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Master-Apprentice Language Revival in NYC

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Vanessa Farrelly, Pertame Language Activist and staff member of the Batchelor Institute CALL program, accompanied by her grandmother, Kathleen Bradshaw, recently attended the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Global Indigenous Language Training in New York to learn about Master-Apprentice Language Revival. In the following article Vanessa shares their experiences, their insights and their plans for the future.

Werta! Rrinta nweka nema Vanessa Ngala Farrelly-nha. Yenga Pertama kwarra. Yenga Canberra-rinya pa Alice Springs-rinya pa Horseshoe Bend-rinya. Yenga kaltya-irrema Pertame ngema. Lyurra therra nweka kaltya-ntema marra nthurra. Pertame relha pa ngetya ilkerta nthurra. Nwerna mparema relha ingkeya mapa-nga nweka kanketya-ntema nthurra. Ngektya nwerna nema nwernakenha.

Hello! My name is Vanessa Ngala Farrelly. I am a Pertame girl. I am from Canberra, Alice Springs and Horseshoe Bend. I am learning to speak Pertame. My two nanas are very good teachers. Pertame people and language are really strong. We are making the old people very happy. Our language is who we are.

In April this year, my Nana Kathleen and I started our incredible journey to New York that would change our lives. Our trip to the United Nations introduced us to other Indigenous people from across the world, who shared our struggles and our mission: to save their language.

Our language, Pertame Southern Arrernte, is a severely endangered language in Central Australia. There are 10-20 speakers alive today, most in the grandparent generation. Our family has been working for many years to record and teach Pertame to the younger generations. But progress has been slow and our elder speakers are getting older every year. Before this trip, I was looking for some guidance for how to teach language courses effectively. I was stressed because I didn’t know how to write proper lesson plans, a curriculum or teach syllables and grammar how I remember it being taught to me when I was in school. I was not a qualified teacher. This trip answered all my questions and simplified the massive task ahead of us, how to keep Pertame alive.

We arrived in New York jet-lagged but excited. We got to our workshop run by the Global Indigenous Language Caucus and listened as Indigenous people from America, Canada, Alaska, Russia, South America and Norway introduced themselves in their native languages. We were so inspired to be in a room full of Indigenous people running their own language programs. Our teachers were all strong Indigenous language activists and fluent speakers. It felt like real self-determination. We were able to talk honestly about why our Indigenous languages were dying, how the colonial languages and powers have oppressed our people, identities and languages. Whether it was Russian, English or Spanish dominant languages, we all shared the same stories of genocide, massacres, child removal, boarding schools and harsh punishment for speaking native languages. Our languages aren’t endangered by accident. It was a sustained and well funded effort by the colonial governments to replace our languages, cultures and identities with theirs.  But the fact that we were all sitting in a room together, still fighting for our languages, meant that they had not won.

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(l-r) Vanessa Farrelly, Kathleen Bradshaw with Stanley Rodriguez, Kumeyaay speaker and teacher.

The most important thing I learnt was that our language programs did not have to be like our schooling. Our schooling comes from a colonial western model. And we know it is not working for our children. When we were babies, we managed to learn our first language without knowing what a noun, transitive verb, or relative clause was. We just listened to our parents speaking language to us and around us, and slowly we understood. This is the model that the Yuchi people of Oklahoma are using to great success. It is called language immersion. The theory is that people can learn their second language like they did their first language. If they are exposed to their Indigenous language in context for 10-20 hours a week, they will eventually understand the language and speak it. In the Master-Apprentice model, English translations are out, spelling and writing is out, and sentence structure lessons and grammar lessons are out. Understanding language must be in context, and you must stay in the language as you learn.

The Yuchi people have an incredibly successful language program. They have created 16 fluent second language speakers since 1996. I met two young Yuchi people in our workshops who became fluent in 8 months. Halay, an inspirational Yuchi mum, talks only Yuchi to her two children, so it will be their first language. Nana Kathy and myself were awestruck listening to the Yuchi family have conversations to each other in language, and watch the a one-year-old and a three-year-old communicate to each other in Yuchi.

