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.

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10 thoughts on “Learning an Aboriginal Language – Some Reflections

    • Hi David,

      Thank you so much for commenting on my post, and I’m thrilled that you found it interesting. And yes, it is me (Amanda).

      As you know, I’m not a linguist, so I’m sure that Arrernte linguists will be able to justify their decisions about the orthography and easily shoot me down in flames!

      Also, I’m not trying to put linguists down – we could do with more linguists, resourcing and interest in/for Aboriginal languages, especially at this point in time when languages other than English are under attack from many places in Australia. In fact, I have the greatest respect for the work that linguists do here in Central Australia and if I had my time over, I would have done a linguistics PhD instead of an anthropology PhD.

      Here, however, I’m simply telling my story about learning Arrernte –that it’s challenging because of different sounds and difficult orthography … however, if I can learn it, then others can too.

      I disagree with much of what is written on the CLC, however this jumps out at me:

      Arrernte speakers who can read English usually learn to read and write Arrernte in only a few lessons. They just have to learn which letters represent which Arrernte sounds.

      This has not been my experience.

      It takes many lessons –I would say years- to be able to confidently and fluently read and write in Arrernte, and that’s from a highly literate point of view. In fact, it was probably 3 years before I felt confident in spelling Arrernte words on my own. I can compare this with learning the Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara orthographies, both of which I picked up in a few hours. I know highly literate interpreters who are frightened off by the Arrernte orthography. In discussing this with my colleagues at AIS, they came up with many examples where Aboriginal people had complained about the difficulty of Arandic orthographies and this one is typical: When comparing the same primary school texts in Anmatyerr and Warlpiri, Anmatyerr teachers at Ti Tree and asked why they couldn’t have the Warlpiri ‘spelling’ for their language, because they could read the Warlpiri straightaway. This was an observation from a linguist to one of my colleagues!

      I could go on and on, and come up with objections for every single point the unknown author of the CLC page makes, but that’s not what I want to spend my time doing. I’d rather write to provide inspiration, encouragement and resources for people who wish to learn ‘unwritten’ languages after having my comments about a lack of resources for learning First Nations languages dismissed as unimportant by a very well-known internet polyglot.

      If I was going to recommend an orthography, the Finke River Mission orthography would be my first choice. I rarely encounter European Australians in government departments here in the NT who have trouble pronouncing surnames such as ‘Inkamala’ or ‘Katakarinja’. I also note that many Western Arrarnta people CAN read and write their own language.

      As a second choice, if the FRM orthography is politically unpalatable to some people (because of it was created by missionaries!), then why not adapt the Warlpiri or Pitjantjatjara orthographies and add the ‘kng’, ‘pm’, ‘tn’ sounds in?

      I understand what linguists are trying to achieve with the Arrernte orthography –and yes, I am very proficient with it nowadays- however, I believe that this was a ‘by linguists, for linguists’ decision. They weren’t thinking about non-linguists using the orthography, and have made it tough for Arrernte people and people who are thinking about learning Arrernte, to learn this important language.

  1. Thank you for your detailed answer Amanda, and for nice things about linguist(ic)s. I’m sorry I can’t enage tonight with all the points you raise. Just a couple of points of clarification: (a) in the bit you first quote, when the CLC page says ‘Arrernte speakers’ I expect they meant those who speak it as a first language, and they do say ‘lessons’ are needed, so I wonder what lessons the Arrernte had whose reactions you’ve mentoned; (b) ‘they weren’t thinking about non-linguists using the orthography': actually the linguists of the time were, and had trialled it in various classes. I accept though that those already familiar with the FRM orthography would be happy to stick with it. There’s a lot of the story I don’t know about of course; we can hope that one day soon some of the insiders might write it up.

    • Hi Pete,

      At present there is only Arrernte being taught by the evening college here in Alice, and these classes fill very quickly. The lack of language lessons was caused by the economic collapse of the IAD in about 2007, and its subsequent restructure, which stopped providing language classes.

  2. Hi Amanda,

    I have been trying to figure out the pronunciation of Mparntwe. You seem to suggest that it isn’t
    – (mm-BARN-doo-uh). Or have I misunderstood?

    • Hi Subash,

      Sorry, but you have misunderstood. I am saying that the SPELLING SYSTEM for Arrernte which has been worked out by linguists does not match the way the the words are spoken. I would argue for the adoption of the Pitjantjatjara or Warlpiri orthographies (now waiting for a real linguist to shoot me down in flames).

      • Thanks Amanda. But what is the right way to say the word? And one more thing, is there a word in the Pitjantjatjara for the concept “sacred”. Best wishes,


        Sent from my iPad


        • Ok let’s spell this out REALLY simply: mm-BARN-doo-uh is how you say the word.

          It has been spelled ‘MPARNTWE’ by linguists – which doesn’t look much like how it’s said.

          I don’t think I can be any clearer unless I make a video!! It’s not hard to say or understand: say it “mm-BARN-doo-uh” assuming you speak English with an Australian accent.

          Yes, there is a word in Pitjantjatjara for sacred (as in sacred site). This word is: miil-miilpa

          • Thanks Amanda. I am writing an essay entitled Knowing and unknowing Uluru: an essay in four maps. It begins with the map of William Gosse, followed by a discussion of a geological map down by two geologists (I am a geologist too). I am also exploring Aboriginal painting as maps (a theme already discussed) followed a by a discussion of a composition of the cellist David Periera The Big Rock. Unfortunately I haven’t as yet found a painting showing Uluru or areas around it.The one that I have found is Rockholes near the Olgas by Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri. Just wondering if you know of any painting depicting Uluru. Thanks once again for your help and best wishes,


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