Learning an Aboriginal Language: A Quick & Dirty Guide to Learning Vocabulary

This post explains the method by which I’ve exponentially increased my Arrernte vocabulary in a matter of weeks rather than months or years.

The method I’m about to describe allowed me to go from understanding only half of what I was hearing, to knowing 70% of what was being said in very short time.

As part of my long term strategy to create real resources for Aboriginal language learners, I’ve also included some PDF files which may serve as models for other language learners.

As you might have gleaned from my first post, Arrernte is very different from English and other European languages. If you were to apply the method I’ve used to learning ‘world languages’ i.e. German, French, Spanish, you’d experience the same, if not even better, results due to many words having some similarity between European languages.

The Magnetic Memory Method

Whilst looking for other courses, I stumbled across an online course on the website, Udemy, called ‘How to Learn and Memorize the Vocabulary of Any Language’. The course shows you how to use the Magnetic Memory Method system, which is based on the ‘Method of Loci’. There’s a quote on the Wikipedia page which explains this technique eloquently:

“’The method of loci’, an imaginal technique known to the ancient Greeks and Romans and described by Yates (1966) in her book The Art of Memory as well as by Luria (1969). In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally ‘walks’ through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by ‘walking’ through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established (Ross and Lawrence 1968, Crovitz 1969, 1971, Briggs, Hawkins and Crovitz 1970, Lea 1975), as is the minimal interference seen with its use.”

 This technique has been expanded and enriched by Canadian academic, Anthony Metivier, who used it to improve his German vocabulary.

Anthony has gone on to create the course on Udemy I’ve linked to above, as well as a number of books on specific languages. He has branded his version of the system the ‘Magnetic Memory Method’.

As I was taking the course, I also read his How to Learn and Memorize German Vocabulary
book. Reading and thinking about the method actually helped me more than the online course, which I used for revision. Others may find watching the lectures helps them more than reading.

I should state here that this technique is not for lazy people or those who want a ‘quick fix’.

The Magnetic Memory Method system involves creating complex mental imagery and undertaking a series of higher-level cognitive processes to get the words and meanings to ‘stick’ in your head, which is in fact why you’re able to recall the words and their meanings as you walk through your mental journey.

The system can be summarised in these steps:

  • Identify a place that starts with a letter of the alphabet in the language you’re learning (places like shopping centres, streets and highways worked best for me) – this is the ‘palace’
  • Identify 10 (or however many) words starting with this letter that you wish to remember
  • Within your palace identify 10 ‘stations’ or locations along the way – take great care NOT to get into a dead end, though. Backing yourself into a dead end means that you won’t be able to add additional words/locations to your palace, and you’ll need to come up with another location to add more vocabulary
  • Create mnemonic images (the more outrageous the better) to help you recall your words. For example, to remember the word for Victoria Wattle in Arrernte –arlepe (pronounced ‘a leper’) I imagined lots of lepers running naked through this prickly wattle! For the word ‘arrakerte’ (which is ‘mouth’ in Arrernte, pronounced ‘aRR-ar-kurt-uh’), I imagined a big mouth holding a tennis racket.
  • Place one image at each location within the palace
  • Then take the trip from beginning to end through your imaginary palace, visiting each of the stations
  • Rinse and repeat for each letter of the alphabet in your target language.

There is a fair bit of work involved at the outset of this method: you need to identify a place for each letter, create stations and images; however, I found that once I’d done this several times, I could memorise a list of 10 items in about 10-15 minutes.

If you’d like to learn more about this system, I recommend that you start with Anthony Metivier’s website: http://www.magneticmemorymethod.com/

Applying the Method to Arrernte

I was able to grasp the nuts and bolts of the method quickly though watching the lectures and reading the book.

However, when I sat down to create stations for the Arrernte alphabet, I was immediately confronted with a problem: about two-thirds of the words in Arrernte start with the letter ‘A’.

This might not seem like much of a problem until you think about the implication for creating memory palaces: I would need an absolutely GINORMOUS palace for the letter ‘A’!

My immediate fix for this problem was to then use the second letter (or letters) of the Arrernte alphabet and simply create more palaces.

