Tag Archives: language

Why Learn Language?

Last week, a comment was posted on a previous post which challenged the importance of learning language in the modern global society and indeed of trying to learn a language that so few people speak.

The commenter stated:

If there is only 3000 people speaking it then why not let it die off naturally, until it is replaced with English. There are still far too many languages in the world and this causes mis-understanding which can often lead to bloody conflict.The way to global peace is only having one language for the entire world to speak.

Chinese is ok for badly dubbed Kung fu films but essentially its just incomprehensable gobbledlygook, so that only leaves English, which is already the most popular language by far.

Firstly, I’d like to challenge the last remark that English is the most popular language by far. How is this popularity measured? If we go by sheer number of native speakers, Mandarin Chinese is the most ‘popular’ language with more than 845 million speakers. Even if we add in non-native speakers, Mandarin still comes out tops with English a distant second. The only way English wins a popularity contest is if we look at countries with English as an official language. Then we get a fair proportion of this wonderful globe. But in parts of the Southern United States, more than 30% of the population speak Spanish as a first language.

Now “Chinese” as ‘incomprehensable gobbledlygook’ [sic] is such a false statement that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Not speaking “Chinese” myself, it is of course incomprehensible to me, but I’m sure the 845 million Mandarin speakers disagree. Hell, some accents in English are incomprehensible to me – I only speak Strine English. But maybe, if you are interested in hearing what English might sound like to someone who doesn’t speak it, check out this short film Skwerl, which was made to sound like the cadence of English without having a single sensical sentence in it.

“There are far too many languages in the world, and this often leads to bloody conflict.”

I’d argue that this point is highly debatable. Yes, there are wars between peoples who speak different languages, but how often is this through an oral misunderstanding. Another commenter pointed out the Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian conflict of the 90s as demonstrative of a conflict where people spoke almost the same language. The Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Rwanda was between two groups who both spoke the same language. The US Civil War and Spanish Civil War were both wars of disagreement where the actors spoke the same language. And I think it would be highly tenuous to suggest that any other war in the modern era has been caused due to, in primary, a language miscommunication.

If there are only 3000 speakers of it, why not let it die off naturally”.

The death of a language or the absorption of a new one means so much more to a person than just a ‘natural death’. Language affects the way one perceives the world, how one exists within it. It can tell us the importance cultures place on different aspects, how they order themselves socially. Check this documentary out about the Piraha in South America for how different a worldview language can create.

In my country, Aboriginal languages have rarely died off naturally. They have ceased to exist through imposition, through imperialism, through the removal of children, through the banning of use in public life, not merely through its natural abandonment for a new tongue.

But this is besides the point. Why am I trying to learn Pitjantjatjara?

Because in trying to speak their language, I am able to see the world a little more from their eyes. I can better put myself in the shoes of the students I teach as they struggle with my language. I can begin to comprehend their confusion and recognise where mistakes are made. I can have a conversation with the old woman who lives next door to me, but speaks little English. I can participate in discussions that directly effect the community I live in – and I can understand frustrations when they are voiced in language. And I let go of some of my culture’s hegemony and walk a path with a people whose voice is too often ignored, forgotten or lost in the clamour of mainstream Australia.

I may not be thanked for it. I may not even master it. But it’s more fun saying let me try and speak like you than saying let me make you speak like me.

And I hope that if more of my country thought like this, perhaps we would act out more of the ideals we so often voice without action.

Plus if we didn’t have Pitjantjatjara, we wouldn’t have this song.




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Learning Pitjantjatjara – the Final Day

It was the final day of the intensive course today, which was a little sad. We’d all bonded well over two weeks and 80 plus hours of Pitjantjatjara learning. I hope that once I’m back on the Pit Lands, we will get a class up and going and that I’ll be brave enough to broker detailed conversations with some of my colleagues in Pit.

I was pretty impressed with the accuracy of some of the guesses in the comments of the last post. They all seemed well-educated considering the sounds of Pitjantjatjara would be foreign to most readers. So here’s the answers:

  • tangkiyi (an animal) – donkey
  • patjikala (a vehicle) – bicycle
  • tarawatja (an item of clothing) – trousers
  • pulitjamunu (an occupation) – policeman
  • tiritja (an item of clothing) – dress
  • pitikuta (an item of clothing) – skirt
  • wayatjara (a cooking implement) – billy (metal pot for boiling water)
  • raipula (a hunting implement) – rifle
  • mutuka (a vehicle) – car
  • paatja (a vehicle) – bus
  • tjiya (an object) – chair
  • taipula (an object) – table
  • kapamanta (a very, very large organisation or employee of said organisation) – government/government employee

One last anecdote before my journey back to the Pit Lands begins:

When translating languages, confusion from mistranslation almost always ensues. Anangu must have had some difficulties with the idea that the missionaries’ God promised them everlasting caterpillars through Jesus Christ.

