Closing the Language Divide - Territory Q Issue 14
A brilliant business idea was born at a Chinese train station more than 25 years ago.
Publisher and creative thinker Anya Lorimer was 15 and standing among hundreds of passengers talking in Cantonese.
Suddenly, through the crowd she heard someone speaking English.
“The voice came from a long way off but I heard it like a ringing bell,” Anya says. “I was just a kid in a strange land and I’ll never forget what it felt like to be in a minority in a sea of people speaking an unfamiliar tongue.
“I made a beeline for the English speaker.”
Anya learnt a sound lesson from that incident: the power of language over all else.
She has applied that lesson to OneTalk, a strikingly innovative communication tool.
OneTalk was created to overcome the communication challenges facing Indigenous people by giving health and other wellbeing messages in language.
But the technology could be used in hundreds of other ways – explaining detention procedures to Sri Lanka boat people, teaching Aboriginal prisoners how to use the public telephone, encouraging Arabic speakers to report crime…
OneTalk is talking posters and books.
The colourful, lightweight posters contain a battery-operated recording device. With the press of a button on a poster, a message is read out in any language.
Elders have told Anya that OneTalk is effective because it recognises a cultural truth: that Indigenous heritage is based on the spoken word; it was never written down before the arrival of Europeans.
“They’ve told me that audio is nothing new to them,” says Anya. “They are still telling the same stories from hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”
The technology recognises another truth: that communicating with Indigenous people in the Northern Territory requires different strategies than in southern states.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” says Anya. “You can’t communicate with Indigenous people in Ramingining in the same way as you would in Redfern.”
More than 40,000 Indigenous Territorians live in remote communities. Many of them speak English as a fourth or even fifth language.
“OneTalk meets the challenges of poor literacy and numeracy skills, and other custom challenges, such as kin, skin and clan.
“Authorities can spend tens of thousands of dollars making a DVD in language to get across a message – say, about drugs or domestic violence.
“But that requires someone to arrange a meeting in each community to show the DVD.
“OneTalk posters can be put up in communities – nailed to a wall, pinned up in a clinic, tied to a star picket. And every time someone presses a button the message is heard by everyone within earshot.
“We’ve found that Indigenous love the posters. They love hearing someone talking in their own language – and often recognise the speaker. ‘Hey, that’s Uncle Jeremiah!’
“OneTalk not only gets messages across very effectively but also helps preserve Indigenous language, which has been shown to be important for self-esteem and cultural survival.
“OneTalk posters and books are a great way of getting across a controlled message.”
The talking posters have broadcast messages about everything from ATM charges to the risk of respiratory diseases, from the importance of going to school to how to fill in a voting ballot paper.
They can be interactive. For instance, one poster carries a drawing of the human body and has several buttons, each triggering a message about the harm sniffing petrol does to different organs.
Another poster has 21 buttons giving messages in three languages.
The talking books are used to communicate in a simple, straightforward way and have been produced in 20 languages.
Indigenous children have even created their own OneTalk books, doing the voiceovers and drawings themselves.
For instance, one group of school students produced a book called Don’t Smoke Around Us.
“They used it as a tool to talk respectfully to adults about their health concerns,” says Anya, the publisher of TerritoryQ business magazine and owner of the Darwin-based Sprout Creative design company.
Talking books could also be used by prisoners who are not welcomed back to their communities.
“They could tell their personal story, explaining that they’ve done their time and are genuinely sorry for what they did. The message could be heard by the community and maybe lead to the prisoner being allowed home.
“This could be a tool to lower the rate of reoffending.”
Talking books are also used by illiterate parents to understand something of their children’s schooling.
Anya says the talking posters and books can be customised to deliver any message in any language.
The technology does not allow for the recording to be voiced over and the batteries are easily replaced. “We’ve found that they aren’t vandalised,” Anya says. “People respect them because they cherish their own language, and the posters and books have someone talking in their language.”
OneTalk has been endorsed by many people in the frontline of combating Indigenous disadvantage.
Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation tobacco control coordinator Ric Browne says OneTalk is a “godsend”.
“We are now confident health information we need to provide for our clients is understood and as a result we are seeing significant improvement in clients’ responses.”
Dr Asha Bowen of Menzies School of Health Research says OneTalk is a “great asset”.
Health worker Gabrielle McCallum says OneTalk is an “innovative tool”.
“Having the option for local language makes the posters a fun way to deliver health messages and, importantly, addresses issues such as language barriers,” she says.
And Gabby Kennedy of Angurugu School says simply: “Love your product.”
From the start, Anya laid down a set of protocols for OneTalk, including no political messages or commercial advertising.
“OneTalk is solely about people’s wellbeing,” she says. “I didn’t want anybody to feel they are being coerced. It means I won’t ever be rich but this innovation, but I can live with that.”
The posters are created by hand and the speakers recruited through interpretative services.
OneTalk was a finalist in last year’s Australian Marketing Institute annual awards.
Anya hopes many more authorities take up what could be a life-changing communications tool, a tool that understands people respond positively to hearing their own language – just like a teenage girl did all those years ago in the vastness of China.