Teaching Jessica Mauboy: when two Top End 12-year-olds met an Australian pop star

Last month, 12-year-old Derek was home in his estuary-fringed community on Melville Island, north of Darwin, where he likes fishing for barramundi, catching snakes and going to school, when he took a call from pop star Jessica Mauboy.

To have Mauboy appear in Milikapiti – it was a video call – was, understandably, a big deal.

From her recording studio in Sydney, Mauboy could hear Derek’s cousins and siblings gathering around the phone, calling out: “Jessica Mauboy, Jessica Mauboy.” From Jilkminggan, another remote community 150km south-east of Katherine in the Northern Territory, 12-year-old Dean, also joined the call.

Once the rush of excitement subsided, they got down to business. Mauboy, who is one of Australia’s most successful female artists, with six top ten albums, nine top ten hits, and two Aria awards, was here for a lesson; Derek and Dean, her instructors.

To mark Indigenous Literacy Day this year, a day that celebrates and promotes the revitalisation and preservation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation – for whom Mauboy is an ambassador – is creating a video of Mauboy learning to sing a song in two different Indigenous languages.

While at the time of British invasion there were more than 250 Indigenous languages in Australia, and 800 dialects, a survey by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 2018-2019 found only 123 are still in use, with just 12 relatively strong and being taught to children.

Derek is bilingual. Like most kids who grow up on the Tiwi Islands, he speaks Tiwi at home with his family, and learns English at school. Dean is multilingual – his first language is Kriol, he learns English at school, and his Elders are teaching him the language of his country, Mangarrayi.

The song the boys have chosen to teach Mauboy is Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.

Derek goes first.

“In Tiwi the word for head is tuwuluwa,” he says, pointing to his head.

“Too-woo-loo-wah,” repeats Mauboy.


“Ngim-par-lah,” says Mauboy, touching her shoulders.

Once she’s mastered the entire song – eliciting clapping and cheering from Derek and onlookers, “That was great Jess!” – she moves on to Dean and Mangarrayi.

“OK, Jess,” says Dean. “The word for head is bab.” As Dean slowly says each word, the other kids at his end write it with their fingers in the dirt.

Afterwards, Derek and Dean both say that Mauboy was a quick learner, and they feel proud to have taught her some of their language.

Mauboy jokes that the boys were “demanding” teachers. “They were like, ‘OK Miss Jess, you can stop now, we have to go back and record again, you need to say that word again.’ At one point, Dean was like, ‘sing it a little bit more happy’. And I just cackled, I had a really good gut laugh.”

“They were so young and bright. They were just really excited to be given an opportunity to direct and be boss of their creativity. They just wanted to take control, and that’s not a surprise, because when you give a young person an opportunity to speak, or to read, they will run with it. It gave me such joy and pleasure, to witness them take control.”

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Mauboy is also bilingual. Growing up in Darwin, with an Indonesian father, she spoke Bahasa at home, and also learned a smattering of Yolngu Matha at school. “It was very rich in terms of language and culture, growing up in the Northern Territory,” she says. “I was telling the boys about learning my dad’s native tongue and a lot of similar roundings of some of the names, so it was good to be able to exchange in that way – exchanging languages, getting my tongue around their words.”

The video will be premiered at a national digital event at the Sydney Opera House on 7 September. Both Derek and Dean are flying down for it; their first time on a “big plane”, with visits to Bondi beach and Flip Out also on the agenda.

For Mauboy, who developed her love of words, storytelling and song as a child, the experience of making the video has felt like a homecoming. “I remember my first writing experience was very collaborative – it was myself, the teacher, and the classroom. So, it feels very dreamlike to me, to come back in my adult life to education and culture and language and storytelling.”

“I feel like I am back where I started, and it feels powerful, it feels exactly where I was meant to be. To encourage, to allow children to dream and to have an imagination and to grow beyond their expectations. It doesn’t stop, your dreams or words never stop, you will always be able to find things you were meant to do.”