A Good Sign: Visual Languages in Australia

By Rebekah Bradshaw.

In this article by Rebekah she examines the rarely seen world of Bimodal Bilingualism.

In my last article I introduced you to Auslan, the language of the Deaf community in Australia. Whilst Auslan traces its origins to the 19th Century, signing has been a part of many Aboriginal cultures across the continent for millennia – and not just amongst the Deaf or hard-of-hearing members of society. In this second part, we will look at some Aboriginal sign languages and their impressive scope for communication. 

Primary vs alternate sign languages

Aboriginal sign languages in Australia are what’s known as “alternate” sign languages. Whilst a primary sign language develops within a Deaf population as their main means of communication, an alternate sign language develops amongst a hearing population for use where speaking is either not practical or not allowed. It is not a signed version of the spoken language, rather its own language with the same expressive capabilities for all circumstances where the spoken language would also be used. 

The ability to communicate in both spoken and signed languages is known as “bimodal bilingualism”. A child of Deaf parents would be bimodal bilingual, as would a Deaf person with a cochlear implant who can communicate in both English and Auslan. But bimodal bilingualism existing across an entire, mostly hearing society is a relatively rare phenomenon. Australia seems to be one of the few places on Earth where bimodal bilingualism is common. Linguist and anthropologist Dr Bentley James suggests that it is Aboriginal communities’ strong connections to both their country and kin that traditionally made the practice of bimodal bilingualism so widespread – but, he says, this is also what makes it so vulnerable today. 

The significance of alternate sign languages in community 

Silent communication through signing has many different uses in Aboriginal communities, both practical and ritual. In a society with such complex law and social structures, an alternate sign language is a useful alternative when speaking out loud is considered taboo. This can include during periods of mourning, visiting a sacred site, or respecting kin avoidance rules. On Yolŋu country in the Northern Territory, no loud noises are permitted around fish traps to prevent the Ancestors from hearing and emptying them. The people use Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL) whenever they are going fishing or even speaking about their intention to fish. Signing can also be used in a variety of everyday situations where it is preferable to speaking, such as communicating discreetly or at a distance, hunting without startling the animals, and even having a conversation in a noisy truck traveling over a bumpy road. 

Aboriginal alternate sign languages can also be readily adopted as the primary language of Deaf people in the community, allowing Deaf and hearing members to seamlessly communicate with each other in a way that the Deaf community across wider Australian society does not generally experience. The commonality of signing in these communities means that there is no stigma attached to communicating in this way. As Aboriginal people are ten times more likely to be affected by ear diseases than the rest of the Australian population, many people living in Aboriginal communities today have some form of hearing loss. Alternate sign languages allow these people to participate fully in their society, strengthening their connections to culture and country. Hearing, partially hearing and Deaf Yolŋu people all use YSL in their daily communication. 

Expression and meaning in Aboriginal sign languages 

As alternate languages, Aboriginal sign languages may exhibit a relationship with the local spoken language, although this connection does vary across communities. Linguist Adam Kendon studying the Warlpiri Sign Language, or Rdaka-rdaka (‘hand signs’), of the Central Desert, reports a tendency in the language for manual representations of spoken Warlpiri morphemes. For example, the Warlpiri word for ‘sun’ is wanta, and the word for a type of red ant is wantawanta. In Rdaka-rdaka, the sign for ‘red ant’ uses a similar hand-shape and movement as the sign for ‘sun’, but repeated in the same way that wanta is repeated to make wantawanta. Yolŋu Sign Language, however, does not seem to exhibit any convergence with a spoken language, being linguistically independent from the language group Yolŋu Matha as well as the many other local languages belonging to the region. This may be because communities on Yolŋu country are highly multilingual – YSL is just another language of many, not particularly linked to any of the others. 

We learned that Auslan makes use of many non-manual modes such as facial expression and mouth shape to create meaning, and YSL is similar. Form in YSL consists of four manual components (hand-shape, location, movement and orientation), and one non-manual component (such as facial expression and mouthing). This can be an important way to distinguish between minimal pairs, of which YSL has quite a few – for example, the manual signs for ‘who’ and ‘what’ are the same, only with different mouthing. In Warlpiri Sign Language, however, signs appear to be manual only with no mouthing. 

Unlike in a primary sign language like Auslan, “iconic” signs representing visual characteristics of a referent are not common in Aboriginal alternate sign languages. This may be because of how ancient these languages are, or it may also be a result of their cultural connections – a sign may have deep roots in an element of Dreaming lore, rather than be based on what something looks like. 