All it took was an omission of an    . There are three very similar words which non-Indigenous people (particularly English speakers) find difficult to tell the difference between when hearing, and

wanka – life, alive, raw etc

wangka – to speak/talk

wanka – caterpillar, spider, spiderweb


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Learning Pitjantjatjara #3

Staying in Adelaide is always a hectic time for me. I haven’t lived in this city for almost six years, but still spend a lot of time running around trying to maintain old friendships. It makes it an exhausting end to the school holidays when coupled with learning new languages.

Sometimes I wonder if any of it will sink in?

One thing that has always fascinated me about different languages is how we adopt words to suit our language needs. English is one of the masters of this taking words from wherever we find them and anglicising them. Karaoke, hors d’ouevre, pasta – to name a few… not to mention the thousands of words adopted over the centuries through invasion and interaction with different European nationalities.

Castellano Spanish always impressed me with its absolute refusal to adopt English words. Ordenador for computer; portatìl for laptop.

Pronouncing words from a foreign language is always difficult. Take this Japanese game show, for example, where contestants must not laugh at incorrect pronunciations.

But in terms of being a skilled word borrower, Pitjantjatjara might just take the cake.

First contact between Anangu and non-Indigenous peoples occurred within the last 200 years and at a rapidly increasing rate only in the last 80 odd years. With that contact came an array of objects and concepts that had never existed before within Anangu culture, all of which required new words for expression.

One example of this we learnt last week. In a dialogue we have to learn, we ask “Kan iruwa-ku mukuringanyi?” which translates to “do you want tea?” A tutor told us that while writing this dialogue the word iruwa came up and she had no idea where it came from. (It’s now fallen out of use – replaced by the word ‘ti’). Anangu didn’t have a word for tea – not having any prior to contact, but iruwa is clearly not taken from English.

It turns out they did borrow it, though, from the Arrernte people who live around Alice Springs. Did tea beat European exploration in reaching Western Desert nations? Quite possibly.

Obviously, a large amount of borrowed words in Pitjantjatjara come from English. These tend to be quite confusing for non-native speakers who don’t expect to hear their language sounded back at them.

See if you can work out what these words might be (a clue in brackets):

  • tangkiyi (an animal)
  • patjikala (a vehicle)
  • tarawatja (an item of clothing)
  • pulitjamunu (an occupation)
  • tiritja (an item of clothing)
  • pitikuta (an item of clothing)
  • wayatjara (a cooking implement)
  • raipula (a hunting implement)
  • mutuka (a vehicle)
  • paatja (a vehicle)
  • tjiya (an object)
  • taipula (an object)
  • kapamanta (a very, very large organisation or employee of said organisation)

Here’s some translations that may or may not help you.

Kurukalatja is the Pit word for glasses coming from the word kuru (eye) and kalatja sounding like glasses. Kapati is the word for recess (short break) in schools coming from cup of tea. Tuyuta is the word for 4WD coming from Toyota. Any make of 4WD can be called a tuyuta.

Leave a comment with your guesses and I’ll put the correct translations up tomorrow.



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Learning Pitjantjatjara – Week One

*Note: I just lost a wisdom tooth and am quite distracted by the pain in my mouth. Perhaps some of this feels quite vague because of it.

So the intention of writing daily hasn’t worked out (as usual). Life gets in the way.

But damn, I learnt a thousand different things this week, and only a quarter of those were language. Here’s a few bits of particular interest linguistically or culturally:

1. The alphabet has three vowel sounds.

“A” pronounced like a in “ah”

“I” pronounced like i in “sit”

“U” pronounced like u in “pull”

There are only 23 letters in total in Pitjantjatjara. We use the Latin alphabet to write them and some letters are doubled up for pronunciation purposes.

A, AA, I, II, K, L, L, LY, M, N, NG, NY, P, R, R, T, T, TJ, U, UU, W, Y

Many of our English sounds are quite difficult to pronounce because of their non-existence in Pitjantjatjara. Sh and Ch often become TJ. S disappears. B becomes P. D becomes T.

I’m not even going to try and explain how to pronounce some of the sounds. My tongue has been stretched in a variety of peculiar directions. And damn, why do I keep learning languages that need me to trill my Rs?

