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Bimodal bilingualism in Arnhem Land.

Abstract: This paper briefly presents the research conducted on bilingualism in several communities of North East Arnhem Land. What makes this study special is its focus on bimodal bilingualism, which is prevalent in Arnhem Land. While most studies on bilingualism concentrate on the use of two or more spoken languages (speech-speech), also known as unimodal bilingualism, studies on bimodal bilingualism (speech-sign) are rare. The term 'bimodal bilingualism' is fairly recent in the field of bilingualism and is used to cover the use of two or more languages in the two modalities (spoken and signed). This report also aims to raise awareness. Bimodal bilingualism is the norm rather than an exceptional state in Arnhem Land. We illustrate this bilingualism across modalities with some examples of pointing gestures.

Theoretical discussion on language contact across modalities

Most of the research conducted on bilingualism relies heavily on studies about spoken languages. However, with the field of gesture studies and sign linguistics there is a growing sense that research should also extend to include bilingualism across modalities. Studies on bimodal bilingualism are still rare (see Emmorey et al. 2005). Recently, the term 'bimodal bilingualism' (BB) has been used in connection with societies that use both modalities to communicate. While BB is rare in many parts of the world, it is deeply anchored in interaction in Aboriginal Australia. Due to the limited scope of this paper, we focus on North East Arnhem Land. While BB is also observed in other parts of Aboriginal Australia, the extent to which it is practised elsewhere remains to be determined, given that many languages are endangered.

We get a glimpse of BB in an anthropological account by Warner (1937), among others, who briefly mention the use of signs and spoken languages in many parts of Arnhem Land. Based on the accounts provided by Elders and other senior members of the communities, BB has been culturally practised for a long period of time. For these reasons we argue in this paper that Arnhem Land is truly bilingual. Further, the use of signing, though not systematically investigated, has not escaped the attention of scholars such as Carolyn Coleman (diary notes in AIATSIS), Steve Etherington (pers. comm. 2009, 2013), Michael Christie (pers. comm. 2012) and others while working with spoken languages. It is also important for the reader to keep in mind that we prefer the term 'bilingual' to 'multilingual'. The term 'multilingual' is used to refer to the competence of speakers in several Aboriginal spoken languages only, whereas the term 'bilingual' is used when referring to the two modalities (speech and signs) that humans use to communicate.

A close look at the Yolnu reveals that they are multilingual in the sense that they speak/understand several languages (i.e. languages of their father and mother) due to the fact that the Yolnu world is typically patrimoiety-oriented (i.e. children acquire the languages of the father first and later those of the mother). Interestingly, these children acquire simultaneously a sign language known as Yolnu Sign Language (henceforth YSL) from birth. Among the Yolnu, this language is known as 'action' or djama gondhu, which literally means 'work with hands'.

Figure 1 illustrates the types of bilingualism we typically find in communities of Arnhem Land. It shows bilingualism in the two modalities parallel to bilingualism/multilingualism in the spoken modality, with the language of the father being acquired first, followed by the language of the mother and later the other languages of the father's and mother's side. English is learned at school in Galiwin'ku. In other communities Aboriginal English or Kriol may be acquired earlier.

Without going into too much detail here, we would like to give a brief definition of sign languages. Sign languages are natural languages in the visual-manual modality used by Deaf people as their mother tongues. So far in the field of sign linguistics, many types of sign languages have been documented, among which we find the alternate type. Kendon (1988) used this term for the first time to introduce the sign languages of the North Central Desert area of Australia. He found that these sign languages were used differently when compared to the sign languages seen in many Western countries. Maypilama and Adone (2013) agree with Kendon's view that these languages are 'alternate' or 'auxiliary' languages used under specific circumstances. (2)

Having established that these sign languages are alternate modes of communication, Arnhem Land is highly interesting because it offers a window of opportunity on the complexity of the contact between the two modes of communication. There are certain circumstances in which the sign language is used (e.g. long-distance communication). These contexts of use have been briefly described in Adone (2014). However, as we know from previous studies on bilingual speech communities, spoken languages are used alternately, thus resulting in what is known in linguistics as code-switching or code-mixing. A good example of this switching of language is seen in the title of Poplack's (1980) work on Spanish and English, Sometimes I'll start a sentence in English y termino en espanol. In this example the speaker uses one language (English) and then switches to another (Spanish). Although our paper does not go into all the details, we would like to mention briefly that we distinguish various types of code-switching/mixing in linguistics. The main point here remains that languages are used in an intertwining way. In cases where spoken and signed languages are used alternately, the term 'code blending' has been used. This term was introduced by Emmorey et al. (2005) to describe instances in which a BB speaker uses a chunk of spoken language and in one part of the utterance a sign is introduced. Although the term 'co-speech gestures' has been introduce to characterise the instances in which speakers use gestures together, as seen in the speech of Napolitans (Kendon 2004), we find many instances of co-speech gestures in bimodal bilingual contexts.

