Indigenous Australian Languages

Celebrating 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages

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 (Community, identity, wellbeing: The report of the Second National Indigenous Languages Survey, 2014)

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019). This is an opportunity for all Australians to celebrate and engage in a national conversation about our Indigenous languages and the fact that 90% are considered endangered.

We have a range of activities throughout the year to celebrate and recognise the diversity of Australian Indigenous languages and their importance in supporting cultural resurgence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and shaping our national identity. 

You can find more information about our activities on our 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages event page.

You can also join the conversation online using #IYIL2019 and #IndigenousLanguages.

Why is language important?

Language is more than just a means to communicate, it is an essential characteristic that makes people and communities unique, and plays a central role in a sense of identity. Language also carries meaning beyond the words themselves, and is an important platform within which much cultural knowledge and heritage is passed on.

Speaking and learning traditional languages improves the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, by providing a sense of belonging and empowerment.  Educational outcomes improve when children are taught in their first language, especially in the early years. Interpreting and translating, language teaching and learning, and producing resources in Indigenous Australian languages provide significant economic, social and intrinsic benefits to individuals and communities.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was endorsed by Australia in 2009. This includes:

  • Support for the development of literature and other creative works in spoken and written form.
  • Recognition of place and people names, access to government services including education and legal representation in first language.
  • Ensuring Indigenous peoples understand and communicate with government authorities in their first language using interpreters and other appropriate measures.

Indigenous Australian languages today

Balgarbalgar by Ron Wardrop
This Painting by Ron Wardrop is on the principal’s door at Parkes East Public School, where Ron used to teach a Wiradjuri language class. Balgabalgar is a Wiradjuri word meaning boss, king or person in charge. Photo: AIATSIS
  • More than 250 Indigenous Australian languages including 800 dialectal varieties were spoken on the continent at the time of European settlement in 1788.
  • Only 13 traditional Indigenous languages are still acquired by children.
  • Approximately another 100 or so are spoken to various degrees by older generations, with many of these languages at risk as Elders pass away.

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

Language at AIATSIS

AIATSIS has a long proud history in supporting language documentation since 1964, and is today a national leader in the collection, documentation, preservation, research and revival of Australian Indigenous languages.

We hold the world's largest collection dedicated to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories, over one-million items. Naturally many of the items feature Australian Indigenous languages.

You can Search the Collection online or visit us in Canberra.

Video: AIATSIS holds approximately 1200 hand-illustrated cards that contain recorded words and phrases in the critically endangered Miriwoong language from Western Australia's East Kimberley region.

Aboriginal Studies Press language and linguistics titles

Our publishing arm, Aboriginal Studies Press (ASP), publish a number of books on Indigenous languages including some bilingual titles. These can be purchased from our online shop.

Austlang

Austlang is an innovative online resource designed and developed by AIATSIS. Assembled from a number of sources, it provides referenced information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages such as:

  • Alternative/variant names and spellings with an alpha-numeric code
  • Geographical location from referenced sources
  • Links to MURA the AIATSIS catalogue for items about the language
  • History of the number of speakers (where available) such as census results
  • Comprehensive references and bibliography

Austlang language and people codes serve as consistent identifiers to support communities, researchers, archivists and cataloguers discover language resources. These codes were recently added to the list of Language Code and Term Source Codes used in Machine Readable Cataloguing (MARC) by the Library of Congress.

Australian Indigenous Languages Collection

Materials from the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection. Photo AIATSIS
Materials from the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection. Photo AIATSIS

An important resource for the preservation and revival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages is the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection maintained by AIATSIS. The collection brings together over 4500 items such as children’s’ readers, bible translations, dictionaries, grammars, vocabularies, works of imagination and learning kits in 200 languages. The collection’s significance was recognised in 2009 when it was added to the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.

AIATSIS Dictionaries Project

Approximately 20 dictionaries of Australian Indigenous languages are being supported through the end of production cycle. This includes what will become an iconic Warlpiri encyclopedic dictionary, based on 60 years of research by teams of speakers and linguists, to support language maintenance in that community, and a facsimile edition of The Sydney Language (1993), to support language awareness and revival of the language which the First Fleet first encountered in 1788.

AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia

The AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia was created in 1994 to illustrate the diversity of Indigenous cultures across the continent. It includes many language groups but is not definitive in this regard; it provides a visual representation of that cultural diversity.

Language revival and the Ngunawal Language Group

Ngunawal language lesson at Fraser Primary School in 2015.
Ngunawal language lesson at Fraser Primary School in 2015. Photo: AIATSIS

A number of Ngunawal family groups are working with AIATSIS to rebuild their language. Ngunawal country, where AIATSIS is situated, is located in the Australian Capital Territory and extends east into New South Wales towards Goulburn.

The aim is to revive a fully functional what is known about this language from the memories of Elders and historical sources to that can be taught to teach community members adults and also be become part of the local school curriculum. AIATSIS linguists and members of the Ngunawal community have been painstakingly compiling a wordlist to assist in the revitalisation of their language. For more information visit the project page.

National Indigenous Languages Survey

We have conducted two national surveys to assess the state of Indigenous languages in Australia, with the results being published in 2005 and 2014. A third survey, the National Indigenous Languages Report (NILR) is being conducted in 2019 in collaboration with the Department of Communications and the Arts (DoCA) and the Australian National University (ANU).

Video: Ephraim Bani discussing the importance of Torres Strait Islander Singing and Dancing

Last reviewed: 14 Mar 2019