Yellow Wiggle donates $20,000 to preserve Indigenous sign language

An ancient Aboriginal sign language, being documented by linguists in north-east Arnhem Land, has received $20,000 from the yellow Wiggle Emma Watkins.

Emma Watkins performs with The Wiggles.

The yellow Wiggle, Emma Watkins, has donated to a project that is preserving Yolngu sign language. Source: Getty Images

Emma Watkins has donated $20,000 to help prevent the rare Yolngu Sign Language from disappearing.

Her generous donation will go towards helping preserve the language by documenting hundreds of signs in a book.

The project is being led by anthropologist and linguist Dr Bentley James who told SBS News that the donation will go a long way in publishing the huge resource he’s spent 25 years working on.

“We are calling Emma the ‘Giggle’ -the Golden Wiggle - she is our very own Mary Poppins,” he said.

“She is drawn to learn these signs to share them with children around Australia.”[[{"fid":"1666157","view_mode":"body_content","uuid":"3e60f933-ff77-450e-b519-81244509b785","type":"media","attributes":{"height":"467","width":"700","style":"font-size: 13.008px;","alt":"Dr James learning signs from Elders.","title":"Dr James learning signs from Elders.","class":"media-element file-body-content"}}]]

But Dr James said Ms Watson isn’t the only one who has donated to this project.

“Children have been giving their money,” Dr James said. “Yolngu children and children from southern states are falling in line behind the wonderful Emma ‘Mary Poppins’ Watkins and her generous gift, to give what little they can to help us do this wonderful and important work.”

In the past, every Yolngu person - whether they could hear or not - used sign language.

Dr James said while most of the 8000 Yolngu Matha speakers now remember some signs, the number of people using them is declining significantly, and it’s the same story across the country.

“All Indigenous languages in Australia are under threat and that’s not accidental,” he said.

“That is a direct outcome of powers massed against them.

“Sign languages in Australia are amazing and quite common. Globally it’s rare that any language would have an alternative sign language connected to it.

“Now there are languages that are extinct in Australia - well over 200 of them - and so too are the sign languages attached to them extremely perishable and disappearing.”

Yolngu Sign Language is not simply a signed form of a spoken language,  it’s a unique language used in times when speaking is culturally forbidden, like times of mourning, during a ceremony as well as during hunting for stealth.

Behind the scenes of the creation of the book - photographing the 'emu' sign.
Source: Supplied: David Hancock

Ms Watkins said she was surprised to learn about Yolngu sign language and wanted to donate to Dr James’ book.

“It’s such a wonderful project where there is an opportunity to share this language not only with Australia but with the world,” she said.

“We learn about the Dreamtime but I didn’t know there was this sign language.”

Ms Watkins often incorporates Australian sign language into her performances with The Wiggles.

She starts every show by signing her name and signs through some of the songs.

Ms Watkins is currently completing a PhD in sign language, mime and dance.

“I did a few community courses and made some friends within the deaf community,” she said.

“When I joined the Wiggles I wanted to include as much Australian, American and British sign language in the program as possible.

“Since learning of this project I am just really excited at the prospect of including Yolngu language and other First Nations languages.”

Bentley James and Laurie Baymarrwanga.
Source: Supplied: Chiara Bussini

Although Dr James has been working on preserving the sign language for 25 years, he's continuing the work of Laurie Baymarrwanga, who spent her life fighting to keep the language alive for Yolngu children.

"The project is motivated Laurie Baymarrwanga's desire to give children the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the ancestors and to know their ancestral inheritance," Dr James said.

Dr James’ sign language directory will include photos and will be printed in both Yolngu and English.

He said Ms Watkins’ donation will help make sure it gets distributed widely.

“Her donation will now ensure that the publication gets made and increase the breadth of our distribution,” Dr James said.

“Now we will be able to give much more widely to deaf schools, to hospitals, to museums and universities and to libraries more widely, and of course to the children and schools and ranger programs of north-east Arnhem Land.

“We will be able to give these books away, not least because of the generosity of this amazing, wonderful human being.” 

Published 28 May 2019 at 11:55am
By Keira Jenkins