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This page contains some hints on how to learn a (mostly) unwritten language.

Don't ask too many questions

It is good to ask bininj for advice; a whitefella acknowledging their ignorance is like a breath of fresh air for many Aboriginal people. But be careful not to bombard people with questions... it starts to feel like a test. Open questions are generally better, e.g. not "when was Gunbalanya founded?" but rather "can you tell me about this place?"

It is tempting for westerners to engage in "inquiry learning", interrogating the material, understanding it through questioning. In many Indigenous cultures this is not an effective way of working with local people to learn the language. Also, repeatedly asking "how do you say X?", or "what does X mean?" is generally not an effective way to learn to speak a language.

"A [balanda] and a [bininj] sitting down for the first time for language study experience considerable discomfort. Each one realizes that he is confronting a human being in a situation which is abnormal. ... Sustained questioning is probably restricted in all societies to a limited number of settings. In our own we can imagine being questioned by a physician, highway patrolman, income tax controller, census taker, personnel manager, bank mortgage representative, and so on. This list of interrogators points out a significant fact about these settings: that the person opposite us is in some official capacity... in this setting we are passive and vulnerable. This is no less true when the questions are put by those with whom we are otherwise on intimate terms, our parents or our spouses, for example. A university student finds little pleasure in being asked a long series of questions by members of his family about his year away in school. In our society one therefore avoids every semblance of a formal interview... Immediate attention must be given to the elimination of anxieties, for anxieties constitute a substantial obstacle to effective communication. ... The forms it takes are numerous, but its function is always to protect the ego from exposure and vulnerability. A person who feels ill at ease in some situation is one who is not certain if he can handle himself to his own satisfaction. ... Anxieties can also be induced by making the [bininj] believe he is being tested or that he is inferior by comparison with the [balanda]." --- William Samarin (1967) Field Linguistics.

Leave your comfort zone

You might be tempted to seek out written materials, but this complicates the task of understanding spontaneous speech in real life situations. It is better to shift your orientation and face some initial discomfort, as suggested in the following table (moving from left to right).

Desired behavioural changes for effective learning of an oral language and culture

NB. It's not about permanently leaving your comfort zone, but just leaving it from time to time.

Many people assume a two step process: (1) learn the language through intensive study; then (2) apply what you've learnt with people. However, you won't get far with Kunwok this way. You need to cast yourself out there even if it means adopting a more outgoing personality. Try things, make mistakes, have a laugh... if you're not feeling awkward or embarrassing yourself occasionally, you're not learning. Remember, the language exists for communication and relationships, so make communication and relationships the priority from the start.

--- Sarah Gudschinsky (1967) How to Learn an Unwritten Language, page 4

Find a language guide

Just because someone speaks Kunwok doesn't make them a good teacher. Some people might overwhelm you with information in their enthusiasm to teach you. Start making friends, and see who you can easily relax with over a cup of tea. Remember that language learning is tiring for everyone, so monitor people's level of interest. Sometimes it's easier to focus on learning cultural things, and picking up language alongside that.

Learn phrases not words

Learning vocabulary out of context is virtually useless, because you don't get clues to the range of meanings of a word. If I memorise that a particular word translates as line in English, does that mean a line drawn in the sand, a queue of people waiting to board a bus, a wire for hanging clothes on, or a metaphorical boundary that should not be crossed? Instead, memorise whole phrases that put a word in context. Then substitute other words into these phrases.

Many people start by replacing English nouns with Kunwok nouns, e.g. "what's that daluk's name?". But speaking the language requires verbs, and you can't learn Kunwok verbs this way. You learn them through substitution:

  • ngayawan duruk (I'm looking for the dog)
  • ngabukkan duruk (I'm teaching the dog)
  • ngadukkan duruk (I'm tying up the dog)
  • ngamang duruk (I'm getting the dog)
  • ngare ~ ngamre (I'm going ~ coming)
  • ngadurndeng ~ ngamdurndeng (I'm going back ~ coming back)
  • ngalobme ~ ngamlobme (I'm driving away ~ towards)
  • ngakan ~ ngamkan (I'm taking it ~ bringing it)

Practice positive self-talk

When your mind offers up to you the thought that "I'm not good at this", replace it with a positive alternative such as "Most worthwhile things are challenging. This is worthwhile."

Keep a learning journal

Google learning journal and find some guidance that works for you. Keep a regular log of your thoughts and observations, and learn about your preferences and strengths. Consider blogging about this new journey.

Meet with other learners

Find someone else who wants to learn with you. Meet regularly to share your experiences and ideas. Share any learning resources you create with each other (or on this site).

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