Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Bimodal Bilingualism in Arnhem Land

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Bimodal Bilingualism in Arnhem Land

Article excerpt

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. …

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