Aboriginal languages

Aboriginal people were able to speak up to 5 languages fluently, but now many languages are critically endangered.

Lack of knowledge already have cost lives.

Aboriginal language is yet to be formally included in schools despite students being “hungry” to learn them.

Selected statistics

250
Number of Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia before invasion [21].
600
Number of dialects spoken in Australia before invasion [22].
60
Number of Aboriginal languages considered 'alive' and in use as a first tongue today [23].
11%
Percentage of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people mainly speaking an Aboriginal language at home in 2008, unchanged from 2002 [20]. 75% of these can also speak English [11].
50%
Percentage of Indigenous people in some remote areas of Australia whose speak an Aboriginal language at home [18].
62%
Percentage of Aboriginal adults who identified with a clan, language or tribal group in 2008. Same figure in 2002: 54% [20].
804
Number of people in NSW who identified as speaking an Aboriginal language in the 2006 census. Same figure in 2002: 2,682 [7].
20%
Percentage of surveyed West Australians who support the inclusion of Indigenous languages as part of the school curriculum [8].
145
Number of Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia today. 110 of them are "critically endangered" [8].
70
Number of Aboriginal languages and dialects spoken in New South Wales before the arrival of Europeans [25].
20
Number of Aboriginal languages spoken in New South Wales today [25].
10
Number of Aboriginal languages in NSW considered healthy enough to be included in school curriculums [12].
50,000
Number of Aboriginal people whose mother tongue is an Aboriginal language. People who speak Yolngu: 6,000, Arrernte: 3,000, Warlpiri: 3,000 [15].
250
Number of Noongar people who speak Noongar. Total number of Noogar people: 40,000 [9].

List of linked articles

List of short articles

When I speak language, it makes me feel [at] home.—Roger Hart, Aboriginal elder [1]

I think that Australia holds one of the world's records for linguicide, for the killing of language.—Prof Ghil'ad Zuckermann, linguist, Adelaide University [2]

Multilingual memory masters

Aboriginal people are experts when it comes to language. Before the invasion many were able to speak at least two or three and up to five languages or dialects fluently. Because they had an oral culture they were masters in remembering, contrary to the dominant western culture today who relies on the written word.

In my community, it was common to speak 10 languages. Speaking three wasn't that impressive.—Lorraine Injie, Aboriginal woman, Pilbara, WA [17]

[Aboriginal] language is an important embodiment of cultural heritage, knowledge, tradition and identity unique to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” says Russell Taylor, Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) [3].

Languages don’t just carry information. They also link to land, stories, Dreaming tracks, botanical, medicinal and navigational techniques, and historical experiences of colonialism, racism and prejudice [19].

For Aboriginal Senior Australian of the Year and Yolngu Elder Laurie Baymarrwangga language carries the essence of Aboriginal culture. “The important thing about language and what it means is that language contains the essence of the ancestors, every word comes from place, and identifies people and links to land, country, the dreaming; they are all inherent in language, therefore it means the people, the land, everything.” [14]

Even if language is acquired later in life it can instil a sense of well-being and belonging for many Indigenous people who have lost ties to their culture [4].

Aboriginal people “often don’t even know that [their mother] language is still strong and people speak it. When we show that to them it just blows their mind,” says Ken Walker, NSW North Coast Gumbaynggirr Aboriginal language teacher [4].

Yolngu [north-Australian] language is our power, our foundation, our root and everything that holds us together. [It] gives us strength; language is our identity, who we are. Yolngu language gives us pride. Language is our law and justice.—Yalmay Yunupingu, Aboriginal teacher [5]

In the language are our ideas and we need them, the world needs them.—Bruce Pascoe, Aboriginal teacher [6]

Traditional hand signs

When Aboriginal people were out hunting they couldn’t just call out to each other—it would have scared away their game.

So they developed an intricate system of hand signs to signal to each other. Hand signs are not only used for hunting, as Clifton Bieundurry explains in the following video.




Hand signs are considered one of two competing ideas about how early humans developed language [16]. In an experiment with university students, who were not allowed to use language, they became fluent very quickly in a sign language they developed, rather than the use of vocalisations.

