10 Tips for Surviving Anthropological Fieldwork

Netnographic Encounters

Image Borobudur Buddhist temple near Yogyakarta, Indonesia. A picturesque respite from the hard work of ethnography.

In two weeks I will have been in Java, Indonesia, for a full year conducting ethnographic fieldwork for my PhD. I’m pretty certain most students who have completed this anthropological rite of passage (yeah I went there) will agree that the theory and methods courses we undertake for close to a decade before entering the field do little to prepare us for it.

I’d say I’ve been pretty lucky so far in terms of my experiences, having chosen a wonderful field-site without any (knock-on-wood) massive obstacles. The people who have taken me into their home and their community have been warm and willing to aid me in my academic endeavors. Yet despite all of their support, every budding anthropologist will encounter difficulties that may hinder their progress.

Below are some tips that might help the…

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“Divorce your theory” A conversation with Paul Farmer (part one)

Farmer’s thoughts encapsulate everything I think and feel about the contemporary state of anthropology. To this, I would also add something said to me by friend and colleague, James Rose: “…the solution is for real social anthropologists to stop identifying philosophers as their peers and instead start identifying medical professionals, scientists, teachers, and geographers as their peers.”

Learning Esperanto: Accusative Case and that Pesky -n


Note: Due to the fact that a number of twats have left ridiculous, confusing and INCORRECT comments on this post, I am TURNING OFF the comments. Don’t email me. I am not dealing with your issues. Deal with them yourself.

Whilst I’m not finding Esperanto difficult so far, there is one aspect of the grammar that is tripping me up: the use of the –n which marks the direct object of a sentence, and, as I’ve recently discovered, all manner of other things.

Given that I’m having this problem, I thought others might be too, so I’ve created this post to help us all understand this.

Please note that I am NOT a grammarian or a linguist and I’m sure that there are other ways to explain or use the terms I’m about to talk about (so if I have made a mistake EMAIL ME rather than commenting. Comments go to spam on this post.). This is just a brief guide written for a VERY specific purpose: a quick and dirty, plain English guide to understanding these terms.

What is a Direct Object?

The direct object actually isn’t that difficult to get your head around.

Unlike many other English-speaking learners of Esperanto, I’m not going to launch into a tirade about needing to learn how to show the direct object of a sentence. After all, you do something similar in Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara, except you mark the subject of the sentence.

So here’s the gist of it:

In a sentence, the direct object is thing that’s getting something done to it. In other words, the direct object is the receiver of a verb’s action (a verb is a ‘doing’ word: twerked, smelling, nosepicking).

I promise not to go all technical on you, so I’ll give you some examples:

I gave the cat some food.                                                                    

I (subject) gave (verb) the cat (direct object) some food (indirect object).

The cat ate the food.

In this sentence, the food is the direct object because it’s the thing that’s being eaten – eat, of course, being the verb (action word) here.

Here’s another example:

The dog bites the cat.

‘Cat’ is the direct object in this sentence. It’s the receiver of the verb ‘bites’.

A simple way to figure out the direct object of a sentence:

  1. Find the verb
  2. Then ask: ‘Who or what is being (insert verb)?’

Your answer is the direct object.

What is the Accusative Case?

Here is Wikipedia’s definition of the accusative case:

The accusative case (abbreviated acc) of a noun is the grammatical case used to mark the direct object of a transitive verb. …The syntactic functions of the accusative consist of designating the immediate object of an action, the intended result, the goal of a motion, and the extent of an action.[1]

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t find that explanation very helpful!

So let’s decipher what the Wikipedia bods are trying tell us.

Let’s start with grammatical cases.

A ‘grammatical case’ is a fancy way of saying:

  1. Nouns perform certain roles in sentences
  2. These roles are called ‘cases’
  3. In some languages, the form of the noun changes when its role in a sentence changes.

In English, nouns don’t change their forms when they perform different roles in sentences, with the exception of personal pronouns (I/me, he/him, she/her etc).

So that’s a grammatical case… I’ve explained above what the direct object is, which leaves us with ‘transitive verbs’.

Thankfully, transitive verbs are easy peasy to explain.

Transitive verbs are those verbs that need a noun or pronoun to inflict their dastardly work upon:

  • The dog pees on the lounge.
  • Amanda smacks him.
  • He bites Amanda.
  • Amanda needs stitches.

These are all transitive verbs because they appear in sentences where SOMEONE/SOMETHING is doing (verbing) SOMETHING/SOMEONE else.