I ended up having something like 39 palaces, 25 of which were ‘A’. After writing to Anthony Metivier and then thinking this over, I looked at how Arrernte alphabet was organised.

The sounds of the Arrernte alphabet:

a, e, h, i, k ,kng, l, lh, m, n, ng, nh, ny, p, pm, r, rl, rn, rr, rt, rtn, t, th ,thn, tn, tny, ty, u, w, y = 31 potential palaces!

A look at the main Arrernte Dictionary didn’t really help, as two thirds of its content are in the letter ‘A’.

However, the Eastern and Central Arrernte Picture Dictionary was organised in a much more ‘memory palace’ adaptable way, and I was able to instantly adapt it, solving both the problem of the letter ‘A’ and the 31 sounds:

Ah, Ak, Al, Am, An, Ap, Ar, At, Aw, Ay, I, K, L, M, N, P, R, T, U, V, W, Y = 22 memory palaces.

Whilst Metivier recommends that you use a place starting with the same letter as the words within the palace, I had to be a little more flexible when it came to all the A’s in the Arrernte language.

For example, I used ‘Alice Hills’ for Ah (a journey along the ranges and gaps of Alice Springs), Alice Mall (Todd Mall) for ‘Am’, Alice River (the bike path alongside the Todd River), etc for to deal with the large amount of ‘A’s’.

To assist you to in learning how to do this, you can download the PDF file or the editable Word doc I created for Arrernte:

Arrernte Memory Palace Master Sheet.pdf

Arrernte Memory Palace Master Sheet.docx.

The actual creation of stations within each palace I found pretty easy. There were times when I adjusted the station, because when I tried to remember the journey before adding the words, I found that some places wouldn’t stick.

Generally, however, I found stations easy to create. I have to say that I much preferred trips along roads and streets than trips though houses I’d lived in or shopping malls.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the method for me, and the one which takes the longest, is the creation of mnemonic images.

When you’re learning a European language like German or even Indonesian, it’s fairly easy to find words that correspond to English words, (even if they have a different meaning) and sounds that are like words in English.

However in Arrernte, apart from the ever-increasing array of English loan words, there are words that sound NOTHING like any English word at all and you really have to stretch your imagination.

For example, the word ‘utnenge’ (oot-NUNG-uh) means ‘a person’s spirit’ in Arrernte. When I came to create an image for this word, I really, really had to stretch the sounds and meaning. In the end, I came up with a ghost wearing a plaster cast and the sound ‘foot numb’ to recall the Arrernte pronunciation.

Yeah, silly image, I know, but it works for me!

I will forever recall an archetypal ghost with a plaster cast on its foot when I drive across the Hugh River crossing just before the Old Owen Springs Homestead! (The Arrernte name for the range which runs through Owen Springs Reserve is ‘Urenhe’ –thus it’s the U memory palace).

So that you can see exactly how this works, I’ve attached the Urenhe/U memory palace spreadsheet .xls file.


From time to time, however, I have struggled with finding a mnemonic and this part of implementing the system has taken me much longer than I imagined it would.

The Results and Some Reflections

You can probably guess that I’ve been very happy with using this method to increase my vocab. In only ten days, I was able to add 200 new words – which is a phenomenal result!

Have I been able to recall them?

By and large, yes, I have.

You do have to take the journeys through your palace a few times, and to help me remember, I also learn the journey, then go do something else, and come back and test myself by writing down the Arrernte words and their meanings.

Once you’ve sorted the mnemonics, it’s really only a few minutes a day to walk through your memory palaces to keep them fresh. You can schedule this maintenance for each letter on one day of the month (1st = A, 2nd =B, 3rd= C).

When I haven’t remembered images/words, it’s usually because the image isn’t distinctive enough. Metivier recommends making the images as graphic (yes, in every sense of the term) as you can.

I’ve never forgotten a location, however.

When I’ve decided to add new words, I’ve simply added more stations on the end. So far, I haven’t ran out of stations, however, it is quite logical that you would run out of stations, so you would need to create a second memory palace for that letter.

My success with this method probably comes from following Metivier’s instructions exactly and using his sample docs/spreadsheets to organize myself.

However, if you’re impatient or you’re not prepared to do the preparation, then I wouldn’t recommend this method of vocab memorization.

