Indigenous people have traditionally been skilled linguists, often speaking many languages. Some languages were similar – in the same way Spanish and Italian have similarities – so learning them was easier, especially for people who were already speaking more than one language.
All languages were oral; there were no written languages. Each nation (and there were 500) had their own language and clans would have regional variations. This is why there can sometimes be disputes over how particular words are spelt.
Today, of the 400 languages spoken in Australia, 145 of them are Indigenous languages. Of these, 110 are on the endangered list and only half have more than 150 speakers.
Across Australia, approximately 56 000 people speak an Indigenous language. In the Northern Territory, 54% of the Indigenous population speaks an Indigenous language. In Western Australia, the figure is 13%; in South Australia, 11%.
The largest Aboriginal language groups are:
- Arrernte (Central Australia, around Alice Springs) – 2835 speakers
- Djambarrpuyngu (north-east Arnhem Land) – 2766 speakers
- Pitjantjatjara (northern South Australia and into Western Australia) – 2657 speakers.
The largest Torres Strait Islander language groups are:
- Kalaw Kawaw Ya/Kala Lagaw Ya (central and western islands) – 1216 speakers
- Meriam Mir (eastern islands) – 212 speakers
- Torres Strait Creole (across the islands) – 6042 speakers.
Several language groups have worked to regenerate their culture. While languages are spoken in many Indigenous communities in central and northern Australia, others have been in decline. Some language groups that have been very proactive in preserving or regenerating their language are:
- Gumbaynggirr – traditionally spoken between the Nambucca River in the south (southern dialect) and the Clarence River in the north (northern dialect) and west past Guyra (tablelands region).
- Pitjantjatjara – a dialect of the Western Desert language traditionally spoken by the Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia.
- Gamilaraay/Yuwaalaraay – traditional languages of the Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay people, whose land includes the area of Northern NSW and Southern QLD – roughly bounded by the towns of Walgett, Goodooga, Mungindi, Goondiwindi, Ashford, Tamworth, Murrurundi and Coonabarabran.
- Wiradjiri – the Wiradjuri were the local Budgee Budgee clan. Their tribal area stretched as far as Wellington and the Mudgee region was only a small part of their hunting grounds.
Case Study: Language preservation
A major project has been underway to record, preserve and regenerate the Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay languages, two large language groups from north-western New South Wales. This has included generating a dictionary; producing resources for teaching children the language, including a picture book and a CD of songs; and the teaching of courses in the languages at schools and universities. There is also a website with a searchable dictionary, downloadable stories, and lessons and materials to assist teachers and students of the languages - yuwaalaraay.org.
English is often a second language for Indigenous people. This provides challenges in certain contexts, particularly in education and in the criminal justice system. Some schools have developed a bilingual model that understands that children come into the classroom not speaking English – or having it as a second or third language. The community works with teachers to teach them the local language. Children then learn to read and write in the language they know the best, and this makes it easier for them to then read and write language. The added dimension of having teachers and communities work closely together has added to the success of bilingual programs. However, they are resource intensive and not supported by governments.
Not speaking English – or having a poor command of it – disadvantages defendants appearing in courts as well. They are often impeded in their ability to assist in their defence, cannot understand the proceedings and cannot communicate well as witnesses. Courts are required to have interpreters but scarcity of resources often means that interpreters are not available when they are needed.
Continuing cultural engagement
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have increasingly sought to combine practice of their traditional culture and knowledge with economic development. Some communities have engaged in co-management arrangements with national parks, others have developed cultural tours, built cultural centres and looked at other ways that the increasing popularity of eco-tourism can provide opportunities for them. These initiatives have included the purchase of the luxury resort at Uluru, Northern Territory. The Indigenous Land Council owns Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia which operates four tourism sites, including Yulara at Uluru, offering employment and training for local Indigenous people. In Cairns, Queensland the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, has the longest on-going stage show and runs cultural tours and an education program.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics provides additional evidence on the extent to which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures remain contemporary and vibrant:
Celebrations for the Indigenous communities are occasions for additional community activities. Australia Day (26 January and referred to as ‘Invasion Day’ and ‘Survival Day’) and NAIDOC Week (the week surrounding National Aboriginal and Islander Day of Celebration – (June)) are key dates on the cultural calendar. Mabo Day (3 June) and Sorry Day (26 May) are also significant moments of activity and reflection. There are several Indigenous focused festivals – Corroboree in Sydney, Garma in Arnhem Land, Barunga Festival in the Northern Territory and Boomerang in Byron Bay – that celebrate Indigenous music, dancing and creative and performing arts.
Contemporary Indigenous culture can also be seen with performing arts companies like the Bangarra Dance Theatre and through the visual arts. Painting in particular has been an activity that has seen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities find a source of income. However, the rise in value and popularity of Indigenous artworks has made it more difficult to ensure that Aboriginal artists are not exploited and their work not copied without their consent. There have been several attempts to introduce a register or label that can ensure the authenticity of Indigenous art and artefacts.
The table below shows cultural engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is taken from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2008, Australian Bureau of Statistics.
|Indigenous people||Aged over 15 years||Aged under 15 years|
|Speak in Indigenous language||19%||13%|
|Involved in cultural events, ceremonies or organisations||63%||70%|
|Know the Aboriginal nation they are descended from||62% across all age groups|
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2008.