For Indigenous languages with few speakers left, the best way to immerse learners in their language is through a Master-Apprentice program. This involves a young person wishing to learn their language (language hunter or apprentice) spending one-on-one time with a fluent elder speaker, who is the master. Research shows that to learn a new language word, you must hear and practice it 20 times, in 20 different contexts. That adds up to 400 times! The key to learning a new language is lots of time with a language speaker. Our workshop teachers warned us that it takes a sustained and intense effort to create a new language speaker, and both the master and apprentice must be truly dedicated. They told us honestly that 95% of our community won’t have the time to become fluent speakers, but that is ok. We need to focus on the 5% that do have the time, the passion and the drive to keep going. The other 95% might want to join later when they start seeing the results.

Our teachers could not emphasize enough how important it was to stay in the language during the master-apprentice sessions, and not slip into English for translation. Nana Kathy and I did   a couple of practise master-apprentice sessions for 5 minutes, and we both were incredibly frustrated at the end of that short time. The urge to slip into the language of mutual understanding was so strong. But we must fight it, because our Indigenous languages are not a mere translation of English, and we should not learn them that way. Working out what the master is saying without translation is part of the learning experience, and helps you remember the word if you went on a journey to understand its meaning, rather than having a translation handed to you. However, the master-apprentice method doesn’t want to leave the apprentice completely lost for what the master is saying. The master is to start off with simple sentences, like how you would talk to a baby just learning how to speak. The master should use gestures, pictures, pointing and other non-verbal cues so the apprentice has enough information to gauge meaning.

The apprentice should also learn a series of “survival sentences” in their language to ensure they can ask questions and get more information, without slipping back into the colonial language. These sentences include:

  • How do you say…….? Nhakenha unta ngema?
  • What are you doing? What am I doing? What is he/she doing? Wenha unta mparema? Wenha atha mparema? Wenha ira mparema?
  • What should I do now? Wenha ntema atha yarna mparema?
  • What is that? What is this? Wenha lanha? Nhana wenha?
  • Tell me a story. Yeya nweka alpmilaye!
  • Speak Pertame! Not English! Pertame ngeketyeka! English itya!

Often the master might need reminding to stay in their Indigenous language. After years of speaking the colonial language by force, even our elders have picked up a habit of speaking English in everyday life. We need to replace that with a habit of speaking language once again.

Another powerful piece of knowledge our Native American hosts gave us was that the only way to speak your language wrong was to not speak it at all. They gave us permission to butcher and mispronounce our language as we were learning. They reassured us that progress will be slow, and for some time, we will not know what the hell our master is saying to us. But we will. Our master will swear us, they will get frustrated because they taught us this word hundreds of times and we still don’t know it. But just swear right back at them in language, don’t take it personally and keep going. They are frustrated because they care about you and want you to succeed.

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(l-r) Micha Deo, Chaske Turning Heart, Vanessa Farrelly, Kathleen Bradshaw, Richard Grounds, Nahalay Turning Heart and Halay Turning Heart. The Yuchi family that invited us to New York.

As Nana Kathy and I returned home from a trip of a lifetime, we made plans excitedly for how we can take what we have learnt back to our family. Nana Kathy resolved to speak Pertame with her young grandson in Western Australia to build him into a fluent speaker. I resolved to create a master-apprentice program in Alice Springs with our fluent speaker Nana Chrissy as the master, and get more Pertame young people committed to being apprentices with me. We held a family meeting, I skyped Nana Kathy in from WA, and we shared everything we had learn from our trip to New York. The room was filled with good energy. Our family was so engaged with what they were hearing. It just made so much sense to learn language this way. Learning language through grammar and nouns, verbs and adjectives felt like pushing a boulder up a hill. It was so much work and it wasn’t getting us very far. But learning language the master-apprentice way felt so Indigenous. It aligned with our Pertame values of family, kinship and the intergenerational passing of knowledge.

I have no doubt now that we will save Pertame. Five Pertame young people have committed to being apprentices, and our elders couldn’t be happier to help them learn. I am so deeply grateful to our Yuchi family from across the world, who supported us to come to New York, and ran a groundbreaking workshop. We also thank from the bottom of our hearts our workshop teachers for all the years of experience running language programs they shared with us. Long live our Indigenous languages.

Nwerna ingkerreka urrkapanga ngketya nwernaka ikerlta mparema.

Everyone working together making our languages strong.

Kela marra

Master-Apprentice reference
Hinton, L., Vera, M., & Steele, N. (2002). How to keep your language alive: A commonsense approach to one-on-one language learning. Heyday.