You can’t really say: the dog pees in English and have a completely sensible sentence. Well, I guess you can, but it doesn’t sound quite right.

Likewise, Amanda needs doesn’t make much sense either. It leaves you hanging, wondering exactly what it is that I need!

You can, however, say:

  • He peed
  • She swam
  • It barked
  • I choked

… And make perfectly understandable sentences.

The verbs in these sentences are called intransitive verbs and I won’t go into detail about them right now. However, I’m sure you can see that the noun/pronoun at the beginning of the sentence acts as both the doer (the subject) and the suffer (the direct object) of the verb.

So, back to translating the Wikipedia definition of the accusative case into plain English:

The accusative case:

  1. Is a noun category which describes the shape or form that a noun takes when it’s the direct object in a sentence, and its purpose is to;
  2. Show what/who the direct object is in a sentence, the motion, and the result and extent of a verb’s action.

Showing the Accusative Case in Esperanto

Yay! Finally, we get to Esperanto!

And this is where it got a little tricky for me.

You see, Esperanto uses the accusative case in a number of ways which I am still getting my head around.

So I’ll baby-step us all through these in the rest of this post and the next post.

Showing the Direct Object

Unlike English, which generally uses word order to mark the direct object in a sentence, Esperanto uses a marker suffix to show the direct object in a sentence.

In plain English, this means that you have to put an –n on the end of nouns to show that they’re the direct object:

La hundo mordis la knabon.

Amanda ne parolas Esperanton.

So far so good? Adding the –n suffix to the direct object in a simple sentence … no sweat!

But things get trickier…

If you have an adjective (a word like ‘big’, fat’, ‘ugly’ which tells you what a noun is like) describing a noun in a sentence in Esperanto, the adjective also takes the –n suffix.

Good boys will have good dogs

Bonaj knaboj havos bonajn hundojn.

(I am assuming here that you know that adding –j to a noun in Esperanto makes it a plural, and that you also know that adjectives need the plural marker, -j, as well).

Really, marking the direct object in Esperanto is easy, and if you’re an English speaker learning Esperanto, I’m going to tell you now to quit whinging and get on with it.

The really tricky bits I found in learning about the accusative are the next ones – which I’m going to talk about in the next post.

Summing Up.

In this post, I’ve talked about:

  • the direct object
  • the accusative case
  • transitive verbs, and of course;
  • how to mark the direct object in Esperanto sentences.

In the next post, I’m going to talk about the parts of the accusative which I’ve found a little more difficult, and which, in fact, have tripped me up completely in my Ana Pana course on Lernu.net.



Northern Territory: A Distant Land

IMG_1086The separation of the Northern Territory (NT) from the rest of Australia is something which troubles me from time to time.

I mean, the rest of the country ignores us most of the time, and when they DO write about us, or pay us any kind of attention, they get it WRONG.

Shamefully, ignorantly wrong.

In fact, to other Australians, the NT might as well be a tiny nation in west Africa -or one of the ‘Stans.

To the rest of Australia, we’re the unruly uncle who’s buggered off into the bush to study insects, drink grog, and drive through fences, who every so often arrives home, having not changed their clothes or washed for days, full of incredible stories and tall tales…

… Of giant crocs (that’s Australian for crocodiles), cane toads, camels, Aboriginal dysfunction, and roads without speed limits.

And then, once uncle has spoken, you go back to your diet of My Kitchen Rules the Biggest Loser Block Idol and forget about him for another three years.

Well, that’s kind of how it feels living here in relation to the rest of the Australian population…

People from elsewhere don’t really ‘get’ the NT. They think we’re all racist, XXXX-or-rum-swilling bogans, hooning around in B&S utes, shooting buffalo, missing teeth, uneducated and disconnected from the urbane life of the ‘cosmopolitan’ south.

And yes, most of you are down south in relation to us, and we do call you ‘southerners’.

Some people don’t like being called ‘southerners’ because of the racist and narrow-minded religious bigot undertones that the term carries for Australians: you know, the white plantation owner, thumping the Bible and demeaning Black people.

However, the fact is that most Australians are geographically and culturally south of us. And like those stereotypical Southerners wrestling with atheism and the fact that Black people are humans, many Australian Southerners do not seem to understand the NT at all.

When someone from the NT labels you ‘southerner’ it has a more nuanced meaning than you might suspect.

This is what we’re actually telling you: a Southerner is someone who hasn’t lived here in the NT, but who believes that they can pronounce solutions for the Territory’s ‘problems’, based upon their perception of what the NT is (a failed state) even though they’ve never experience life in the Territory firsthand.

