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).

http://www.memrise.com/course/173460/arrernte-vocab/

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

http://quizlet.com/30678656/arrernte-pronouns-flash-cards/

http://quizlet.com/30648040/arrernte-flash-cards/

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:

http://www.italklibrary.com/italk/language-learning/

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.

THANK YOU!

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.

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.

Arrernte-U-Urenhe.xls

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.

Bess Price’s Speech to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly

Go Bess Price Nungarrayi. 863051-120519-twam-dave-and-bess

In case you DON’T know who Bess is, she’s a Warlpiri woman from Yuendumu (in central Australia), who’s now been elected to our Legislative Assembly (that’s the NT’s parliament, in case you’re not sure). For many years, she’s been an outspoken critic of those who ‘fetishize’ culture, and place it before the rights of women and children.

Bess RIGHTLY takes aim at what I’ll call CONSERVATIVE lefties – the tired-old has beens still ‘fighting the good fight’ from the 1970s land rights battles, whose views have become solidified in Australia’s national consciousness, Indigenous policy from both sides of the political fence, and much of what passes as ‘debate’ in Australian anthropological circles. It’s also a blind-sider at middle class urbanites, who’ve probably been to Bali or the US more times than they’ve poked their heads into Australia’s inland.

If this offends your sensibilities, then it’s done its job.

There is a new generation of progressives rising – and it’s not coming from the tired old lefties who are now the conservative status quo – it’s coming from disaffected Aboriginal people, sick of seeing people dying, poor and segregated in the name of ‘land rights’ and ‘culture’.

Bring it on.
Madam speaker,

I take this opportunity to talk about an issue that has always been close to my heart. Within the last three months two more young mothers, related to me, have died in Alice Springs town camps. One was injured mortally in public. Nobody acted to protect her. Dozens of my female relatives have been killed. Convictions have often led to relatively light sentences. I was told by a senior lawyer that no jury in Alice Springs will convict an Aboriginal person for murder if the victim is also Aboriginal and she is only stabbed once. And we all have done nothing effective to stop this from happening. It has been going on for decades. Why hasn’t there been the outrage that we would have heard from feminists if they had been white? Why is there such a deafening silence? I believe that we can blame the politics of the Progressive Left and its comfortably middle class urban indigenous supporters.

Because I have spoken out on this issue and others close to my heart I have been routinely attacked. Professor Larissa Behrendt claimed that what I say is more offensive than watching a man having sex with a horse. Her white colleague, Paddy Gibson, told the world that I was only doing it for the money and frequent flyer points. The Queensland educationist, Chris Sarra said that I was a ‘pet Aborigine’ who only said what the government wanted me to say. Chris Graham, the white editor of Tracker magazine called me a grub. A white woman in Victoria, Leonie Chester, calls herself Nampijinpa Snowy River on the internet. She tells the world that my people, the Warlpiri, are ‘her mob’. She and her friends have obscenely insulted me on the internet over and over. Marlene Hodder, a white woman from Alice Springs, and her friend Barbara Shaw, have called me a liar several times. The Crikey blogger Bob Gosford calls me Bess “Gaol is good for Aboriginal people” Price and accuses me of ‘vaguely malevolent and populist buffoonery that is designed to capture the attention of the tutt-tutterers and spouted by politicians that inevitably have a short tenure in power.’

But I am in good company. When Mantatjara Wilson, a wonderful, strong woman I called mother, told the world about the crimes against our children on national TV, back in 2007, with tears streaming down her face the left-wing activists moved to undermine her. They went into the communities, not to protect the kids, but to find women who would oppose Mantatjara. They talked about outrage and shame, not because of the crimes we all know about but because somebody was brave enough to tell the world about them and ask for help. That was what they called shameful. They worry about the shame felt by perpetrators not by the agony of their victims and their families. It’s easy to find women who will support their men even if they are killers and rapists. Families always stand up for their own.

