 years old."

Building Opie provides opportunity for two-way learning

While Opie the Robot was designed in line with other social robots, it took genuine collaboration between the university and the community to build a fit-for-purpose learning tool.

"We are engineers, we know how to build robots, but we don't know anything about the languages of these areas," Dr Durantin said.

The robotics team took microphones to Ngukurr and recorded with some of the last known language speakers from the Roper River region.

Along the way, they were guided by local language workers like Mr Thompson who said working with the university was a chance to combine modern and ancient knowledge in an effort to preserve culture.

"This is the time when everyone has to walk together because these languages are very valuable to the community," he said.

Opie the Robot's flat-pack design means it can easily be transported and assembled and there are plans to send robots to other remote communities.