Failed States and East Coast Guilt

The Territory in our school day was always a rather vague country. Our knowledge was of scant population, of Darwin in the north and Alice Springs in the south with miles of desert waste in between. We envisaged a land occupied by small tribes (sic) of Aborigines and roving cattle herds on individual stations as large in area as one or two smaller States in their entirety. Our textbooks covered very little of the coastline or of the interior, because the Territory’s minimal economic importance compared with the States. – Alex Tanner, The Long Road North.

Nothing much has changed in the south’s perception of us, really, since Alex Tanner’s 1930s school days, apart from the fact that most people know that the Stuart Highway is sealed now.

When the NT Emergency Response (the ‘Intervention’ as it has become known), commenced in the dying days of the Howard Government in 2007, the reaction here was not the same as that in the southern states, amongst a certain… shall we say ‘inner city intellectual group’ and a number of Australian anthropologists.

The reaction was here was part anger: the bloody Commonwealth Government marches in and makes laws which we can do NOTHING about – apparently for our own good – and paints us all as dumb racists and paints ALL Aboriginal men as paedophiles. There was cynicism: Here we go again. More social experiments by southern do-gooders. There was also some hope: well, we can’t afford to fix up the housing and social problems in Aboriginal communities, maybe this will help…

We were likened to a ‘failed state’ – a third world country in Africa, where there’s been a succession of military coups, a largely corrupt and barely functional bureaucracy, widespread poverty and lawlessness.  As an example, I recall one post-structuralist/cultural theorist who bleated at length on the anthropology blog, Savage Minds, and on her own blog about the NT Intervention being about ‘bio-war’ and ‘bio-politics’ -basically the dominant society declaring a silent kind of genocidal war on Aboriginal minorities, just like those in Rwanda and Sudan.

The irony of this was that this theorist -by her own admission- had not only NEVER been to the NT, she had never -NOT ONCE- set foot on an Aboriginal community, and did not seem to understand that this immediately detracted from any credibility she might have had.

As an anthropologist who’s lived and worked with Aboriginal people in the NT for over a decade, I’m going to name as a FRAUD on any social commentator/theorist/social scientist/expert who has not EVER been here and yet claims to ‘understand’ what is going on. This includes government officials engaging in one or two day ‘tick-a-box’ consultations with Aboriginal communities. You need around two weeks in ANY Aboriginal community just to start to understand how things work, who’s who, and what’s really going on -and even then, things happen that simply can’t be explained.

Had this post-structuralist person bothered to actually spend some time here, she might have retracted the verbal and mental gymnastics she’d written, and viewed Aboriginal people as humans, rather than as literary figments of her imagination: the ‘subjects of power’ who were powerlessly ‘suffering a biowar’ of her own creation.

She might have seen that language, kinship and traditional (albeit modified) rites of passage and a lifelong massive, but utterly necessary, investment in sociality are the driving forces in Aboriginal culture in Central Australia – and no matter WHAT policy or imaginary post-colonial Foucauldian readings of power you might like to infer.

If your policy/polemic can’t navigate these structures, has no idea they even exist -these, the most basic, important things to Aboriginal people here in Central Australia, then your words are just tits on a bull.

Likewise, in the language of the NTER, throughout all of its incarnations, these things are mute; given lip service with terms such as consultation, culturally-appropriate, cultural awareness training.

What is ‘consultation’, really, but an Orwellian form of Newspeak: a ‘tick’ on a piece of paper to say ‘we told them what we want to do, we asked for their ideas, they talked” ? I’ll come back to the tyranny of consultation and participatory planning some other time.

Real story: When the former Labor government’s Indigenous policy, ‘Closing the Gap’, was announced, many Aboriginal people whose first language is something other than English thought the government planned to close up Heavitree Gap in Alice Springs to make a dam. These people are not stupid. It is the language of governments that is stupid: to quote my work colleague, Vaughn Jampijinpa Hargraves: White people talk all round things like wiggly snakes.

Yep. There's that gap they're gonna close!

Yep. There’s that gap they’re gonna close!

From the perspective of someone who’s lived in the NT for over a decade, it seems to me that the NT never ceases to be the playground of social engineers and ideologues on both sides of the fence, be it assimilation, land rights, self-determination or multiculturalism.

(I do note that Australia does seem to do multiculturalism better than most countries, most of the time).

