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It's been very hard for ordinary city-dwelling Australians (i.e. most of us) to learn Indigenous Australian languages. Most universities don't teach them, and getting to Alice Springs for courses at the Institute for Aboriginal Development is out of most people's reach. Summer schools, such as the Gumbaynggirr and Gamilaraay ones mentioned in a previous post are rare. So it had to come, and it has, but in a rather unusual way. The first public online course in an Australian Indigenous language is run out of a demountable building in Alice Springs by the Ngapartji Ngapartji group. Trevor Jamieson and his family want to tell the story of how they, some of the Spinifex people, were forced to leave their lands during the missile testing in the 1950s and 1960s. They do this at arts festivals, using Pitjantjatjara, English, songs and dance. And they run an on-line language program, so that future audiences can understand the Pitjantjatjara talk in their performances.

The online language program is rather engaging. The strength of the lessons is that they are mostly based around short videos made by young Pitjantjatjara, often involving songs. As well as more traditional topics such as cooking kangaroo tails (these days you can buy kangaroo tails in some Central Australian shops), they also include topics such as the Maralinga atomic tests, people's own stories, a translation of one of David Bowie's songs. Best of all there are songs created by Pitjantjatjara, e.g. Wanyima Richards's song "Wati kutjungku wama tjikini" [lonesome man drinking grog].

Verse#1:One young fella living in town, he’s sitting there drinking grog. The family are trying in vain to call him.
Yangapala kutju nyinanyi taunungka, paluru nyinanyi wama tjikini. Walytja tjutangku palunya putu altinyi.
Chorus:“I am worried, I can’t go to the country I call my own. No I am staying drinking. No I am staying drinking”.
Wari ngayulu kuwari ngaranyi. Putuna ananyi ngura walytjakutu. Wiya ngayulu nyinara tjikini. Wiya ngayulu nyinara tjikini.

The grammatical notes are rather sketchy - a linguist would really need a reference grammar such as Cliff Goddard's 1985 Grammar of Yankunytjatjara. Sweetness is the mark of Ngapartji Ngapartji, rather than the surreal - my benchmark is the satirical absurdity combined with elegant analysis of Alexander Lipson's A Russian Course (with Steven Molinsky 1977 Slavica. Columbus) (recently praised in Language Hat). But Ngapartji Ngapartji is much better at giving learners a feel for life among the speakers.

They've got 162 subscribers so far, and are looking for more. At A$200 it isn't cheap, but as they say:

This income enables us to fuel our old landcruiser, buy tape stock, keep the fridge full, buy crowbars, pay everyone, buy shoes for the cast when we tour and many more crucial costs of running a long term community based project like this.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

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