Some ethnographic background of the Yolnu communities

In this short section we focus on a few ethnographic facts worth mentioning here. The Yolnu community of Galiwin'ku (Figure 2), which we take as an example in this paper, has speakers of several language groups; Djambarrpuynu, Gupapuynu and Gumatj, among others. Djambarrpuynu is the language of Galiwin'ku and belongs to the Dhuwa moiety, as compared to Gupapuynu, the language of Milingimbi, which belongs to the Yirritja moiety.

As already discussed in Maypilama and Adone (2013), Adone and Maypilama (2013a, 2013b), Maypilama et al. (2013), Adone (2014), and Adone and Maypilama (2014), the hearing population uses YSL in many contexts (both private and public), such as hunting, long-distance communication, when teaching children about country, when silence is culturally requested or when speech is regarded as inappropriate.

Besides the use of YSL as an alternative to speech, we also find many contexts in which both the spoken language (i.e. Djambarrpuynu) is used together with gestures and signs from YSL, thus yielding the co-speech gesture contexts.

Adone and Maypilama, working closely with a group of six Yolnu senior Elders, both men and women, have collected data on the use of both modalities and their contexts of use since 2009. The next section looks at pointing gestures.

Pointing gestures and signs

Pointing typically occurs in these co-speech gesture contexts. At this stage, we would like to clarify the relationship between 'gesture' and 'sign'. In this respect, we follow Kendon (2008:348), who argues that 'sign' and 'gesture' should not be looked at as 'distinct categories'. Instead, he offers the term 'visible action', which is prominent among the wide range of gestures found accompanying speech in Aboriginal Australia.

Three body parts are conventionally used to point: hand, mouth and eyes. Pointing with the hand includes index finger pointing, flat hand and other variants such as B open and B lax, two hand shapes found in many sign languages including YSL. These two hand shapes are seen in Figure 3.

When people point with the mouth, the term 'lip pointing' is used. People also point with the eyes, thus the term 'eye pointing'. (Both types of pointing are used together in Figure 9.)

Both flat hand and wide hand pointing are two widespread types of manual pointing in Aboriginal Australia. Flat hand pointing is used for general directions (Figure 4), where it is accompanied by lip pointing.

Wide hand pointing (Figure 5) is used here to refer to a stretch of land in this context.

While pointing with one finger, the index finger especially, is apparently well established in many Western cultures, several variants of one finger pointing are found in Yolnu interaction, two of which we focus on here.

Index pointing is used to refer to a specific location in space. In a dialogue between people, one speaker uses an index finger to back point the location of the old airport in Darwin (Figure 6).

In Figure 6 the person is talking about the old airport in Darwin: The sentence is:

(1) On that side used to be airport

In sentence (1) 'on that side' is accompanied by the index finger back pointing to the location in Darwin. The expression 'on that side', which is vague here, co-occurs with the pointing gesture, which reinforces the direction/location.

In Figure 7 the speaker is talking about Galiwin'ku and she uses the expression 'over there'. At the same time she points in the direction of Galiwin'ku from Darwin. The large pointing gesture and the degree of arm angling, combined with the expression 'over there', clarify that Galiwin'ku is actually far away. The same gesture is used in YSL. Besides the spatial function of pointing, there is also a temporal dimension that can be observed. The sign 'stories from long time ago' (Figure 8) is an example.

This lady in Figure 8 is conversing with some people on stories from her country:

(2) ... These stories belong to my family, my land yes, STORIES FROM LONG TIME AGO

Here, for the sake of clarity, we use capitals for the utterance expressed in signs. As we can see in example (2), the speaker switches from spoken language to sign language. This switch is possible because the speaker and the recipients share the same cultural knowledge and the sign language. In this example it is interesting to note the combination of several components: the manual sign 'tell' followed by head tilt, eye gaze and arm arching over the head to indicate 'in the remote past'.

Both lip and eye pointing are used in co-speech gesture contexts, as well as when people are using only sign language. These two types of pointing combined are visually less noticeable than a manual sign/gesture or speech. Thus, people use these two types of pointing together to refer discretely to someone or something, without attracting the attention of all the people around.