2. There’s no passive voice in Pitjantjatjara. This has to change the way people communicate. In English, especially in bureaucrat-speak, passive voice is so important for distancing oneself from the topic at hand, but using this kind of language with someone who has never heard of it in their own language must be highly confusing. Constant active voice must also mean that disagreements can be resolved more directly. “You have annoyed me!” rather than “I have been annoyed!” (perhaps not the best example, but hey, I’m writing under local anaesthetic).

Abstract nouns don’t always translate well into Pitjantjatjara. It has its own set of abstract nouns that don’t necessarily translate into English. Ironically, one of the words that is most difficult to translate is “reconciliation” – perhaps one of the most commonly used words in Aboriginal politics. So, it becomes all the more important to choose words carefully when speaking in English with native Pitjantjatjara speakers.

So often we make assumptions about what can be understood easily and do not consider this.

3. I learnt a lot more about family and culture. The below picture is of the family of one of my tutors. It’s taken not from her mother’s generation, but from her grandmother’s generation and it gives some idea of just how close Anangu family ties are.


In the last post, I described my family. I recognised how my direct uncles were considered my fathers but also how some of my younger cousins could be considered my ‘elder’ brother and sister. The photo above though shows how this not only stretches to my first cousins, but also my second cousins. It also demonstrates how a great grandmother becomes a ‘katja’ daughter.

Along the side of the board, you’ll see the words ‘Ngananamiri’ and ‘tjanamiltjanpa’. These relate to ‘skins’ which determine how you relate and behave to members of your family (*and much, much more that I cannot explain). The word ‘moieties’ was thrown around a lot during this discussion and this flew over my head. But we could see how the differences in ‘skins’ changed the relationships between our tutors. Some tutors were able to joke and tease each other freely, while others were not able to speak in the same way to those people.

4. Today, Rev. Dr. Bill Edwards spoke to us about some of the history of early contact, Pukatja and the Ernabella Mission. I’ve been keen to hear Dr. Edwards speak since I read Winifred Hilliard’s The People Inbetween. He described how he came to work at Ernabella in the early 1950s and showed a video he’d recorded circa 1960. I was struck by his eloquence, passion and grace while talking, but most of all his humility. I purchased his essay titled “Mission in the Musgraves” and am really keen to read his other work.

I’ve really enjoyed this week and can’t wait for next week to start. I’m not at a conversational level of Pitjantjatjara yet (that would be a while away) but I feel pretty satisfied with my rate of progress. Plus it’s opened me up to a whole range of aspects of cultural life that effect my classroom.


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Learning Pitjantjatjara – Day One

Isn’t it lovely to be back in sunny Adelaide during the height of summer (41˚C) spending my hard-earned school holidays in a university tutorial room learning language?


I pulled myself out of the comfortable, post-school/Christmas/New Years laze yesterday and drove the 726km from Melbourne to Adelaide to begin my two-week intensive Pitjantjatjara language programme. The intention over the next two weeks is to blog a little about what I’m discovering in Pit (but no promises, hey).

Note: There may be opinions, ideas or understandings that I get backwards. Don’t hold them against me. As one of my students would say “You don’t know. You still learning.” If you do know better, feel free to enlighten me. Please.

Day One of a language course is always interesting. Not much is ever covered but you get a grasp for the style of the teachers, the abilities of your colleagues and some of what may lay ahead. I recall fondly my first Spanish language class in Madrid with my knowledge of Español being ‘Hola, no hablo Español.’

We were a class of 12 or so beginners from all over the world – a couple of Australians, some Germans, Americans, Chinese, Japanese and a handful of other nationalities. We were all beginners and English was our lingua franca. The teacher, who I visualise perfectly but have no idea of the name, entered the room and began:

Hola. Buenos dias, estudiantes. ¿Como estan ustedes? ¿Estamos aqui para aprender Español, no? ¿Si? Bueno, vamos a empezar…

Needless to say, we had not a clue of what was going on. It took at least a week to even get my head around the words.

My experience of language learning in Australia is not quite the same as it was in Spain. There is a total lack of immersion in the language being learnt and we clearly experience discomfort when put into situations where we might be immersed. But today, I was pleasantly surprised at how the leading teacher was trying to challenge us to immerse. There was little discussion of grammar, plenty of listening to Pitjantjatjara spoken by native speakers, lots of repetition and bite-size chunks of language being thrown around. But we were guided through all of this in the safe hands of English.