The SIN that the Northern Territory currently has to bear is that of white, middle class guilt over the treatment of Aboriginal people -not just in the NT, but everywhere and all times in Australia. Coupled with this is the utter irony and ignorance of the rest of Australia that casts Territorians as dumb, drunk and racist -yes, just like the TV show.

We are supposed to bear Australia’s guilt, but we are apparently too stupid and rednecked to deal with it. We can’t be trusted, so the government has to deal with it instead.

(Of course, even more ironic and yet, UTTERLY revealing was that when the Indian TV crew of Dumb, Drunk and Racist came to Alice Springs, they were set upon by two drunk Aboriginal women for filming near the Todd Tavern… ).

Dumb, Drunk and Racist

I’m going to turn this on its head here.

It’s not Territorians who are dumb, drunk or racist.

We live with, are friends with, work with and encounter Aboriginal people every day.

We do not all drink – and neither do Aboriginal people.

Alice Springs has one of the highest populations of people with degrees and PhDs in the nation: we are not dumb. What’s more, what about the Aboriginal people who write their own town plans, only to have them trounced by white bureaucrats from Canberra? Again, we are not dumb. Don’t believe me? Ask the people of Yuendumu what happened to their 5 year town plan when the Intervention started.

The dumb, drunk, racists? Let me spell it out for you:

Dumb: It’s those people who see Aboriginal people as one great, big homogenous mass. Those from the southern states who ask me ‘Can you say something in Aborigine (sic)?” ignorant to the fact that there are over 50 languages still spoken here in the NT.

Dumb: To the depth of cultural differences between Aboriginal nations/peoples: from confident, tall, forthright Warlpiri people, demanding but also incredibly sharing Pitjantjatjara people, to the welcoming, quiet, but thoughtful Arrernte persona. These are as striking and individual as the national psyches of Germany, France and Italy – but UNKNOWN by most Australians living in the south, not because the information isn’t out there to learn, but because Masterchef is really much more interesting.

Drunk: On their own stereotypes about Aboriginal culture (warm, fuzzy, proto-greenies gone bad). This new age-noble savage fantasy completely misses the inseparability of social relationships from survival, identity, economics, safety, and what it means to simply be human in Aboriginal culture – to the point where, yes, dysfunction and poverty are often chosen over their opposites, because the alternative is often to refuse kin, to shame yourself and to behave inhumanly to others.

Drunk: On their own self-purported expertise on what to do about the NT and its ‘problems’. One hundred years of social experiments has made us the lab rat that everyone can write about -whether they’ve seen us firsthand or not. And if you haven’t seen us, met us, experienced us, well, go ahead then, just make up your own stories and call it biowar or the multidimensionalities of power or ‘failed state’. Stay drunk. You’ll never see further than your own pee-pee.

Racist: Every time someone from down south says: Australians must talk English, they deny Aboriginal people their identity and culture. Every time you like a ‘funny’ meme on Facebook,proclaiming: I’m an Aussie and I speak English, oi, oi, oi!’, you’re being racist to Aboriginal people – the First Australians. Every time a government dismantles bilingual education or defunds Aboriginal legal aid organisations and interpreter services, it is racism.

Racist: Every time some white theorist or ideologue purports to write about the NT when they have not been here, they are enacting racism. They are stealing OUR voices. Silencing us, rather than allowing our voices to be heard authentically in their writings, based not upon stereotypes, but firsthand experience.

Yes, You Can.

If this upsets you, good.

If you don’t like me calling you a ‘Southerner’ good.

If you’re an armchair theorist, an anthropologist or some other kind of blogger who’s never been here, and you’re upset at me, GOOD.

Because your stereotyping of the NT and its people is hurting us. Not just metaphorically, but in actuality. Think about this: the NT has been the playground of ideologues and social engineers for the last 100 years. People have died -are dying- thanks to these experiments.

Experiments, I note, which continue to run unchecked (land rights in its current form, the intervention, welfare, the way Aboriginal communities are structurally marginalised from the rest of Australia, dismantling bilingual education, the super shires … I could go on).

Connections must be made, common languages defined, issues debated. Stop seeing Aboriginal people as one dark, homogenous mass, get the voices of urban Aboriginal people out of your heads -these are NOT the voices of the NT’s people- and get yourself to the NT to unmask the fictions of your own making.

The answer is simple: the more Australians who come here, who spend real time here, who care about us enough to understand who we really are and give us our voice in their writings and most importantly: see us as humans, not just as the crazy uncle who lives in the bush and drinks rum, then the quicker the end to social engineering and pissing billions of dollars up against a wall that isn’t of the Territory’s making.