Other types of pointing gestures have been identified. These are discussed in Adone and Maypilama (2013b, 2014).

It is also very interesting to note the use of kin signs in the middle of utterances as in (3) and (4) in capital letters:

(3) I am going to Darwin to see UNCLE

(4) My SISTER is very sick in hospital

(5) ... you remember that young woman who passed away early this year you know she was his WIFE

The trigger for conversation (5) is a man who passes by in a truck and waves at us. As a result, one person identifies that man by stating his relation to the deceased, who is still remembered. The name of the deceased person is not spoken out and the person talking about the deceased uses instead the sign for WIFE. Pointing with the elbow is also a sign that accompanies speech when referring to 'mother-in-law'. In this respect the pointing gesture is used to show respect and deference for the mother-in-law who cannot be named.


This paper has taken a close look at bimodal bilingualism, which prevails in Yolnu communities. Based on our observation and data collection, we note that bilingualism across the two modalities is very common in Arnhem Land. Although we restrict our discussion here to North East Arnhem Land, and in particular to Yolnu communities, observations made in several West Arnhem Land communities reinforce this view. Pointing gestures have been taken to exemplify how some gestures are used in conjunction with speech. However, we have also mentioned examples of signs from Yolnu Sign Language that are also used with speech. We hope to have demonstrated that both 'visible action' and speech are used in conjunction in a bimodal bilingual situation.


We would like to thank the following people for their comments: Jaky Troy, Sally McNicol, Michael Walsh, Melanie Bruck and Astrid Gabel.


Adone, Marie CD 2014 'Indigenous sign languages of Arnhem Land', Australian Aboriginal Studies 2014/ 1:132-6.

--and E Lawurrpa Maypilama 2013a A grammar sketch of Yolnu sign language, University of Cologne Press.

--and E Lawurrpa Maypilama 2013b Pointing in an alternate sign language of Arnhem Land, unpublished manuscript, Charles Darwin University.

--and E Lawurrpa Maypilama 2014 A grammar sketch of Yolnu sign language, Lincom Europe, Munich.

Emmorey, Karen, Helsa B Borinstein and Robin Thompson 2005 'Bimodal bilingualism: code-blending between spoken English and American Sign Language' in J Cohen, K McAlister, K Rolstad and J MacSwan (eds), Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism, Cascadilla Press, Somerville, MA, pp. 663-73.

Kendon, Adam 1988 Sign languages of Aboriginal Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

--2004 Gesture: visible action as utterance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

--2008 'Some reflections on the relationship between "gesture" and "sign"', Gesture 8(3):348-66.

Maypilama, E Lawurrpa and Marie CD Adone 2013 'Yolnu sign language: an undocumented language of Arnhem Land', Journal of Learning Communities 13:37-44.

--, D Yungirrna and Marie CD Adone 2013. 'Pointing in an alternate sign language', paper presented at Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research, London, July.

Montrul, S 2008 Incomplete acquisition in bilingualism: re-examining the age factor, Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Poplack, Shauna 1980 'Sometimes I'll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en espanol: toward a typology of code-switching', Linguistics 18(7/8):581-618.

Warner, W Lloyd 1937 A black civilization: a social study of an Australian tribe, Harper and Brothers Publishers, London.


(1.) This diagram is similar to the one proposed by Montrul (2008) on existing types of bilingualism within the spoken modality only. Our diagram is based on data collected in several communities of Arnhem Land. For the sake of clarity we focus on the case of the Yolnu child.

(2.) Since more discussion on this issue is beyond the scope of this report, we kindly refer the reader to the recent report published on sign languages of Arnhem Land (Adone 2014).

Marie Carla D (Dany) Adone is Professor of Applied English Linguistics and one of the Directors of Australian Studies (Linguistics) at the University of Cologne. She is also a University Professorial Fellow associated with the Northern Institute at Charles Darwin University, Australian National University and a visiting fellow at AIATSIS. Her fields of expertise are in Sociolinguistics (Language Contact) and Psycholinguistics (First Language Acquisition). She is currently working on Indigenous alternate sign languages in Arnhem Land.


Elaine L Maypilama is a traditional Elder with authority to work on this language. She is an honorary research fellow at Charles Darwin University and is employed by Menzies School of Health Research. She has co-authored a considerable number of papers on various areas in Aboriginal culture, health and language, including a grammar sketch of Yolnu Sign Language. She has recently earned her PhD.
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH REPORT
Author:Adone, Marie Carla D.; Maypilama, E. Lawurrpa
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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