Have you ever listened to Aboriginal language?

Many people, even many Australians, have never listened to Aboriginal language.

View the following video Language Stories - Mijil Mil Mia and listen to the Aboriginal elder’s story from the Kimberley (subtitles provided).

Aboriginal language: When yes means no

Sometimes people say ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes’. But it might surprise that many Aboriginal people say ‘yes’ and mean ‘no’.

Research uncovered that Aboriginal people often answer ‘yes’ to advances by salespeople to appease the salesperson and politely end the conversation [10]. Salespeople however took their ‘yes’ as agreement and sealed the contract with dire consequences.

Hundreds of Aboriginal people entered unintentionally into exploitative, unfair contracts to buy, lease or lay-by products and services they can’t afford and don’t understand. The North Queensland-based Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network (ICAN) cancelled more than 800 contracts, preventing an estimated $2 million of financial detriment [10], which they consider the “tip of the iceberg”.

Similarly, Aboriginal people “agree” in everyday conversations with non-Indigenous people. They try to politely tell the person that they do not want or can’t answer their questions or request because they haven’t built enough trust yet or it is not their call to reveal the answers.

Resources

If you are interested in researching Aboriginal languages check out the following websites.

Dharug Dalang

Dharug Dalang is a site launched in October 2010. It features hundreds of words, some of which are read out to you so you can learn their pronunciation.

The site has also background information and video interviews about language of Aboriginal people.

Check it out: www.dharug.dalang.com.au.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (IATSIS)

IATSIS’ Australian Indigenous languages database AUSTLANG allows you to search for Aboriginal languages by name, place name or by navigating Australia through Google Maps.

Screenshot of the AUSTLANG website.
AUSTLANG website. The site is fast to navigate and offers many ways to explore Aboriginal languages.

Indigenous communities are as diverse as Indigenous languages.—Jimmy Pascoe, traditional owner, Maningrida, West Arnhemland, Northern Territory [13]

Footnotes

View article sources (23)

[1] Flyer from Ngapartji Ngapartji performance for Indigenous language support
[2] Email from Rosa McKenna, Education consultant, Melbourne, 9/8/2012
[3] 'Prestigious award win for AIATSIS', Koori Mail 452 p.42
[4] 'New language courses reclaim the mother tongue', NIT 25/1/2007 p.13
[5] 'NT Govt accused of endangering culture', Koori Mail 439 p.8
[6] ''Do more' challenge for us all', Koori Mail 441 p.40
[7] 'Website helps to keep Darug language alive', Koori Mail 463 p.14
[8] 'WA support to teach our languages', Koori Mail 472 p.32
[9] 'Noongar language to be preserved Wikipedia-style', The Stringer 17/2/2014
[10] 'When 'Yeah Yeah Yeah' means no', Koori Mail 476 p.3
[11] 'Census shows more identify as Indigenous', Koori Mail 404 p.7
[12] 'Volumes offer new hope for languages', Koori Mail 439 p.30
[13] 'Why homelands are better for our people', Koori Mail 453 p.21
[14] 'Fighting for language', Koori Mail 525 p.4
[15] 'Talking culture', Koori Mail 428 p.21
[16] 'Language likely to have started with hand signals: study', SMH 28/6/2014
[17] 'Project aims to halt loss of Aboriginal languages', AFP 26/10/2010
[18] Koori Mail 390 p.68
[19] 'Australia’s endangered languages', Honi Soit 13/11/2014, honisoit.com/2014/11/australias-endangered-languages/, retrieved 16/11/2014
[20] 'Gains, but the gap is still wide, study finds', Koori Mail 463 p.9
[21] 'Aboriginal Languages', NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, daa.nsw.gov.au/landandculture/language.html
[22] 'Noongar name for substance', Koori Mail 444 p.33
[23] 'Mixed reaction to English plan', Koori Mail 402 p.12

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

www.CreativeSpirits.info, Aboriginal culture - Language, retrieved 2 April 2015