Indigenous Australian Languages

Balgarbalgar by Ron Wardrop
Painting by Ron Wardrop

Over 250 Indigenous Australian language groups covered the continent at the time of European settlement in 1788. Today only around 120 of those languages are still spoken and many are at risk of being lost as Elders pass away.

Language is more than just a means to communicate, it is an essential characteristic unique to people and communities, and plays a central role in a sense of identity. It is also the vehicle within which much cultural knowledge such as songs, bush tucker and traditional medicine, is stored.

From the earliest days of European contact there was often an assumption that Indigenous Australian languages were of less value than English and this view soon hardened into government policy, which was reinforced through education and employment practices. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were discouraged from speaking their languages and made to feel ashamed of using them in public.

Eventually the link between generations of speakers was broken, so that many children had little or no knowledge of their traditional languages. Their parents were partial speakers and their grandparents were the remaining few speakers of a language that, as the Elders, they alone could pass down to the next generation.

Today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia are speaking out about the need to protect, preserve and strengthen traditional languages. There is currently a wave of activity, with people in many communities working to learn more about their language, and to ensure they are passed on to the next generation before it is too late.

Strong cultural identity enables one to feel proud of themselves, and speaking and maintaining ones language raises self-esteem and enables one to feel good about themselves. Traditional language is important for maintaining strong cultural connections. Where traditional languages have been taken away from communities, a sense of loss, grief and inadequacy develops. To keep communities and generations strong, traditional language being passed from one generation to another is vital.
Brooke Joy, descendant of Boandik people from the Mount Gambier region in South Australia

School-based language programs are a popular activity for language preservation and revival. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people responding to the Second National Indigenous Languages Survey said they believe traditional languages should be taught in schools and that the use of traditional languages in schools helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to succeed.

Australians and the rest of the world need to know that Aboriginal Languages are still here and need to be encouraged and preserved to keep our people strong. We have a voice that make us uniquely Australian. We have a language that goes on for thousands of years, and some are still as fluent as it was all those years ago. I think it’s important and should be brought forward for all Australians to see and hear and respect.
Gillian Bovoro, language coordinator and member of the Adnyamathanha language group, located in the Northern Flinders Ranges

Language resources

An important resource for the preservation and revival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection. It brings together over 4,300 printed titles in 200 languages — including children’s books, bible translations, dictionaries, grammar books, vocabulary books, and language learning kits. The collection’s significance was recognised when it was added to the United Nations’ Australian Memory of the World Register.

Other valuable resources for Australian language education are the AIATSIS map of Indigneous Australia and AUSTLANG, the Australian Indigenous Languages Database.

Created in 1994, the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia is an attempt to show the diversity of Australian Indigenous languages using sources available at the time. The information in the map is contested however, and may not be agreed to by some traditional custodians.

AUSTLANG, the Australian Indigenous Languages Database, assembles information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages from various sources. It allows users to search for a language by a language name or a place name, or by navigating Google Maps, and to view a variety of information on the language.

Language revival and the Ngaiyuriija Ngunawal Language Group

A number of Ngunawal family groups are working with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to rebuild their language. Ngunawal country is located in the Australian Capital Territory and extends east into New South Wales towards Goulburn. The Ngaiyuriija Ngunawal Language Group’s aim is to revive a fully functional language that can also be part of the local school curriculum.

After signing a cooperative research agreement in July 2014, AIATSIS linguists and group members have been painstakingly compiling a wordlist to assist in the revitalisation of their language. Kayleen Busk, a Ngunawal elder, said the process has been a long one but made easier by collecting words from family members that have been passed down through the generations.

My Uncle Donald had quite a few words, he’s not with us anymore, but he’d be so proud we’re doing this. It’s for Ngunawal people, past and present.
Kayleen Busk, Ngunawal elder
Last reviewed: 7 Dec 2018