Some few others have stood up and faced the vicious criticism of the Left. Here I acknowledge the wonderful work of Dr. Hannah McGlade in Perth and Prof. Marcia Langton in Melbourne. Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson have also spoken out. A conference of Aboriginal men in Alice Springs publicly apologized to Aboriginal women and kids for the violence and abuse that men have inflicted on them. None of these people have received support from the left or from Labor governments. So the Left have tried really hard to call us liars, to put us down for speaking the truth and for wanting to stop the killing and the sexual violence. But they have put no effort, none at all, into protecting our kids and our women.

I recently went to Sydney for the launch of a book called ‘Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence’ by a wonderful, caring friend of mine, Dr Stephanie Jarrett. My words are on the cover of her book ‘We need to support those who tell the truth”. Dr Jarrett does that and she cares, maybe too much for her own good. I have seen the tears in her eyes and heard the passion in her voice when she talks about our murdered and bashed ones. I trust her completely. But of course those who aren’t interested in the truth are out to bring her down. She has been attacked in the Monthly magazine by its editor John van Tiggelen in an article called ‘Thinking Backwards’.

Dr Jarrett is saying that there are elements to our traditional culture that we must change if we are to stop the violence that is destroying us and she is right. Things are much worse now than the old days because of grog and drugs and the awful welfare dependency that is sucking the life out of us. There are elements to our culture that are good and should be kept. But we should be prepared to do what everybody else in the world has done, change our ways to solve the new problems that we have now and that our old Law has no tools to solve. Some people call this ‘integration’, others ‘assimilation’ because they want us to continue to live in poverty, violence and ignorance so that we can play out their fantasies of what the word ‘culture’ means. They have their own agendas and liberating our people from violence is not part of those agendas. I call it problem solving and saving lives.

Van Tiggelen talks about the book ‘Black Death – White Hands’ written by Paul Wilson in 1982. In that book Wilson argued that when a man called Alwyn Peters killed his girlfriend it was actually because of white colonialism and racism. It wasn’t the killer’s fault. It was the whitefella’s fault. This argument worked. Peters was given a very short sentence.

Dr Jarrett started to worry about Aboriginal women’s rights when she saw David Bradbury’s film ‘State of Shock’. This was made in 1988 and was based on the same case. Bradbury brought the film to Alice Springs and brought Alwyn Peters with him. In the film Bradbury gave only the story of Peters and his family. Nobody from the victim’s family was given a chance to give their point of view. They would not have backed Bradbury’s argument so they were ignored. I remember Alwyn Peters telling us that ‘she has ruined my life’. He was talking about the one he killed. ‘She comes to me in dreams’ he said. This made me feel sick. When my husband asked David Bradbury ‘why didn’t you talk to the victim’s family, you would have got a different point of view?’. He said ‘Alwyn Peter’s family are victims too’. In other words all of our sympathy was meant to be for the one who killed and his family and not for the one he killed or her family.

Back in 1991 Audrey Bolger of the ANU’s North Australian research Unit wrote a wonderful little book called ‘Aboriginal Women and Violence’. At last somebody was taking notice, at last a white woman was trying to get governments to act. She was ignored and, as far as I know, nobody tried again after that. Her voice was drowned out by the politically correct who took their lead from Wilson and Bradbury. Just keep blaming the whitefellas and every thing will be fine.

Audrey Bolger said in her book, way back then, that;

‘in the final analysis the problem of violence against Aboriginal women will only be solved by Aboriginal people themselves’.

The report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody said the same thing. In a way she was right, my people need to act now to stop our own violence. But in another way this has given governments and the wider community an excuse for the big cop out. OK, we whitefellas caused the problems but only blackfellas will solve them so we’ll sit around waiting for that to happen.

She also said:

– ‘the problem is a complicated one, bound up as it is with other issues connected with changing lifestyles. Working through these issues towards satisfactory solutions is crucial to the future well being of all Aboriginal people’.

She was right but in the twenty two years since she wrote that there have been no satisfactory solutions found and things are much worse now. It hasn’t happened and I’m sick of sitting around waiting while my loves ones are killed. We have had committees and research projects and advisory councils and ATSIC and now we have a National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. Billions of dollars have been spent. We have had visits from United Nations Special Rapporteurs and Amnesty International indigenous officers. Not only haven’t solutions been found but none of these have even bothered to raise the issue. I want to work through those issues and find solutions.

