We are on the brink of losing Indigenous languages in Australia—could schools save them?

Of the world’s 7,000 languages, it is estimated 50% to 90% will no longer be spoken in the next 50 to 100 years. The majority under threat are languages spoken by Indigenous peoples around the world: one is lost every two weeks.

One of the world’s fastest rates of language loss is in Australia. Indigenous languages in Australia comprise only 2% of languages spoken in the world, but represent 9% of the world’s critically endangered languages.

More than 250 Indigenous languages and over 750 dialects were originally spoken. However, as some experts estimate, only 40 languages are still spoken, with just 12 being learned by children.

First Nations educator Jacquie Hunter, who contributed to this article, has worked at One Arm Point Remote Community School in Ardiyooloon in Australia’s northwest for 17 years. She told us “kids know words, but not sentences” of their Bardi language. She estimates within the next few years, “we won’t have any more fluent speakers around to teach us those full sentences in our language”.

This is a pattern repeated in Indigenous communities nationwide.

Linguists have long recognised this urgency and policy-makers have recently begun to take action. Most notably, this year marks the start of the United Nations’ International Decade of Indigenous Languages (following on from 2019’s International Year of Indigenous Languages).

It aims to draw global attention to the critical endangerment of indigenous languages, and engage stakeholders and resources for their preservation, revitalisation, and promotion.

Read more: Phys.org

‘The embodiment of everything’: Preserving the language of Indigenous Victorians

Mandy Nicholson was in her early 20s when she found a book containing singular Woiwurrung words. It was the first time the Wurundjeri woman had seen her traditional language in print and it became, she says, the beginning of her “language journey”.

It was a bumpy start. Her first attempts to learn those words were “totally wrong”.

“I tried my best to learn how to say them, but I had no idea. I was reading it the English way,” she says.

“Looking back, I was totally wrong in what I was doing. As years went by I got more and more involved in First Language education, because I wanted to learn how to say these words properly, how to use Woiwurrung in context today rather than like an ancient language only used in the past.”

The restoration and preservation of Indigenous languages has attracted considerable popular interest over the past two decades. Great effort – although too often under-resourced – has gone into reawakening many threatened First Languages after they have sat dormant for a century or more.

Community language centres have appeared, as have school programs, workshops and camps; there have been several well-received films with dialogue entirely in traditional “lingo”; and requests are regularly submitted to language holders for permission and assistance to use traditional local words for everything from new buildings to new boats, clothes labels to reconciliation action plans.

Read more: The Age

Aboriginal languages making comeback through new training program and dictionaries

Colonial bans on speaking Aboriginal languages meant only a handful of Kaurna words — the Indigenous language of South Australia’s Adelaide Plains — were still in common usage 50 years ago.

The Kaurna language and others are now being revived with the help of linguists and, for the first time, tailored training courses to help language learners pass their skills back to their communities.

Kaurna woman Taylor Power-Smith said learning words spoken by her ancestors, and being able to teach them to her community, had been a way to honour those who came before her.

“This is the greatest inheritance I’ll ever receive and I feel so strongly that fluency will be ours, and our babies will eventually be able to speak in our mother’s tongue,” she said.

She said despite her love of learning, the eradication of the language at the hands of colonial settlers was hard to forget.

“I have really sometimes struggled to balance the gratitude in having my language and the ability to learn it, and the deep sadness that I feel for my ancestors and my family who had it stripped off of them,” she said.

Read more: ABC News

Explainer: how Tasmania’s Aboriginal people reclaimed a language, palawa kani

Truganini’s death in Hobart in May 1876 attracted worldwide attention. She was widely, but wrongly, believed to have been the last Aboriginal person to have survived the Tasmanian genocide. Her demise symbolised the devastating impacts of British imperialism on Indigenous peoples.

Yet Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to live on the Bass Strait Islands, in rural and urban Tasmania and elsewhere. Their culture, although severely disrupted by the British invasion, persists. Part of this survival is the resurrection of a language, palawa kani, that is used by some Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Recently there have been calls to use the Aboriginal name nipaluna for Hobart, and other places are already using dual names.

Across Australia, an estimated 250 Indigenous Australian languages and hundreds more dialects were spoken before the British arrived. The cultural disruption caused by invasion has resulted in more than half of these languages vanishing.

In parts of the country, Aboriginal people and linguists have been working to preserve and restore some of the country’s original languages. In this wider context of language preservation and renewal, a reconstructed Tasmanian Aboriginal language has recently emerged. Palawa kani (“Tasmanian Aboriginal people speak”), is based on surviving spoken and written remnants of the island’s original languages. The written form of palawa kani has only lower case letters following a decision by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to discontinue capitals.