Again, this is a long post, but one I hope you’ve found it interesting and useful. If you’ve got any experience using this method, or you’ve got your own methods for vocabulary memorization, please share in the comments below.

The next post will be about my aims and strategies for Arrernte over the next few months using language hacking and uncommon language acquisition methods.

Learning an Aboriginal Language – Some Reflections

I’ve been prompted to write a series of posts on learning Aboriginal languages for a number of reasons:

  • There’s not a lot of information online about how to go about learning an Aboriginal language
  • I’ve found a few techniques that have really helped me to progress
  • Big name polyglots and language learning sites by and large ignore Aboriginal (and other ‘unwritten’) languages in favour of ‘world’ languages. One such person rather dismissively told me that no one really wants to learn these languages. Guess I’m no one…
  • There are very few resources available to learn these languages online.

This post is the first in a series that aims to provide tips, strategies and resources for learning Aboriginal languages.

In using the term ‘Aboriginal’ I am not only referring to the indigenous people of Australia, but to all First Nations peoples, who either currently are (or until very recently were) hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists.

This first post explains the trajectory my own language learning has taken over the decade I’ve been learning. It may or may not serve as a trajectory for others in similar language learning situations.

Beginning Arrernte

regionmapWhen I first moved to Central Australia in 2001 to take up work as a field anthropologist, one of the most exciting things about the job I was taking on was the opportunity to learn an Aboriginal language.

You see, I’m fortunate enough to live in Alice Springs (capital of outback Australia), where you can walk down the street and hear at least four or five different Aboriginal languages spoken every day.

As the bulk of my fieldwork was either with Arrernte-speaking people in and around Alice Springs or with Western Arrarnta speakers around Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and the West MacDonnell Ranges, I chose to take a week-long Arrernte beginner’s intensive.

The beginner’s intensive was run at the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD). IAD is well known within Australia for its publishing house, which has for many years specialized in publishing Aboriginal language dictionaries, learners’ guides and other books with an indigenous focus.

At the time (2001), IAD also ran regular language courses in Arrernte, Warlpiri (I later took a beginners’ intensive in this language), Pitjantjatjara and Pintubi-Luritja. Sadly, IAD ceased teaching language courses about 4 years ago when it underwent a dramatic restructure. There are now no Aboriginal language courses being run in Alice Springs.

A former school teacher, Barry McDonald, ran the course with the assistance of senior Arrernte speakers, Veronica Dobson and MK Turner. MK can’t use her names because they are kwementyaye – a term of respect used in place of the names of close relatives who have passed away.

This is probably a good time to explain a few things about the Arrernte language and the way in which its written alphabet (orthography) has been developed.

Arrernte is often considered one of the most difficult Aboriginal languages to learn, as it has a number of sounds which English speakers find very difficult to master. For example, it’s got the ‘rr’ sound, which it trilled like the ‘r’ sound in Spanish and Indonesian. It’s also got nasals like pm, th and the one which most people find really hard, kng. With these sounds, you need to force a little puff of air back through your nose.

The other reason people find Arrernte confronting is its orthography (its system of writing). Although Arrernte uses the standard English alphabet, several linguists in the 1970s decided to try and create a way of representing Arrernte sounds based on the position of the tongue, teeth and mouth. This rather short-sighted decision has resulted in words that look impossible to say, and sound nothing like they’re spelled in English:

Akngwelye – (akng-WOOL-yuh) – dog

Untyeye – (oon-CHIA) = Corkwood Tree

Alhekulyele (ah-LEK-ul-yilla) – Mt Gillen

Mparntwe – (mm-BARN-doo-uh) – Alice Springs.

I say ‘short-sighted’ above because the difficulty of learning the Arrernte orthography not only discourages many English speakers, it alienates Arrernte people from the written form of their language as well.

Over the years, I’ve lost count of the Arrernte speakers who have bitterly complained that learning to read and write their own language is so difficult, they don’t bother with it at all.

At any rate, the week long beginners’ intensive was enough for me to be able to learn the Arrernte orthography to the point I could spell Arrernte words in order to enter their names into the sacred sites database (I was working for the sacred sites authority at the time).  It was also enough for me to get an idea of how the sounds of the language were made – and to practice getting my tongue around the kng, tn, rt, rn, rl and pm-s!