Quite a lot of the language we learnt today, I’d picked up in 12 months in community. But there were new aspects I uncovered and awakenings to concepts I was previously confused by. Here’s a few tidbits of new knowledge:

    1. Pitjantjatjara – literally means “having the word “pitja”. Other languages that relate to it like Yankunytjatjara similarly translate to “having the word “ya”. “Pitja” would translate to go, move, come or some other similar word (I haven’t checked my dictionary – it’s three feet away).
    2. I’ve been using the wrong form of the imperative. I keep telling just one student to listen, to sit down, to stand up. See, kulila is the imperative for listen. But if you’re talking to more than one person, kulilaya is the correct form. Likewise, nyinakati (sit down) should be nyinakatiya and wangka (speak) should be wangkaya if talking to multiple people.
    3. I’ve struggled to understand the familial relationships in Anangu culture for much of the past year. Little by little, aspects have become clearer, but everyone seemed to be tjamu, akala, or kami. What I learnt today, though, was eyeopening. So here’s my best attempt at explaining it.

      In my family, there’s me and my younger sister. She’s my younger sister so she’s my malanypa (sibling). Then we have my mama (father) and my ngunytju (mother).

      On my father’s side, he has two brothers, both younger than him. They are both my mama (father). My uncle’s wife is my ngunytju (mother) and his daughter is my malanypa (sibling).

      On my mother’s side, she has an older brother, and a younger brother and deceased younger sister. Her sister is my ngunytju (mother) and her husband my mama (father). Her son is my malanypa (sibling). My mother’s older brother, though, is my akala or kamuru kulypalpa (uncle) and his wife my kuntili (aunty). Their two children are not my malanypa. Rather, their daughter is my kangkuru (‘elder’ sister) and their son my kuta (‘elder’ brother), although both are younger than me in age. My mother’s other brother (younger) is also my kamuru kulypalpa  or akala, and his wife my kuntili, but their children are both my malanypa. My grandfathers are both my tjamu and my grandmother is my kami.

      I am kuta to my sister and my cousins from my parents’ younger brothers and sisters. I am also tjamu to my grandfather. As I watched this picture unfold, the circular, hierarchical nature of Anangu families became clearer and made sense. I could see how generational responsibility was evident in a person’s familial position. A tjamu (old) is both responsible for the teaching of his tjamu (young) and vice-versa the caring of the older as he gets older. Hierarchy within a family made more sense and the use of words in English such as ‘little uncle’ became clearer. Not 100% clearer as I am unable to adequately explain it, but more logical to me.

      Note: If you do know better, let me know.

    4. I learnt Freres Jacques in Pitjantjatjara. It goes:
      Mama yaaltji, mama yaaltji?
      Nyangatja! Nyangatja!
      Nyuntu palya nyinanyi?
      Uwa, palya ngayulu.
      Ma-pitja. Ma-pitja.Where is Dad? Where is Dad?
      Here I am. Here I am.
      Are you well? Yes, I’m well.
      Off he goes. Off he goes.
    5. Finally, I learnt a bunch of descriptive language. One of these was Kulpi nyaratja ngaranyi. The cave is over there.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow. It was great to see some of my Anangu colleages and professional colleagues outside of community and the constraints of work.

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The cusp of 2013

I’m looking forward to a couple of major activities beginning in the early part of the year. In a week, I head to Adelaide to begin a Pitjantjatjara language course offered through the David Unaipon institute at UniSA. As a two week intensive, I’m really hoping it will give me the foundational knowledge to be able to develop my language abilities better on the ground. I strongly believe that being able to operate bilingually is highly advantageous. Through embracing language, not only do I better recognise and understand the culture within which I’m working, but I also gain a stronger understanding of challenges students face linguistically in translating ideas and communicating effectively.

Having lived within Spanish culture for a number of years, I discovered that as my own language skills progressed, so too did my understanding of Spanish people and their idiosyncracies. As an ESL teacher, I was better able to recognise linguistic faults that were being made through direct translation and to assist students to correct them.

I’m also looking forward to seeing some good friends from the community who are working as tutors on the program. It’ll be great to see them outside of our living and working environs.

Later in 2013, I begin a Master of Indigenous Education through Macquarie University. I’m hopeful that it will be a worthwhile programme – as it’s been particularly designed with remote educators and other workers in mind. There are some fascinating topics around education policy and practice historically that I can’t wait to get my teeth into and some great comparative studies of international practice. It seems really relevant to my situation, and I hope it pans out that way.

Check out the course’s youtube propaganda below:

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