What is happening to Australian Aboriginal languages?

aboriginal lang

Growing up in Australia, primary and secondary schools offered foreign language subjects like Japanese, Italian, French and Indonesian. There are other university courses and private institutes that offer other languages like German, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, AUSLAN (Australian Sign Language) and even Filipino but very few.

However, I have yet to see a class teaching one of the many Aboriginal languages of Australia.

This article will not analyse each language on pronunciations, grammar or sounds. That would be very difficult. It would almost be like analysing every language in Europe.


The languages

Around the 18th century, there were up to 250 languages spoken in Australia. Now only 150 remain and they are considered to be critically endangered.

The main language families include Pama-Nyungan, which covered almost the entire continent from Western Australia to the east and southern coasts. There are multiple language families all collectively grouped together and labelled as “non Pama-Nyungan”.

Some of the widely spoken languages today include Tiwi, Malpiri and Yolngu.



Indigenous Australians have had a turbulent history regarding cruelty and poor treatment by European settlers. One of the most shameful parts of Australian history is known as “The Stolen Generation”. During the early 20th century, Aboriginal children have been snatched from their parents by the federal government and churches and then were put into schools and churches to be given formal “Western” education in order for the indigenous children to grow up “civilised”. However, this practice has created a negative impact on indigenous communities which continue to this day in Australian society. There is a day in Australia called “National Sorry Day” where the Prime Minister of Australia and other leaders publicly apologise to the indigenous communities for the wrongdoings against them.

During Australia’s young history as a federation, Aboriginal communities have also been discouraged from speaking their mother tongues as they were deemed “inferior”. Aboriginal communities have also developed a creole based on English however even that was also considered “low-class”. As the indigenous community embraced English, the knowledge of indigenous languages among the Aboriginal youth declined dramatically.

It is said that there are no full-blooded Tasmanian aborigines as today’s Tasmanian aborigines are no longer full-blooded. Tasmanian Aboriginal languages all died along with the last full-blooded indigenous Tasmanian and its last speakers.


Current status

At least in New Zealand, they made their indigenous language, Maori, one of the official languages of the country.

In Australia however, that is not the case.

Where I come from, Melbourne, the Kulin Nation are the historical custodians of metropolitan Melbourne and the languages spoken there before English included Wurundjeri and Bunurong. Nowadays, you would rarely hear the indigenous Melbournians speak a language other than English. There are elders who represent the Kulin nation of Melbourne who do create cultural awareness of the Kulin culture including by speaking a bit of the languages.

Today, indigenous languages are mainly spoken in remote areas of Central Australia, Western Australia and Northern Territory which were never settled by the settlers. In towns like Alice Springs, some indigenous children can already speak more than two indigenous languages plus English.



All Indigenous peoples also have this right and the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

– Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 26 (3)

There have been several ways of preserving these indigenous languages. Several indigenous musicians like have been promoting their own languages through music. Some good examples includes Yothu Yindi and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu who sing in Yolngu.

One famous Australian movie is “Ten Canoes” directed by Rolf de Heer where the entire movie was spoken mostly in indigenous languages such as  Gunwinggu and Yolngu Matha dialects .

There are schools in Northern Territory that offer bilingual education where indigenous children learn both English and Aboriginal languages with the mother tongue being the language of instruction.


Languages of Torres Strait Islanders

Torres Strait Islanders are another group of indigenous peoples who live in the Torres Strait Islands off the coast of the state of Queensland.

Indigenous languages are still spoken on the islands among islanders. The main languages are Kalaw Lagaw Ya (Western), Meriam Mir (Eastern) and Torres Strait Creole which is based on English.


Indigenous words in Australian English

Aboriginal words have contributed greatly to Australian English as everyday words.

Names of Australian animals are mostly of Australian Aboriginal origin like kangaroo, dingo, wombat and kookaburra.

Indigenous cultural items include boomerang, corroboree, humpy and bunyip can be found in Australian dictionaries.

Names of many places in Australia are of indigenous origin including Geelong, Wagga Wagga, Coolangatta, the Yarra River, Bondi Beach, Uluru and, of course, the country’s capital, Canberra.


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