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First priority to learn is language...


Children learn from family members of different ages, providing greater support for children’s learning than can be provided by parents alone:

Get together for the little one. So there’s everyone there for the little one, nurturing, sharing responsibilities. And teaching the little one (Baŋadi’s grandfather).

...first priority to learn is language, recognising family members, hearing the things that we always talk about… so they will learn what we are talking about – the tree, what tree we are talking about, or fish – what fish we are talking about. Sometimes we sing in language or tell a story in language or telling all the creations in our language so they will know what we are talking about, and going to ceremony any ceremony – initiation, women’s, men’s – they attend and see what’s happening, hunting, fishing, many things they are learning (Yalŋarra Guyula, Yolŋu researcher).

All Yolŋu children living in the community speak a Yolŋu language as their first language. This is usually Djambarrpuyŋu, a clan language that has become the lingua franca in the community. Other Yolŋu languages are still commonly used and many children will be exposed to more than one language at home when older family members continue to use their own clan language when interacting with both adults and children. A Yolŋu father explains about the languages he teaches his infant daughter:

First of all I talk to her in my own language so she can learn that language how to speak the way I’m talking. When I talk to her in my language so later on she can try to speak that language... Second, I talk to her in her Märi’s (maternal grandmother's) language so she can learn about her foundation and language. When we talk in that language it encourages her to learn Mari’s language, the child herself.  

In these families, very young children often understand other languages consistently spoken in their family and sometimes switch languages when talking to a family member who speaks a language other than Djambarrpuyŋu.

English has little relevance in everyday life for Yolŋu children or adults and is used rarely except in interactions with Balanda. Although there is a strong focus on development of Yolŋu languages in early childhood learning English later when children start school is considered important for their future to 'balance both worlds'.



Powerful strategies to support language development are used by everyone in the family...


Yolŋu strategies to facilitate language development are purposeful and intensive. These strategies align with those widely recognised as being effective in supporting development of language - modelling, repetition, reinforcement, scaffolding and visual cues - but in highly sophisticated and culturally specific forms. Examples of this intensive language stimulation can be seen in many of the videos in other sections of this website and in the video examples below. As well, a culturally specific child language register and sign language are used in interactions with children from birth.


Yälŋgi matha - child language

Yälŋgi matha is a modified form of Yolŋu languages in which sounds, words and sentence structure are simplified to accommodate the developmental level of the child:

When kids are little we use baby talk but it changes when they grow up. It's like step by step. That word grows stronger and stronger, talking to that individual child. Everybody does that and every Yolŋu is responsible to do that, the whole family. Even other children are teaching babies that way (Yolŋu researcher).

...sometimes Yolŋu believe that...when you talk child language, we call it child language, it's so they can quickly respond to it (Yolŋu grandfather)

This child directed language register is consistently used by older children and adults when talking to babies and very young children - to make it easier for the child to understand and easier for the child to imitate. As children's language strengthens the use of yälŋgi matha decreases as speakers respond to the child's increasing level of understanding. (Click here for more information about the child language register from previous research in this community).


Using 'actions' - Yolŋu sign language

A formal sign language is widely used by Yolŋu, when communicating over distance or when silence is required (often by adults in meetings and children in classrooms) and with people who have a severe hearing loss or communication disability. This sign language includes standardised gestures made with the hands and body as well as facial expressions using lips, cheeks and eyebrows. Sign language is sometimes used as an alternative to speech and sometimes simultaneously with speech, especially with young children. 'Actions' (sign language) are used extensively with babies and young children, often in exagerrated form and from soon after birth a child's hand movements are often interpreted as meaningful signs. The signs, as well as the words, for kinship relationships are a strong focus of teaching from family members with infants and young children. (Click here for more information on use of Yolŋu sign language in early childhood from previous research in this community).

Visual cues to support learning of spoken language are also important. Yolŋu will often turn a baby's face towards the speaker encouraging the child to watch their face, as explained in this description of the video below:

Gutjan is also there and her mother is introducing her to her grandparents and she’s excited and really focusing, looking at her lips and saying 'ŋathi’ but baby language – kids closely watch the mouth, and listen to the words and sounds so they can copy straight away – when kids are little we say something and they will copy, copy – 2 or 300 times the family will say the same word and they listen and start to talk … like (the grandfather) introducing himself to Gutjan over and over until she started to say ‘ŋathi' (Yalŋarra Guyula, Yolŋu researcher).





Assessment of the child's understanding of gurrutu (kinship) terms and their kinship connection to others in the family is very common in early childhood.  In this video Badi's grandmother explains and demonstrates the ways in which Yolŋu test the child's development - their understanding of gurrutu as well as the names of things in their environment: