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.



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.

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.