Beyond that, I could ask what things were (Iwenhe nhenhe? –What’s this?), say my name (Ayenge arritne Amanda), say where I lived and a few other basic phrases.

Finding the Music of the Language

I was lucky enough to be able to continue on with an intermediate Arrernte course almost straight away. This was an evening course held for about 3 hours every week for a term. About a year later, IAD held an advanced intensive, and I was one of a handful of people who took it.

Whilst my understanding of how the language worked increased, my vocabulary and memory for the language did not improve a great deal. As my work was mainly focused upon the protection of Aboriginal sacred sites and later, the joint management of national parks, once the language intensives were over, I largely stagnated.

This was due to my own busy-ness, the availability (or lack of) self-study resources, and an absolute dearth of TV shows, movies, spoken recordings and podcasts of Arrernte.

It was also due to my lack of a real strategy to help me use the resources which did exist and a real lack of confidence to seek help from language speakers.

I plodded along with A Learner’s Guide to Eastern and Central Arrernte and the tape which went with it, and the (thankfully VERY good) Eastern and Central Arrernte to English Dictionary for a few years.

LearnersMy progress was very, very slow throughout the years 2003-2008, when I went to work with the NT Parks and Wildlife Service, before returning to the sacred sites authority in 2008.

By this time, I could have a basic conversation in Arrernte, enough to be able to acquire directions, ask about kinship and sacred sites, where things were, and to name common foods, clothing, plants and animals.

It wasn’t until I began to spend longer amounts of time with Western Arrarnta (yes, it’s spelled differently) speakers that I finally got my ‘ear in’ for the language. By this, I mean that point in learning a language when you can understand the ‘gist’ of what a conversation is about, and you develop a ‘memory’ and a music for the language – you can learn and retains words with a lot less effort and you have a feel for how sentences are put together.

Probably the best thing about spending time with Western Arrarnta people was that they speak a lot slower than many of their Eastern counterparts, and they have a slightly different word ordering structure for their language that’s a little easier to follow.

The other good thing about Western Arrarnta is that there are a few fabulous, but hard to get resources, created by the Lutheran missionaries who founded the Hermannsberg mission. I was able to obtain some of these materials and studied them off and on for the next few years.

Stagnation and Revitalisation.

By the beginning of this year (2013) I’d been learning Arrernte for 12 years. I’d got to the point where I could have a very basic conversation, and still only understood about 50% of what was being said. What’s more, my ability to speak was waaaay behind my comprehension.

I’d done very little with Arrernte since 2010 as I’d been promoted beyond the level of field anthropologist and was managing managers. I did no fieldwork. My language had stagnated whilst I’d returned to brushing up on Indonesian instead.

Fast forward to April 2013. I took a contract with the Aboriginal Interpreter Service as a trainer –training interpreters. Everyday since then, I’ve been surrounded by language. My work colleagues are Arrernte (plus every other central Australian Aboriginal language) speakers.

I’ve been immersed, forced to speak, and soaking up language like a sponge. In a way, this was similar to my first experience with Indonesian in 1996, when I spent a semester in Java and had to speak Indonesian everyday.

Over the past few months, I’ve actively sought out more Arrernte resources –few and far between, but I’ve uncovered some beauties- and have implemented a strategy to increase my vocabulary swiftly and intensively.

I’ve also sought out the accounts of other unwritten language learners and discovered the strategies of uncommon language learners, especially rogue polyglots and language hackers.

Last week, whilst co-running a training course for NAATI paraprofessional accreditation, I sat with the Eastern/Central Arrernte group and for the first time, really understood what was being said and shakily was able to participate.

After so many years treading water, this was a major breakthrough – one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in what has been an amazing year.

Where To From Here?

As I’ve said, this is first in a series of posts I’ve got planned:

  • My next post will focus on the memory strategy I’ve used to expand my vocabulary quickly and exponentially
  • The third post will outline the strategy and my aim with Arrernte over the next three months
  • The last post in this series will address the dearth of resources which learners of First Nations’ languages are faced with –including where to find and how to develop your own resources.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful. I’d love any comments and experiences you’ve had learning Aboriginal or other uncommon languages.