Why I’m Learning Esperanto & Resources

This post is a video blog I made today about my reasons for learning Esperanto, a ‘made up’ language. I’ve also talked a little about the resources I’ve chosen to help me learn.

Resources Mentioned:

Esperanto: My Summer Language Project

200px-Flag_of_Esperanto.svgMost people have rather mundane goals for summer:

  • Relax by the sea/river with friends/family and consume mountains of food and drink
  • Relax by the sea/river avoiding everyone, but still consuming mountains of food and drink
  • Develop diabetes and heart disease as a result of abovementioned
  • Make New Year’s resolutions on January 1
  • Break New Year’s resolutions on January 2
  • Lose weight
  • Read a book. Preferably with words in it, but a coffee table book with pictures of exotic foodstuffs from a celebrity chef is probably more like it. After all, we are Australians, and we must cringe at all attempts at intellectualism, i.e., books with words in them and no pictures of food or Balinese temples. Or pictures of food in Balinese temples.

Not me.

I am not ‘normal’.

Instead of any of those goals, I decided to learn a new language. And not just any language.

I’m learning a language that is:

  • not spoken as an official/national language anywhere
  • not taught in ‘normal’ schools
  • did not develop naturally (it was invented by a Russian in the 19th Century).

Yes, Esperanto is my summer project.

(Before you shriek at me for having the seasons ‘wrong’ (i.e. it’s WINTER in December), let me correct you. I live in Australia. Summer ‘officially’ runs from December to March.)

The Language of Clubbies

In the course of improving my Arrernte vocab, I voraciously consumed podcasts and blog posts written by other language learning geeks, and rediscovered Esperanto.

I say ‘rediscovered’ because I’ve been aware of Esperanto since my childhood.

photo(10)Esperanto was a language I stumbled across as a child whilst browsing at our very well-stocked local library. At one stage, I was obsessed with Dutton Speedwords –a neat version of shorthand that uses the Latin alphabet rather than the squiggles that Pitman Shorthand uses. I recall learning Dutton Speedwords in 6th Grade so well, I could write stories and take extensive notes. I was also obsessed with learning PNG Pidgin English  – I’m not sure why, but it appealed to me at the time.

(Another aside – sorry. Imagine my delight when I discovered an old copy of ‘Teach Yourself Dutton Speedwords’ at the local secondhand bookshop here in Alice Springs a couple of years ago. Needless to say that it’s sitting on my shelf now).

I was aware of Esperanto because of the sheer number of books in my local library on the subject. Perhaps there was a secret colony of Esperantists in the Sutherland Shire in the 1970s and 80s, trying to add cultural diversity to the largely white Anglo-Celtic population? Who knows?

Whatever the reason, thanks to Sutherland Central Library and the ratepayers of the Shire, I was aware of Esperanto as both an invented language and as an attempt at to be an international language of peace and understanding. I was also aware of it as a number of my Amateur Radio operator friends (Ham radio operators – GOD I HATE THAT TERM –“HAM RADIO”. Radio made out of smoked pig meat. Really?), were Esperantists as well.

The impression that I formed of Esperanto during the 1980s was that it attracted people who were slightly ‘off’: happy-clappy Christians drunk on Jesus-lurve, old ladies who volunteered in refugee aid organisations and ‘clubbies’. I really don’t know how to explain the word, ‘clubbies’, other than to say it’s an Australian expression for the kinds of people who hang out together in stamp collecting and pylon appreciation clubs.

(Aside#3: As I was one of those strange people who was in a DX club – a shortwave radio listeners’ club, and later, an Amateur Radio operator- it never occurred to me that I was also a ‘clubby’!).

All this knowledge I filed away in my brain in a handy neuron box called ‘Esperanto: the language of clubbies. This neuron box is located beside the one marked ‘embarrassing ability to recall the names of capital cities’, and is situated just behind the one called ‘frequency range of the 19m shortwave band*’.

*(15000-15800khz – I knew you were wondering).

This all brings me back to the present: lots of language geeks learn Esperanto, and the logical question: why?

Arriving at Esperanto

I discovered that the contemporary gamut of A-list polyglots (Benny, Laoshu50500, Professor Arguelles, LinQ Steve, Luca etc, etc) all learn Esperanto.

They also all learn Spanish and German, and a lot of other languages, but I digress…


Apparently, Esperanto is easier to learn than just about any other language for English speakers. It takes, on average, 150 hours of study to get to a conversational level.

