Dina's diary: Learning language in Alice Springs

I’m learning Arrernte language. It’s the language spoken by the original inhabitants of Alice Springs.

Rabu, 03 Jan 2018 10:45 WIB

Welcome to Alice Springs sign, signs in the middle of Todd Mall (Town Center). (Photo: Dina Indrasaf

Welcome to Alice Springs sign, signs in the middle of Todd Mall (Town Center). (Photo: Dina Indrasafitri)


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In many parts of Australia, indigenous language and culture has been destroyed by colonisation. 

But in the desert town of Alice Springs, Central Australia, Aboriginal culture remains strong.

Dina Indrasafitri is learning the language of the Arrente people who have lived in Alice Springs for tens of thousands of years. 

Hi, my name is Dina. I’m Indonesian, and I’m living in Alice Springs.

Most people just call it Alice - a desert town, right in the centre of Australia. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by big, picturesque ochre ranges and hills, that look like fortresses surrounding the town.

I’m learning Arrernte language. It’s the language spoken by the original inhabitants of Alice Springs. 

Almost everyone here speaks English, but I think it makes sense to learn the language of the place I’m living in. After all, I have always had more respect for foreigners who try to speak Indonesian when they are in Indonesia. 

“Good evening every one. I think this is really good,” Margaret Turner addressed an exhibition opening in Alice Springs earlier this year. “We talk about our language its really important. We gotta teach our children, young children. We don’t wanna lose it.”

She continued, “that’s why I am a language teacher, I teach a lot of languages and I’m a language specialist. We gotta teach it in our school and there’s a lot of language thing that anybody can learn. There’s people and we might start a language thing here.” 

Earlier this year, I attended an exhibition about Arrernte language in Alice Springs, or Mparntwe, as it is called in Arrernte. Seeing the exhibition and hearing elders like Margaret Kamarre Turner and Kathleen Wallace speak made me even more certain that I want to learn the language. 

Around 2,000 people speak Arrernte in communities surrounding Alice Springs. 

The Arrernte people are just one of many Aboriginal communities in Australia. 

Before colonialisation, around 700 indigenous languages were spoken throughout the country.

But at different times over the last 200 years, government has banned Aboriginal people from speaking their own languages. 

The Australian government wanted to create a white nation, and wipe out Aboriginal people and their culture. 

Arrente woman Patricia Ansell Dodds grew up in the 1950s, being told she wasn’t allowed to speak her language: 

“I wasn't allowed to because I was part of the stolen generation,” Patricia told me. “My parents put me in a home to get an education and the home wouldn’t let me go back to my parents. My dad had to go to court and get me back. And I wasn't allowed to speak my language or know anything about my culture. That's the way I grew up.”

Patricia says Aboriginal people never stopped speaking their languages. She eventually learned language and culture from her elders.

“I also went to ceremonies myself to learn my culture. And I've got very lovely old girls,” she said. “My aunties have taught me a lot of things about my culture in Alice Springs.”

She’s now working to increase the prominence of indigenous culture and language in mainstream Australian education.

Aboriginal languages aren’t taught in Australian schools, but families in Alice usually teach their children. 

“It's who we are,” Patricia said firmly. “That language came first before any white man's English. That's so important to us even today. Our children's gotta learn language and who they are and culture. And that's what we do.” 

I’ve been learning Arrente in a class of about 20 students at the Alice Springs Language Centre. 

Arrernte has sounds that don’t exist in English. Some students comment that pronunciation seems to be much easier for me than them! 

Pronunciation is not that different from Indonesian, my mother tongue. “r’s” are rolled, just like in Indonesian. A few words sound the same, even though they have totally different meanings. Like ‘unta’ means ‘you’ in Arrernte, and ‘camel in Indonesian.

When I asked Patricia if she liked it when people learn Arrernte language, she answered, “you are in Arrernte country. You should learn it and understand us. It's really important the way we talk. Very significant. Like in your country.” 

She went on, “your people still talk your language. Well so do we. Not many places in Australia do. In the Northern Territory most of us right through.”

After going to Arrernte classes I can say a few lines in Arrernte. I wanted to use it to introduce myself to Patricia in her own language.  I was nervous, but she was very nice to me.



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