For the Left and for many Aboriginal politicians on the national stage it seemed that the only issues worth talking about were the Stolen Generation and Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. These are real issues that had to be addressed. But they weren’t the only issues. In the meantime women still died, children didn’t go to school, epidemics of renal failure, diabetes, cancers and heart disease grew worse, young men went to jail. We kept killing each other and ourselves. Australians were not told that the death rate amongst our young men was higher outside custody than in and that more Aboriginal women died at the hands of their menfolk than Aboriginal men died in custody.

Since then so many more women have died and been sexually assaulted and many killers and rapists have been given very short sentences. And many more men have gone to jail. This has come from this whitefella sense of guilt, the fear of encouraging racism and the fear of changing our culture. All of the victims in these cases were Aboriginal. There seems to be a very different attitude displayed in the rare cases where the victim is white and the perpetrator Aboriginal. My people now feud much more than they used to partly I believe, because they doubt that the courts will punish the guilty enough.

The message to our young women is simple. ‘Our fantasy of what your culture is about is more valuable than your lives. Our fear of racism is much greater than our respect for your lives. We ask you to sacrifice your lives for our political agenda. You will only hear from us when we can blame a whitefella for the crime’.

The message to our young men is also simple. ‘If you kill your women we understand, we will take the blame and we can guarantee you our sympathy’. Since Wilson wrote his book and Bradbury made his movie the weakest and most vulnerable in our communities have suffered immensely, with no sympathy from the Left. Things are much worse now.

Bob Gosford, the Crikey blogger, is typical of the middle class white man who knows us better than we do and who ignores our suffering to push his own agenda. He regularly insults me and my people. He lived for a while in my community. In that short time he came to know my people, in fact my own family, better than I do apparently. He has waged a campaign against me for several years now.

Last week we saw this man freely discussing, in his blog and on radio, cultural issues in a way that has brought shame on all of the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. Although he takes his pay from Aboriginal people he has shown that he has no respect for our culture. He is willing to publicly insult and shame us to push his personal agenda. He has never tried to discuss the issues he writes about with me. He has never spoken out against violence in our communities and spends all of his time trying to destroy the reputations of those who do. In his wisdom he calls me an ‘intra-racist’ because I am sick of the nonsense coming from those in the south who call themselves ‘indigenous’ but look, think, act and live their lives like whitefellas and, like Bob Gosford, think they know us better than we know ourselves.

I have even been warned by a white human rights lawyer from Melbourne that I could be charged with racial vilification under the Racial Discrimination Act. I have never heard this human rights lawyer speak out against the violence that is killing our women and girls. He wouldn’t even know about the deaths of the two young women in recent months and I doubt if he cares. There was no whitefella that could be blamed so he’s not interested. The hurt feelings of southerners who don’t like the truth are much more important to this human rights lawyer than the lives of our women and girls here in the bush. His priorities are obviously different from mine.

But what would I know. To this white journalist van Tiggelen I’m an ‘Aboriginal politician’. To the member for Barkly I am an ‘Aboriginal Liberal’. This implies that I shouldn’t be listened to. Only those on the Left know what a real blackfella is. Only they know which Aboriginal spokespeople can be trusted to tell the truth. The ones who agree with them. The Left decides for us but get angry when we refuse to let them put their words in our mouths. Even when the Labor government had Aboriginal members – ‘Aboriginal Labor’ I guess the member for Barkly would call them – I didn’t see them get much support when they tried to make a difference. And we in the Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council were used as a token, not taken seriously, except by Minister McCarthy alone and she was ignored.

If you read van Tiggelen’s article you’d think that Dr’ Jarrett’s book was launched in a room full of evil geriatric racists. I am obviously their tool and plaything. According to him, Dr Jarrett was half their average age. That would make their average age 120. Van Tiggelen is one of those whitefellas who call every Aboriginal person they meet with grey hair an elder and insist they should be respected. That is except, of course, Aboriginal people like me – Aboriginal politicians on the wrong side. Yet they despise their own elders. I would call Dr Jarrett an elder of her own people who genuinely knows and cares about mine.