Many of the A-list polyglots suggest that you learn Esperanto before you learn another language, as it teaches you how to learn a language. Whilst I can’t say that this is true for me, it does seem to have merits.

Here’s a TED talk that might inspire you:

However, it wasn’t any of these A-list polyglots or even the TED talk which actually inspired me to undertake this project. In fact, I have my suspicions that many of the A-list polyglots collect languages in the same way that others collect stamps, twitchers tick of ‘lifers’ and pylon admirers salivate on pylons or whatever it is that pylon enthusiasts do.

What convinced me to learn Esperanto was a lesser-known (but very impressive) polyglot by the name of Peter Browne, and his interview with David Mansaray and Claude Cartaginese (part of the Polyglot Project Podcast). Listen to the episode here.

You see, Peter Browne writes prose and poetry in Esperanto, delights in Esperanto translations of the classics and writes for an Esperanto literary magazine.

It was this evidence of creativity, of culture in the anthropological sense that got me interested in learning the language.

Some people argue against learning Esperanto because it’s an invented language. They substitute ‘invented’ for dead or useless:

The difficulty of learning Esperanto is that you will have wasted your time. Esperanto is like Klingon. The only place you can use it is at Esperanto conventions. No country recognizes Esperanto as an official language, no town has signs written in Esperanto, no human population uses Esperanto to converse on a daily basis. Don’t waste your time with Esperanto. If you really want to learn a useless language, learn Klingon. It was invented by an American linguist, not a European one :p

This quote is taken from the Bible of teenage troll wisdom, Yahoo Answers. It’s typical of the reasons people give for not learning Esperanto.

However, it’s incorrect on two counts:

  1. Esperanto is alive and well, thanks to the internet and A-list polyglots
  2. The fact that a European rather than an American invented it ensures its superiority (IMHO).

A quick search, and the utter wealth and richness of Esperanto resources available on the internets and I was hooked.

Anthropologasms: An Esperanto Culture!

 As if the wealth of free resources wasn’t enough, it becomes apparent when you explore these resources that this is no mere invented, useless language maintained by a few sad clubbies.

It’s actually alive – at least in the sense that a massive number and variety of resources are available online.

There’s music. Funky, quirky world music-type music.

There’s zines.

There’s idioms (albeit, not many), slang and lots of colloquialisms.

And books. Lots of books written in Esperanto.

And I was in: Books. More books.

I do note, however, a large number of Esperanto websites that were clearly made using 1998’s best internet graphics – which look decidedly lame in 2013.

So now, my punning clan – eh- cunning plan to spend 3 months over summer learning Esperanto.  I’d like to be able to have a basic conversation in Esperanto by March.

And maybe know about 500 words.

Wish me luck!

A Method for Learning An Aboriginal Language

Language Hacking Tips for Aboriginal & Other Non-‘World’ Languages IMG_4349(2)

In this post, I’m going to outline the methods I’ve used for getting past the beginner-beginner stage of learning an Australian Aboriginal language, Central/Eastern Arrernte.

As this is a very long post, you may wish to download it and print it out.  You can download the PDF version of this post: Language Hacking Tips for Aboriginal

Essentially, I’ve cherrypicked from a few unorthodox language learning methods that I’ve found useful, and adapted them somewhat, as they’re most often aimed at learning ‘world’ languages (i.e. Spanish, German, Chinese etc) rather than Aboriginal languages.

The main purpose of this post is to document the methods I’ve used, setting out the process, including a brief discussion of the methods I’ve cherrypicked and how I’ve adapted them. My other aim is to provide some further language resources (i.e. word lists and spreadsheets) that others learning Aboriginal languages may find useful.

Please note that I am NOT a linguist – I am an anthropologist who works everyday with Aboriginal language interpreters- so I cannot present any kind of detailed linguistic analysis or explanation.

The posts I’ve written on learning an Aboriginal language are aimed at non-linguists (such as teachers, doctors, nurses and others) working on Aboriginal communities or working closely with Aboriginal people for whom English is a second, third or fourth language –and of course, for those just interested in what it’s like to learn an Aboriginal language.

Step 1. Get Basic Grammar – A Short Cut Approach

We all have to start somewhere. For me, I start with the mechanics of the language. Yes, I’m talking about the bit that most people hate learning the most: the grammar.

I can hear people groaning already.

The truth is, when you’re learning a ‘difficult’ language like Arrernte, if you just learn words and not grammar then you’re going to end up lost and mishearing what’s being said.