In terms of grammar, Dr James says the grammar of YSL is similar to that of Yolŋu Matha due to the fact that it covers similar communication needs, although he found it to be simpler and easier to learn. In YSL, the verb usually appears first in a phrase or sentence, but word order generally doesn’t matter. Amongst the Warlpriri people, Kendon found that sentences were constructed in more or less the same way whether a storyteller was signing or speaking their narrative. 

Preserving a language 

Sadly, as the changes brought by colonisation have threatened important connections to country, the wonderful phenomenon of bimodal bilingualism is increasingly vulnerable, and in some places has been lost altogether. 

When I first learned about Warlpiri Sign Language, I was intrigued to find out that Deaf Warlpiri people today were usually more likely to develop their own “home sign” systems to communicate with close family. They might also learn Auslan, particularly if they attended school away from their community, or they might use Ailan – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sign Language, a mixture of Auslan, Signed English, and some local Indigenous signs. Was there a reason that Deaf Warlpiri people picked up other signed languages instead of their own? According to Dr Bentley James, this was not always the case. When he lived on Warlpiri country in the 1980s, the alternate sign language of Rdaka-rdaka was automatically adopted by Deaf people as well as being used widely in the community. Unfortunately since then, modern life and new technologies have brought changes to the community way of life and led to more people living and working away from their country, which has in turn led to a decline in the intergenerational transmission of Rdaka-rdaka. Up in Arnhem Land, the Yolŋu people are currently working hard with Dr James to make sure the same thing does not happen to their alternate language. 

An estimated 7,000 people use YSL today, although its continuing use is threatened. ‘The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land’ is a project almost 30 years in the making, spearheaded by Crocodile Islands local and 2012 Senior Australian of the Year Baymarrwaŋa. The book contains photos of around 500 Yolŋu signs and the hand-shapes required to produce them – not nearly all of them, but enough to allow learners to develop conversational ability in the language. These selected signs include a number of rare idioms, preserved by the older generations since before colonisation. The signs are also accompanied by a learner’s guide to the language, some example sentences and an index in both English and Yolŋu Matha. Although Baymarrwaŋa passed away before she could see the handbook completed, her work has created a valuable legacy for future generations, with copies of the handbook donated to schools across the region. 

Because YSL has such a strong connection to country and culture, Baymarrwaŋa and her team also established a number of other projects alongside the YSL handbook in order to ensure its survival for the next generation. This includes a junior ranger program, the Crocodile Islands Rangers. In carrying out certain tasks on country as rangers, young people are required to know and use signs – for example, when working with fish traps as discussed earlier. Community-led initiatives such as this ensure that YSL remains a living language in every sense of the word. 

To make Yolŋu Sign Language even more accessible, Dr James and the community are now working on an online version of the handbook. You can visit https://www.yolngusignlanguage.com.au if you want to learn more about these important projects and how you can support them. You can even buy a copy of the handbook and teach yourself how to sign – the Yolŋu people want to share their incredible language with everyone! 

There is so much more to say about the wonderful world of bimodal bilingualism (and sign languages in general), but not enough space in this magazine! Hopefully through this two-part series, I have been able to broaden your linguistic horizons with an appreciation for not only the validity but also the remarkable expressiveness of both primary and alternate signed languages. 

Further Reading: 

James. B., E,. Maypilama. and Adone, D., 2021. “Indigenous Languages of Arnhem Land”: Key Concepts in Indigenous Studies eds G. N. Devy and Geoffrey Davis Key. Routledge. London.

—–2020a. The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land 350pp Australian Book Connection. Melbourne. Vic. 328PP

—–2020b Decolonizing Research Methodologies, ” Sign Language Studies. Spring issue of Gallaudet University, Lexington books Rowman and Littlefield. Boston. USA.

Kendon, A, 2021 Review Essay on Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land by Bentley James, A.C.D. Adone, and E.L. Maypliama (eds). (Australian Book Connection. 2020), Oceania, Vol. 91, Issue 2 (2021): 310–314 DOI:10.1002/ocea.5304,

—–. 2015. Some characteristics of Australian Aboriginal sign languages with hints for further questions for exploration. Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts [Special Issue: Indigenous Sign Languages], 16, 6-13.

Power, D. 2013. Australian aboriginal deaf people and Aboriginal sign language. Sign Language Studies, 13(2), 264-277.


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