New Pitjantjatjara app opens the Bible in heart language

The Bible is coming to life for thousands of First Nations people through a new app in one of Australia’s most used Indigenous languages. Alongside other projects such as the ongoing Nyoongar translation work, the newly released Pitjantjatjara Bible app enables listeners to pass on Bible stories in their heart language – as well as serve to strengthen literacy levels among communities which use it.

“The beauty of the app is it actually highlights the text as it’s being spoken aloud,” says Dave Barnett, translator and Bible engagement coordinator for Bible Society Australia. “So it’s going to be a great literacy aid. If people don’t know how to read [Pitjantjatjara], they can follow along on the app and hear the Scriptures being read aloud.”

The app features a dramatised audio recording of the New Testament in the Pitjantjatjara language. It also allows users to search for and play verses and chapters. In addition, the app includes links to the Pitjantjatjara hymn book, other devotional materials and to Christian YouTube channels.

Pitjantjatjara is the first language of about 3000–5000 Aboriginal Australians, with up to another 5000 people speaking it as their second or third language. “It’s one of the strongest languages in central Australia,” says Barnett, who learned the language while working as a school teacher in remote north-west South Australia, from where the language originates – the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands.

Barnett explains how the language has spread: “Because people are so transient these days, they travel far and wide. So you’ve got a large [Pitjantjatjara-speaking] community in Port Adelaide, Port Augusta, rural South Australia, Northern Territory, Western Australia.”

Barnett has been involved in the Pitjantjatjara Bible translation project since 2015. Part of Bible Society Australia’s focus at home is to help First Nations people connect with God’s word in their heart language.

After the full New Testament translation was released in audio format in 2018 – a task involving more than 40 Pitjantjatjara speakers and 500 recording hours – Barnett has seen firsthand the impact it has made in local communities.

“When we finished the New Testament recording, we put it on these devices called Proclaimers … We were living in Ernabella [APY Lands] at the time, and one day we had 15 local kids on our trampoline, all having a great time.”

“I went outside and just as a bit of an experiment, I pressed play and put [the Pitjantjatjara audio Bible] on. Within seconds, the kids were dead silent. Every one of them stopped and listened to the Scriptures.

“These were 6 to 8-year-old kids who didn’t know how to read. They were absolutely amazed to hear these Bible stories in their language.”

Noting that stories are passed down orally in traditional Aboriginal culture, Barnett continues, “For a lot of these kids, these were brand new stories. They’d never heard them before, and they were fascinated to hear, in their language, stories about Jesus and the disciples.”

“We installed [the app] on her phone, and she said she was going to go home and put it on her kid’s phone …” – Dave Barnett

Barnett expects that through the app, which makes the audio Bible easier to access, many more people will hear the Bible in their heart language.

“It opens up so many possibilities that we haven’t had in the past. You have people who don’t have the printed word for reasons of cost or access. But even when they’re living remotely, most have Wi-Fi and internet connection, so now they can access the Scriptures.”

The app will continue to be updated, and it’s likely the Pitjantjatjara Old Testament and Prayer Book will be added when their translation work is complete. In the meantime, Barnett and others are rolling out the app in communities by helping people install it and share it.

“The other day I was … helping a lady renew her driver’s license. There was a long queue, so while we were waiting we were listening to the Scriptures on her phone.

“Then another Pitjantjatjara lady came in, and she couldn’t believe the first lady could hear this on her phone. We installed [the app] on her phone, and she said she was going to go home and put it on her kid’s phone … Word spreads pretty quickly.”

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