In fact, you’re probably not going to understand a lot of what’s being said.

For example:

Artwe = man

Ampe = child

Aleweme = wash (present tense)

HOWEVER: to say ‘the man washes the child’, we have this:

Artwele ampe aleweme

Man             child washes

What do you notice about this sentence?

Probably, you’ll notice that the word order is different to English. In most Australian Aboriginal languages the word order is similar to Latin: subject-object-indirect object-verb (Capell, 1946:149).

Then there’s that funny little ‘-le’ on the end of artwe (man). That’s the subject marker. It tells you who’s the ‘doer’ in the sentence.  If you were to hear the sentence spoken, you’d also notice that the –le on the end of artwe changes the way the word is pronounced.

If we have the man washing himself, then things get even more interesting:

Artwe alewelheme            soap-ile

Man          washes himself    soap-with

There’s only one doer in this sentence (the man) and he’s doing it to himself … but how do we know this? The give away is the ‘-lhe’ in the middle of the ‘to wash’ word, aleweme. This indicates that the man is doing the action to himself.

My point is: if you learn the basic grammar in any language, then pretty soon you’ll be able to figure this out for yourself.

To do this, at the very least, you’re going to need a basic learners’ guide or a grammar for your target language. (If you don’t have these things, then you’ll have to wait for a future post, where I’ll describe resources for learning when there are absolutely no resources).

For Arrernte, I was able to attend language classes, there’s a small learners’ guide and a large, detailed dictionary. There’s also an excellent (but not widely available) grammar within what must be the world’s most readable linguistics PhD thesis.

So here’s the shortcut.

To start off with, you need to really know the following in any language in order to have a basic conversation:

  • The word order of sentences
  • How to mark the doer, the receiver and thing the doer is doing it to the receiver with (subject/object/indirect object)
  • How to phrase questions
  • How to mark past/present/future tenses (perfect tenses)
  • How to negate verbs & nouns
  • How indicate possession/movement/ownership

That sounds like a lot of grammar learning!

However, there’s a simple way to do this, devised by that master learner, Tim Ferriss of 4 Hour Work Week and 4 Hour Body fame.

In this post, Tim sets out his method for learning the grammar of a language fast (actually, it’s the method he uses to determine how difficult a language will be to learn, but it’s super useful for learning basic grammar).

To get the basics, translate the following statements into your target language:

The apple is red.
It is John’s apple.
I give John the apple.
We give him the apple.
He gives it to John.
She gives it to him.

I must give it to him.
I want to give it to her.

To this I would add:

Where is the apple?

If you read through Tim’s post in detail, you’ll soon see why learning how to say these sentences teaches you a lot about the grammar of a language – without you even knowing.

Step 2: Which Words to Learn?

Whilst I’ve previously written about a mnemonic method for learning massive amounts of vocabulary (vocab –sorry, I’m an Australian and we shorten everything we possibly can!) quickly, I haven’t written anything about how to select the vocab you learn.

One method is to get hold of an English frequency list, set up a spreadsheet and flashcard program (more in a future post), and learn the equivalent words in your target language.

One of the most popular lists of ‘useful’ conversational words is to be found on Gabriel Wyner’s very useful website, ‘Tower of Babelfish’.

Drawing from the General Service List for English, a frequency chart of over 2000 commonly used words, Gabriel has put together a list of 400 words that he calls a ‘base vocabulary’. You can see the post (and I recommend reading through the entire site on Gabriel’s method for learning languages) here.

This is a great resource for figuring out which words to learn –with one BIG caveat for learners of Aboriginal languages: the list contains a large number of nouns such as: train, plane, car, bicycle, bus, boat, tyre, petrol/fuel, (train) ticket, city, house, street, airport, train station, bridge, hotel, farm, a crowd, court which are unlikely to have equivalents in Aboriginal languages.

In fact, apart from a couple of exceptions (like marnte = bus) most of these words are borrowed from English straight into Arrernte.

However, all is not lost!

There is a wonderful resource written by linguist and anthropologist, Arthur Capell, which provides a fabulous wordlist specifically aimed at learners of Aboriginal languages in the article: Methods and Materials for Recording Australian Languages (Oceania journal, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Dec., 1945), pp. 144-176).

Capell’s entire article worth reading if you’re interested in learning Aboriginal languages. It’s written for the anthropologist or fieldworker who’s going to an Aboriginal community to undertake research, and who needs a quick and easy primer on recording languages from a non-linguist’s perspective.

