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CommDoc: a language app for communication and learning in remote Australia

Thursday, 24th January 2019

Sarah Bock discusses the challenges and learning opportunities she encountered developing a cultural language app for health workers in remote Australia

Imagine that you’re a doctor working in a remote community and you’re presented with a patient who is quite ill.

In order to treat them you need to ask them questions about their symptoms and how they’re feeling. But they don’t speak enough English to communicate about their symptoms and there’s no interpreter available.

You’re frustrated because you want to help people feel better but you can’t communicate with them.

This is a scenario that doctors and health professionals working in communities in the Northern Territory often find themselves in – and was one that Northern Territory General Practice Education (NTGPE) presented to Sarah Bock of Elearn Australia hoping technology might be able to help.

“With the help of NTGPE, their cultural liaison team and Aboriginal language interpreters, we developed the CommDoc app which features 19 Aboriginal languages spoken in the Northern Territory,” says Sarah.

Mobile application for Aboriginal languages spoken in the Northern Territory

“CommDoc provides audio translations of phrases and questions - mainly yes or no questions - that patients are asked in a consultation to be able to provide treatment.

“The app is organised into four sections:

  • Common Terms (such as “Hello” and “What is your name?”);
  • History questions (such as pain experienced);
  • Examination questions around permission to do a physical examination (as proper consent is very important); and
  • Body Parts – which presents a picture of a body that people can point to different parts of the body and, depending on the language selected, it says that body part.”

Acknowledging the cultural context of app development

CommDoc - Body parts

This project was unlike any other Sarah had worked on in her 15 years of online education and elearning development.

“This project was very different because of the cultural context of the users and developers.”

One of the issues Sarah found they had to address early in the app’s development was some of the common questions having no literal translations, due to different meanings and concepts across the languages. For example, in some languages there is no concept of linear increase or decrease so questions about size or weight (e.g. How much do you weigh? Have you put on weight?) needed to be phrased in terms of change (e.g. Does your body stay the same size? Or do you get fat then skinny then fat again?). This was common to all the 19 languages.

Sarah says pictures of the human body in the app also presented a challenge.

“We had to provide a male and a female version of the Body Parts diagram so that female patients would feel okay about pointing to a female body and vice versa. In other medical texts you might have a female body for the reproductive system but you wouldn’t have two versions of a diagram for the digestive system - one male and one female.”

More than a communication tool, an opportunity to learn

CommDoc mobile application

While the project enabled Sarah to learn much about Indigenous languages and culture, it was working through its unique challenges that Sarah learned something very important about her own approach to elearning development.

For some involved in the project, CommDoc was merely a communication tool – something to use when doctors or patients were stuck for words – but from the outset, Sarah saw it also as an educational tool – not just helping communication in context but helping doctors improve their language skills.

“So doctors might be able to start speaking in language rather than just playing the audio. Obviously some phrases are very complex but there are also easy phrases they can use.

“To help with that I thought it would be good to have a the Aboriginal word in text so people could read the word or phrase while it’s being played to help learn the phrase.”

The interpreters nixed this idea. In their experience, non-Indigenous people pronounce Aboriginal words incorrectly when read from text – and this was not seen as respectful. So Sarah had to explore other ways the app could encourage learning.


Integrating everyday learning opportunities into online education

CommDoc Indigenous language app

“When I looked at it from this different perspective, I saw the potential for education was not necessarily about individual words but providing a better connection. If you have a better connection with the people you are surrounded by then it increases the chances of exchanging learning.”

“I see education as an integrated part of all of our lives and CommDoc is an educational tool. It breaks down communication barriers and allows people to connect and learn from each other in a more effective way. You learn all the time when you’re working and in life.”

CommDoc is used in health centres and hospitals across the Northern Territory – and in some unexpected ways.

“I’ve heard of one non-Indigenous health worker using it when they arrive at a community. They play the common words and phrases like “Hello” and “How are you today?” to the kids. It makes them laugh and creates a rapport. It just shows how language is so important.”

And the learning begins.


Download the CommDoc app on Apple and Android.

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