To these on the Left, political Conservatives are a bunch of geriatric, racist conspirators who want to take away our rights even though they gave us:

• the vote in Commonwealth elections for the first time,
• equal pay,
• the 1967 referendum,
• the very first Aboriginal parliamentarian, a senator,
• the NT Land Rights Act,
• the first Aboriginal MLA in the Northern Territory,
• the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives
• now five Aboriginal members of the current NT Government
• and the first ever Aboriginal leader of any Australian Government.

Forget about Dr. Jarrett’s tireless scholarship and her deep concern for the lives and welfare of the most weak and vulnerable in our communities. Forget about the fact that she has never voted for the Liberals herself and doesn’t belong to a political party. She doesn’t echo the thoughts of the progressive Left. So, according to this white man, she can’t be trusted.

There were many in that room in Sydney who I would disagree with. I don’t like or use the term ‘integrationist school’ that is used by Gary Johns. I certainly don’t agree with everything Keith Windshuttle says about our history. I am not their puppet, and they have never treated me that way. I am nobody’s puppet.

But these people ask me to speak to them and tell them what I think. They listen respectfully. They don’t ignore me in the first place, then attack, insult and vilify me when I do speak out like so-called Left progressives do.

I joined a Liberal party because I believe in the right of free speech, because I want everybody to be allowed to join the debate. Like our new Chief Minister, yes I’m indigenous, but first I’m Australian. Like him I want the Northern Territory to be one community working together in harmony. The Left wants to divide us from other Australians. The Left would never have allowed Dr Jarrett to publish her book. They are about censorship and denial of free speech.

I know about the frontier violence. Relatives of mine were shot in the Coniston Massacres in my parents’ lifetime. I know about the Stolen Children. My own sister was taken from my mother and given to an Arrernte family at Santa Teresa. Those who were taken and given to Aboriginal families in different language groups and different communities are never mentioned and don’t get apologies even though their mothers grieved as much as the others. I know about the jailing of our young men, almost all of my young male relatives have spent time in jail. I also know what it’s like to bury our children and young mothers, their lives taken in public, while the Left looked the other way.

I don’t have to be lectured to by the likes of Van Tiggelen and Gosford about the trauma my people have been through. I wonder how many of their own loved ones have been murdered. No matter that I achieved an 18½% swing in an electorate with a 73% Aboriginal population. These whitefellas don’t believe in democracy. They are saying that my people are stupid to have voted for me. I am a populist according to Mr Gosford. I don’t need to be told by these white men what needs to be done. I know my people. The politics has all been about blaming whitefellas. We don’t need more of that. It has meant that many good whitefellas have done nothing out of fear of making things worse, while the racist, the ignorant and incompetent keep doing damage. And the Left keeps blustering and lecturing and doing nothing.

Those who insult me will not close me down. I will keep speaking out until our women are no longer killed because they are women. I will speak out until they have the same individual human rights as Larrissa Behrendt, and all other Australian women have. I will keep speaking out until our kids have the same rights to a safe and healthy life, a good education and the same access to jobs as everybody else’s kids. Conservative, Progressive, Left and Right, and intra-racist – these words mean nothing to me. They are whitefella terms from their political history. Whitefellas made them up, we didn’t. I want a conversation with my people on our terms in the words we use. We are not politically correct.

I want to keep our women and kids alive, I want our kids educated and confident, I want to keep them out of jail, I want them to work and to be paid equally for their work. I want them to be able to choose how they want to live themselves and to be able to tell us what they want in good, educated English as well as their own languages. I don’t want them to be condemned to poverty, violence and ignorance in the name of a white middle class male blogger’s idea of ‘culture’. I will work with anybody else who wants the same thing regardless of the political labels attached to them by others. Call me whatever names you want it won’t stop me from helping to make this happen.

Thank you Madam speaker.