If you’d like a copy of the article, either contact your local public library or university library, or you can purchase the article online for $14 USD at JSTOR.

To help you out, I’ve taken the introductory wordlist which Capell devised (ibid: pp.150-155), adapted it for contemporary use and put the words into a handy spreadsheet. You can download the spreadsheet here: Capell-WordList1.

One of the great things about Capell’s wordlists are that they not only overlap with many of the English words found in the General Service Lists, they are drawn from an Aboriginal worldview- so they also contain words which are used by Aboriginal people in everyday speech today.

One final source I’ll mention here is Moses McCormick’s Foreign Language Roadrunning (FLR) technique. Moses (AKA Laoshu505000) is an impressive polyglot who’s devised his own method for getting past beginner-stage language learning fast.

In a nutshell, Moses’s method involves learning to ask (and answer) a series of questions in your target language.

The magic comes from creating answers using what Moses calls ‘road running keywords’. His excellent post on this method and his You Tube clips explaining the FLR method can be found here.

It’s the roadrunning key words I wish to focus upon here.

I have LEARNED THE KEYWORDS in Arrernte, because I’ve used Moses’s method to get me talking to people in Arrernte – more about that later.

To help you out, I’ve put the FLR Keywords into a spreadsheet, which you can download here: FLR-Keywords.

Step 3. Get Learning!

With all these words to learn, I’ve had to find a way that works for me to remember them all.

I’ve described the Magnetic Memory Palace technique in a previous post here, so I won’t describe it again.

It’s not the only method I use to learn Arrernte vocab, however.  I make extensive use of online flashcards and spaced repetition programs.

I use the online spaced repetition site, Memrise, to learn vocab. You can see some of my wordlists online, and also through the free apps for my iPhone and iPad. You can even ‘join’ my course and start learning Arrernte (it’s free. I derive no benefit from this, apart from the satisfaction of someone else using the resources I’ve created).


I’ve also created several series of flashcards at Quizlet:



I learn these on my Ipad using the app ‘Flashcardlet’.

Both Quizlet and Flashcardlet are free to use, and very simple to set up.

Step 4. Get Listening, Speaking and Writing

The final part of my post covers what to do with the massive input you’ve accumulated in the way of word lists, and also, what to do with the basic grammar.

The first thing I try and look for is a way to listen to the language. This is where Aboriginal languages are at a massive disadvantage to other languages: there simply are not that many audio/video resources out there.

For Arrernte, I’ve largely listened to Arrernte people speaking the language whilst I’ve been with them.

Some Aboriginal languages have CDs accompanying theirs learners’ guides. These have been priceless for me – listening and SPEAKING in my spare time, when I’m running or walking or doing housework.

Another source has been finding clips on You Tube in Arrernte – the iTalkLibrary people have created a number of these in a number of Aboriginal languages.

There’s even a complete beginner’s lesson in Arrernte there:


A final source is the community service announcements and advertisements recorded for CAAMA radio. These are fabulous to listen to and repeat out loud.

You might have noticed that I’ve talked about not only listening (and I listen LOTS), but that I also repeat what I’ve heard.

This is a technique that I’ve always used, but didn’t know that it had a formal name, shadowing, until recently.  This technique has been extensively explained by Professor Alexander Arguelles, who recommends that you move around repeating the words/sentences that you’re hearing as you go.

You can watch a clip of Prof. Arguelles explaining his shadowing method here.I also recommend taking a look at his extensive website on language learning, here: http://www.foreignlanguageexpertise.com/

I also practice using the FLR method that I’ve discussed above – asking and answering questions using the vocab and linking with the keywords. Usually, I do this to myself. It’s a rehearsal for the best method of all…

… actually siting down with an Arrernte person and having a chat!

Nothing beats interacting with the people whose language you’re learning.

Of course, you might not be able to do this all the time, and unlike world languages, I haven’t yet found any Arrernte language speakers on iTalki. Sad to say that unlike Yolgnu and Warlpiri, there is no language chat group on Facebook, either.

Finally, yes, I’m going to admit that I do write in Arrernte. Many language learners seem to put this method of language learning down –saying that it’s fine if you want to become a translator, but it’s not for conversationalists- however, I find that writing in Arrernte helps me to remember both vocab and grammar.


If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post, I’d like to say thanks for reading.

I do hope you’ve found it useful (as well as the resources) and if you’ve got any of your own techniques to share, comments or suggestions, please leave a comment below.

The next post in this series looks at resources specifically for learning unwritten languages.