Australian Aboriginal Languages

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today speak around 120 different, distinct, and unique languages and dialects. However, this is a fraction of the original breadth of languages, many of which were lost following colonisation, resulting in the irretrievable loss of dialects spoken for generations.

Our vibrant Australian Aboriginal language map puts these figures into a visual context, showing how hundreds of clans, communities, and groups used their own dialects, painting a picture of how much the country we now call Australia has changed.

Events such as Indigenous Literacy Day, held annually in September, help to recognise the 600 to 700 original Aboriginal languages. Still, more work and acknowledgement are needed to preserve and retain the remaining few.

The History of Language in Australia

When we share education about the volume of Aboriginal languages that once coloured the land and symbolised diverse cultures and ways of life, many people are surprised to learn that the ancestors of today’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people spoke hundreds of different languages.

Part of the reason behind the decline of Indigenous languages in Australia is that following the colonisation of Australia, Indigenous communities were suppressed and had their languages taken from them, along with their land, homes, culture, autonomy, and family members.

Assimilation Policy and the Loss of Linguistic Diversity

Government policies stripped Indigenous people of their right to speak their languages, silencing dialects that had pre-existed colonisation for thousands of years. Assimilation policy demanded that Aboriginal people communicate in English as a ‘lingua franca’ not only with colonisers but within their own families and homes. 

In 1953, the Commonwealth Office of Education stated that this process would not disrupt the traditional social structure any more than removing their right to follow their ‘religions and superstitions.’ 

A study completed in 2016 revealed the sad truth that only around 10% of today’s Aboriginal people continue to speak an Indigenous language at home. However, this is far from surprising given that generations of First Nations people were forbidden from speaking Aboriginal languages, and children were prohibited from communicating in their dialects, even in school playgrounds.

Some Elders and community leaders believe that there is still an opportunity for those ancient, sleeping languages that have been lost to be revived. 

Which Aboriginal Languages Remain in Use?

There are an estimated 120 languages and dialects used today by Aboriginal and First Nations people, although some communities use similar languages within a distinct dialect–much as people from different regions might both speak English but have alternative accents, phraseology, and terms. Each language is specific to the people and place from which it originates and is intertwined with history, culture, family, and tradition. 

In some regions of Australia, such as Arnhem Land, numerous dialects are spoken within a relatively small area, but other dialects have a wider scope, with one Indigenous language used across much of the vast Western Desert. Three primary languages remain in the Torres Strait: Kala Lagaw Ya, Meriam Mir, and Yumplatok. These languages are interspersed with other regional dialects and vary between the islands, with, for example, Meriam Mir spoken by only around 200 people on the eastern islands.

The first edition of the Bible in an Aboriginal language was published just sixteen years ago, when a Kriol Bible was completed, a dialect spoken in northern Australia–a stark contrast compared to the Māori Bible published in 1868.

Why Is it Important to Respect and Acknowledge Aboriginal Languages?

Language is so much more than a means to communicate. It allows us to share our experiences, beliefs, and ideas and influences how we express our knowledge, convey laws and rules, interact as families and communities, and refer to our country, land, lives, and relationships.

The languages spoken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a deep spiritual connection to culture and belief, and only by preserving and protecting these unique dialects can we support the work to ensure Indigenous communities maintain those links to the land and their ancestors.

Were we today to be told that, by law and under threat of punishment, we were to learn another foreign language and use it in our public and private lives, it would destroy our sense of identity and create an incredible void of loss in literature, art, music, story, and heritage. This reality is precisely how so many Aboriginal languages have been lost to time–making it even more vital that we work collectively to protect those that remain.

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