Read more: The Conversation

Gurrumul and Indigenous languages offer windows into Australia’s past and present

There’s a scene towards the end of the film Gurrumul, directed by Paul Daniel Williams screening in cinemas now, that stays with me.

Set in a record store, somewhere in the United States, we hear innocuous guitar strumming in the background as people obliviously browse albums.

Then vocals. In an instant, everyone stops, puts down the album they’re holding, and stares at something we can’t see. It’s like they don’t know what’s drawing them, but one by one they walk to the back of the store.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, from Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, Australia, is performing live in a language we can probably assume none of them have ever heard. He has them transfixed.

The film and accompanying album Djarramirri — Child of the Rainbow were released in April, almost a year after Gurrumul’s death. The film has remained unchanged from when the artist approved it three days before his tragic death at age 46 last July.

The film is filled with incredible music and awkward moments. But, it’s an awkwardness that tells a story about working across vastly different cultures and languages. It is also about the enormous pressure facing people like Gurrumul, who live in two worlds and code-switch constantly. It’s an awkwardness we need to see.

Read more: Green Left Weekly

How AI is helping preserve Indigenous languages

Australia’s Indigenous population is rich in linguistic diversity, with over 300 languages spoken across different communities.

Some of the languages can be as distinct as Japanese is to German.

But many are at risk of becoming extinct because they are not widely accessible and have little presence in the digital space.

Professor Janet Wiles is a researcher with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, known as CoEDL, which has been working to transcribe and preserve endangered languages.

She says one of the biggest barriers to documenting languages is transcription.

“How transcription is done at the moment is linguists select small parts of the audio that might be unique words, unique situations or interesting parts of grammar, and they listen to the audio and they transcribe it,” she told SBS News.

The CoEDL has been researching 130 languages spoken across Australia and neighbouring countries like Indonesia.

Their work involves going into communities and documenting huge amounts of audio. So far, they have recorded almost 50,000 hours.

Transcribing the audio using traditional methods is estimated to take two million hours, making it a painstaking and near impossible task.

Knowing time is against them, Professor Wiles and her colleague Ben Foley turned to artificial intelligence.

Read more: SBS News

Bringing back Languages from Scraps of Paper

In 1904 Daisy Bates, an Irish-Australian journalist and ethnographer, sent out a questionnaire to squatters, police, and other authorities across Western Australia asking them to record examples of the local Aboriginal language.

Mrs Bates (1859-1951) was something of an eccentric – wearing full Edwardian outfits even when living in small tents in Aboriginal camps – and she remains a controversial figure. But she was one of the few Europeans of the era who lived closely with Indigenous Australians and recorded their culture.

Importantly, the responses to her questionnaire, preserved in 21,000 pages of handwritten notes or typescript, are immeasurably valuable; in some cases recording all we have left of many Aboriginal languages, otherwise lost as a result of European invasion.


The papers are important not only for a general understanding of the diversity of languages that have been part of Australia’s heritage for thousands of years, but also for the people associated with those languages. Aboriginal communities can not only reconnect to their languages through the papers, they can in some cases trace their named relatives. Some of the words listed have also been used in Native Title claims, establishing continuity of the language over time.

But these papers aren’t just hugely valuable to interested linguistic researchers – even biologists trawl through them to understand the local plants and wildlife named in different Indigenous languages throughout.

However, until now, they’ve been largely inaccessible. The pages themselves have been spread across three libraries in different states and territories – the Barr Smith Library in Adelaide, the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the Battye Library in Perth. Some have been published with English translations, but this work has not been linked back to the primary records in a way that is now possible with digital technology.

Read more: University of Melbourne

Australia’s taste for translated literature is getting broader, and that’s a good thing

With today’s announcement of the winner of the Man Booker International Prize shortlist, translation again finds itself in the foreground of the literary landscape. This year’s shortlist includes novels translated from a diverse array of languages including Arabic (Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi), Hungarian (László Krasznahorkai’s The World Goes On) and Korean (The White Book by Han Kang).

In 2016, the prize evolved from a biennial event, designed to honour one living author’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage, to a yearly prize for fiction in translation. In Australia, too, literary translation is experiencing something of a moment. Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, translated from Farsi, was recently shortlisted for the Stella Prize.

While Europe remains the overwhelming source of translated fiction in Australia, European writing is no longer restricted to classics and bestsellers. Scandinavian crime thrillers are still reliable favourites, but we are also seeing a greater range of Scandinavian literary fiction in translation, alongside relatively underrepresented European languages like Polish and Hungarian. Witold Szabłowski’s Dancing Bears (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) and Péter Gárdos’s Fever at Dawn (translated by Liz Szász) are outstanding recent examples of the latter.

