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3 Stories of Language Learning | Warlpiri, Language, Ndash, Pitjantjatjara, Walytja, Jennifer, Beth, English | FATSILC, Fed. Aboriginal Torres Strait Island Languages and Culture
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Jennifer Biddle, Beth Sometimes and Ute Eickelkamp write about how learning an Indigenous language has made them see the world differently. Jennifer speaks Warlpiri from the south west and central deserts of Northern Territory and Beth and Ute speak Pitjantjatjara, from north west South Australia and the adjacent areas of the Northern Territory.
3 Stories of Language Learning
Beth & bandmate, Jennifer



Nampijinpa-jala! Yantarni, kapangku!

There are no polite terms in Warlpiri, no please, no thank you, no would you be so kind. Instead, the world is a series of commands, insistences, imperatives: come here, take this, wait now. Stripped of the bourgeois pretence of the mannered, the hesitancy of uncertain response - to speak Warlpiri is to know that you have rights. A position guaranteed already; permanent if re-established, repeated, remade, constantly. To speak Warlpiri well, right through, is to know when and how to insist, demand or refuse the complex, obligatory terms of reciprocity, sentiment and relation that the imperative instigates in an instance.

Why I love speaking Warlpiri most? Maybe this. Nampijinpa I am called to, Nampijinpa I am: I tell my mother to give me money, insist my sister in law look after my children, tell my nephew off for not giving me that T-shirt. I am growled by my Aunt for not giving my children ice cream; I am told to tell Kardiya what I know. This is not imprisonment, that ugly Althussarian term ‘interpellation’, but something like it’s opposite. Here, there is no place for the existential, wiyarrpa, poor thing really, that Sylvia Plath, eh? Who could only find in the beating of her heart ‘I am I am I am’? Here, I am because others tell me I am. What, how. Ngula, Kuja. Nampijinpa. Others who bring me into being by words that may sound harsh, mean even (I have heard more than once that to Kardiya, Warlpiri sounds staccato, sharp, bullet-like) but to me? It is what I long to hear, what I want to know; happy making, pijirrdi nyarni Warlpiri. Words that nurture, notice, include; highly refined, deeply knowing, demands of immediacy, presence, attention. Mine. Speaking Warlpiri, I am loved; speaking Warlpiri, I become myself more better.




Bicycling to and from rehearsals for ‘Nyuntu Ngali – You We Two’, a post-climate-change love story told in Pitjantjatjara and English, the numerous postboxes, Australia Post trucks, post offices and sorting depots in and around the Adelaide CBD wink at me with their iconic redness. This compelling affinity with the postal service is due to a mail-art project I recently conducted and the impending release of a compendium of postcards.

Atop my bicycling self, my head processes this connection to these postal in and outlets by thinking of them as my walytja – a Pitjantjatjara word meaning family, belonging to, associated with, owning; in many contexts all of these meanings at once. It is the most satisfying term that my internal monologue can summon to capture this association, describing a relationship that is not merely associative, not necessarily possessive, definitely warm, and understood as part of the natural order of things.

Jennifer and I have dyed our hair bright red. It’s kind of cute cause we’re musicians together in Nyuntu Ngali and so we sort of match in a black and white and red way. She started the joke - whenever we see other women around with brightly dyed hair, well, we call them our walytja too. It wasn’t so cute when some kids spilled red hair dye on the expensive carpet of our apartment. We didn’t want to face up to the walytja of the carpet. I had to ban her from having so many of the walytja over all the time. For a while she and I didn’t really feel like walytja anymore. But we’re laughing about it now.



Learning by living and doing might be the way to describe how my closest companion at Ernabella, the late YY, approached the task of teaching me her language, or wangka. For the first months, there were a lot of instructions in recurring situations: ‘Mantjila!’ – Pick this up! might have been the most frequently used command at the beginning, referring to firewood, the groceries bought at the local store, the kangaroo or rabbit that she just killed, and anything else YY desired, even if it was spatially closer to her than to me. So there was repetition, but nothing like rote learning. Soon YY began to behave as if I did understand, making much of situational contexts that gave clues as to where a conversation was heading. Later, another friend who is also a trained bible interpreter, told
me that YY had been slowly increasing the difficulty level of her Pitjantjatjara, adding new words and complexity when she felt I had mastered the previous dose. I could have realized that earlier, since I could follow YY’s speech directed at me much better than conversations between Anangu.

YY hardly ever used English, even though her comprehension of it was very good – incomparably better than my comprehension of Pitjantjatjara. If she found again that I was at a loss, staring dumbly at her, she would interrupt what she was doing, look at me and burst out laughing. I did swallow tears occasionally, but her patience and constant praise helped a great deal. At such a point, she’d still prefer not using English (unlike other people) and instead would take recourse to sign language and then drawing in the sand.

It made me love her. Spoon-feeding me her language was nurturing and it created such familiarity. It didn’t take long and I began dreaming about our shared adventures, but could never remember in which language – it was more that we had our own speech. But one morning, upon waking up and still snug in my swag, several pairs of eyes were staring at me, belonging to long-bearded faces. I heard the old men murmuring and muttering and thought: ‘Right, a snake or a spider has bitten me and they’re waiting to see how bad it is!’ I tried not to move. Thankfully I was wrong, yet again.‘You’ve been talking funny way’, somebody said to me in English. As it turned out, I was saying things in German (my mother tongue) in my dreams. Everybody said that was a good thing. I was becoming more like Anangu.

Soon after that, people were engaging me in longer conversations and – this really occurred – even though I could not, I did respond, going on and on in Pitjantjatjara, stringing together sentences and NOT having learnt it. Maybe I was just parroting the overall flow of sounds? But the conversations continued. Only when I realized that the language was speaking me, so to speak, did I become clumsy again and my mind shut down: ‘Kulintja wiya’, I don’t understand, I’d say, leaving the other person somewhat astonished and perhaps thinking I was trying to get out of the conversation. Looking back, this dreamlike knowing of how to use foreign words reminds me of my first attempts at riding a bicycle. Grandfather (my mother’s father whom I came to see as YY’s double) was holding onto the back of the little bike as we were going round and round in circles. ‘Just don’t let go’, I kept saying, and he always responded reassuringly. But then I looked and saw I was doing it all alone and promptly fell.

Today, a good decade after my initiatory stay at Ernabella, people still say to me: ‘You’re family. You’ve been sitting down with us, camping together. Speaking language.’

3 Stories of Language Learning