Exploring how emoji apps can help teach First Nations languages

24 October 2023
Meet Bridey Lea, an Honours in Linguistics graduate
Kaytetyemoji is a language learning app that helps people learn the endangered Kaytetye language. Honours student Bridey Lea joined the project to help understand how apps can help strengthen First Nations languages for future generations.
Bridey Lea wearing graduation gown

Bridey Lea

As technology evolves, so does the way we learn. In response, the Kaytetye community in the Northern Territory have created an emoji app to help younger digital generations learn Kaytetye, a highly endangered language that, according to the 2021 census, has only 109 speakers.

Bridey Lea, who recently completed her honours in Linguistics at the University of Sydney, spent the past year working with the Kaytetye community to help develop the Kaytetyemoji app, created by the community-led organisation Indigemoji

Her thesis, “Snakes, Sandover Lilies, and the Seven Sisters: Learning Language from a Kaytetye Emoji App”, explores the potential of new language learning methodologies to teach First Nations languages, with a focus on Kaytetye.

Driven by a love of language

Bridey’s interest in linguistics began at a young age.

“As a child, I had a fascination with names,” she remembers. "Learning the names of things was a thrilling pastime.”

This, coupled with a love of languages, drew Bridey to pursue linguistics at university. While completing her undergraduate degree, Bridey was able to indulge her fascination with language while also exploring new areas of interest. 

“Studying Linguistics at Sydney Uni as an undergrad was an exciting endeavour,” she says. “My most influential experiences came through taking leaps to connect my linguistic studies to the broader framework of my interests.”

She particularly remembers being drawn to First Nations languages, which she explored through the course ‘Re-awakening Australian Languages’, part of an Indigenous Studies unit.

"The class was particularly foundational in fostering my interest in Indigenous Language Revitalisation. It also prompted me to begin a second major in Indigenous Studies, where many wonderful teachers greatly influenced my research perspectives.”
Bridey Lea

Bridey’s honours experience

After completing her undergraduate degree, Bridey decided to take her newfound passion for First Nations languages one step further through honours.

“I was inspired to pursue honours at the University of Sydney by a love of the discipline and experiences with its real-world impact throughout my undergraduate degree,” she says.

After discovering just how understudied Indigenous language teaching and learning is, Bridey decided to focus her Honours project on the Kaytetyemoji app. 

“I was attracted by the practical, innovative nature of the project and was eager to investigate further while supporting resource development,” she says. “My Honours supervisor, Associate Professor Myfany Turpin, has a longstanding relationship with the Kaytetye community and was involved in the project. Members of the community then gave permission for an Honours student to come on board.”

Tommy, Kathleen, Philip, Valentine and Bridey working together around a table

Tommy, Kathleen, Philip, Valentine and Bridey

Articulating new language learning methodologies

With Australia having one of the highest global rates of language loss, Bridey’s project works towards a hopeful future, where First Nations languages are safeguarded through new language learning methodologies. 

“The findings from my Honours research may help support Indigenous communities in Australia and globally who are seeking to create language learning resources which diverge from traditional second language learning strategies.”
Bridey Lea

Her research identified a pathway for creating language learning resources, which Bridey says already exists in Indigenous communities, but is rarely articulated.

“You need to start with understanding the realities of local life,” she says. “Then there needs to be a community development process, followed by an awareness of existing communicative methods within the community”.

Looking towards a community-led future

When it comes to life after Honours, Bridey wants to keep making a difference in small communities. 

“My career aspirations for the future are to use the skills I've built to grow change for good,” she says. “I'm interested in pursuing community-led research and supporting grassroots language programmes."

To achieve this, she draws on motivation from her mentors and peers to work towards common goals. 

“I share a vision with others of living in a sustainable, well and nurturing society.”
Bridey Lea

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