There are also more works of Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American literature emerging in translation: Un-su Kim’s forthcoming novel The Plotters, translated by Sora Kim-Russell; Nir Baram’s A Land Without Borders, translated by Jessica Cohen; and Chris Andrews’s forthcoming translation of Marcelo Cohen’s Melodrome, to name just a few.

This suggests the growing openness of Australian readerships towards the rich cultural imaginations of the most intensely othered parts of the world. Literary connections with places like these also link Australia more closely to the experiences of its growing migrant communities.

Read more: The Conversation

Calls for national legislation to protect Indigenous languages in Australia

Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), suggests Australia could follow in the footsteps of New Zealand, which introduced the Māori Language Act in 1987, thereby giving Māori official language status.

“Under that, every government agency has an obligation to make sure that the work that they do preserves and perpetuates the Māori language,” Mr Ritchie says.

“That might be something to think about in the legislative space.”

The Dunghutti and Biripi man was the keynote speaker at Australia’s first National Indigenous Languages Convention on the Gold Coast. Part of the federal government’s $10 million commitment to protect First Nations languages, the convention brought experts together to discuss the role of digital technology in language preservation.

Australia has been identified as one of the top five endangered language hot spots in the world. Of the estimated 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, about 120 are still spoken, but most are severely or critically endangered.

Mr Ritchie told the crowd that Australia needed to follow New Zealand’s lead by bringing language into the public domain, making culture more visible in public spaces such as airports, and weaving simple greetings or words into news broadcasts or television programs.

“We’ll know we’ve succeeded when they’re using Aboriginal language on Home and Away,” he laughed.

Read more: SBC

Linguists digitise 1970s children’s storybooks to help preserve Indigenous languages

During this time, bilingual education programs were rolled out in remote schools throughout the Northern Territory, allowing schoolchildren to read and write in their native languages before transitioning to reading and writing in English.

Thousands of unique, entry-level children’s books, often based on local stories and illustrated by local artists, were created in Indigenous languages.

“Some were very simple and plain — just a line drawing with a couple of words,” linguist Cathy Bow said.

The colourful books now scattered throughout the Northern Territory are still deeply important, according to Ms Bow.

And as the project manager of the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages, she has helped make 3,380 of them publicly available in an easy-to-use online archive.

Ms Bow and her team travelled to schools in locations as remote as Galiwin’ku, Barunga and Papunya to source the material.

A report that led to the establishment of the programs recommended “flooding the place with literature” — but the remains Ms Bow’s team have found might be better described as puddles.

If they have not been lost, damaged or destroyed already, the booklets are often collecting dust in long-forgotten school cupboards.

Read more: ABC

Indigenous verse in national anthem considered to preserve Aboriginal languages

The NSW Government’s Aboriginal Affairs Department has been on a statewide roadshow consulting 14 different Indigenous communities on the draft Aboriginal Language Bill.

The landmark legislation is the first of its kind and will set out to promote and protect Aboriginal languages as well as provide legal preservation.

Places that have been consulted so far are Wagga Wagga, Dubbo, Moruya, and Lightening Ridge.

About a dozen stakeholders from the New England North West Aboriginal community attended the only consultation in the region in Tamworth.

With at least 35 different Aboriginal languages in New South Wales alone, NSW Aboriginal Affairs senior project officer Reuben Robinson said his team were travelling around the state to get input from as many Indigenous people as possible.

“It’s about our mob providing the vital input and feedback necessary to give more substance and guts to this legislation,” he said.

“It’s about ensuring our cultural integrity, as well as our intellectual, ownership and control rights.”

Read more: ABC News

Australian National University’s John Giacon wins Patji-Dawes Award for indigenous language efforts

John Giacon’s decades-long dedication to the revitalisation of indigenous languages has been a sometimes difficult but ultimately rewarding pursuit.

The Australian National University lecturer and researcher’s work saw him recognised last week with the the Patji-Dawes Award – Australia’s top honour for language teaching.

“I used to be a schoolteacher and I think this is probably way more valuable than teaching people mathematics and coaching football teams,” Dr Giacon said.

Dr Giacon first started working on Gamilaraay and the closely-related Yuwaalaraay after moving to Walgett in northern New South Wales in 1994.

With the help and blessing of Uncle Ted Fields, now deceased, the Christian Brother travelled the nearby bush and documented vocabulary lists.

After instituting a language program at a Walgett school with some success, Dr Giacon worked to organise community language meetings in nearby towns where he shared language, teaching strategies and curriculum.

While working in the communities he witnessed the restorative power of language.

Read more: The Canberra Times