The fight to keep Australia’s Indigenous languages from disappearing forever


A celebration of languages spoken by Indigenous communities is the focus of this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

In Australia, the majority of Indigenous languages are in danger of being lost forever – but several communities are working to preserve and revive them.

The United Nations estimates there are around 370 million Indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries and while they make up less than five per cent of the population, they speak a majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures. 

Friday marks International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which will this year focus on celebrating and preserving Indigenous languages.

Director of the Indigenous Languages Education masters program at the University of Sydney Susan Poetsch said 250-300 separate languages were spoken across Australia before European colonisation.

Clan members of the Yolngu people from north-eastern Arnhem Land perform the Bunggul dance during the Garma Festival near Nhulunbuy, East Arnhem Land.
Clan members of the Yolngu people from north-eastern Arnhem Land perform the Bunggul dance during the Garma Festival near Nhulunbuy, East Arnhem Land.

"Those are distinct languages, then so many languages have dialects as well, you know, mutually intelligible dialects of the same language, so if you count all of those as well then the numbers can go as high as 600 to 800," she said. 

Ms Poetsch says there are now only around 13 traditional languages still acquired by Indigenous children and spoken by all generations in a community. 

"All of the other languages are either severely endangered, which means that there are only elderly speakers, and so, you know, it's important that younger generations are involved in any work that's going on for their language,” she said.

“Or else they're languages that are being revived and revitalised through a combination of historical and archival sources and community-held knowledge." 

Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre is one organisation dedicated to preserving Indigenous languages. Since the early 1990s, the centre has been reviving a Tasmanian Aboriginal language called palawa kani, using written records left by early settlers and expeditioners. 

Palawa kani language program co-ordinator Annie Reynolds said all of the estimated eight to 16 languages spoken in Tasmania before colonisation were lost due to the violence and displacement inflicted upon the state's Aboriginal population.

"It was seen that it would not be possible to revive any one of those original languages in its entirety, but that by using those records, one language could be revived that would cover the whole of Tasmania, using words from as many of those original languages as possible,” she said.

Gamatj kids at the opening ceremony to Garma
Gamatj kids at the opening ceremony to Garma

Linguists worked with Aboriginal Tasmanians to help them research and identify the original sounds and meanings of words found only in written records. By comparing the spoken with the written, researchers were able to put together an alphabet.  

Ms Reynolds said two palawa kani dictionaries have been published so far, with the second containing around 900 words. 

"So you can actually speak sentences in palawa kani now and through that process have been able to identify elements of the grammar which had not been thought to be possible,” she said.

Palawa kani is primarily taught to young Aboriginal Tasmanians, who then share the language with their families. 

Ms Reynolds said places names were especially important. 

"Places are spoken about quite often, so that's a way you can get an Aboriginal word back into use,” she said.

“It's also a way that the state and its residents can show suitable honour and acknowledgment of Aboriginal languages by acknowledging the fact that these were the original names of these places in the first place, and should be back there.”

In the Tanami region of the Northern Territory, traditional language is being preserved through the Warlpiri Education and Training Trust.

Clan members of the Yolngu people perform the Bunggul traditional dance during the Garma Festival
Clan members of the Yolngu people perform the Bunggul traditional dance during the Garma Festival

"The Newmont mine met with Warlpiri women and Central Land Council and the traditional owners [of the mine's land] got together and set up the trust in 2005,” Lajamanuelder and Kurra WETT Committee director Robyn Lawson said.

“The idea was about using royalty money [from the mine] for education. The consultants went out to four communities - Lajamanu, Yuendumu, Nyirrpi and Willowra - to ask about what programs they wanted." 

While Warlpiri is one of the most widely-used traditional languages in Australia with around 3,000 speakers, it's classified by UNESCO as vulnerable.

Lajamanu woman Margaret Johnson is a new member of the WETT advisory committee and has directly benefited from the trust's programs.

She said the bilingual and bi-cultural classes and resources developed through WETT give community members the skills to more easily navigate between English and Warlpiri-speaking environments.

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