Aboriginal Languages

Note: for more detail, go to the article about Aboriginal languages by R W Dixon located on our Web site.

Australian Aboriginal languages are highly diverse. There are nearly 100 Aboriginal languages in everyday use, but only 20 of these are strong in the sense that they have large communities of speakers and children are learning them as their first language. About 50 000 people speak an Australian indigenous language as their first language. Examples of “strong” languages are: Yolngu (north eastern Arnhem Land) with around 6000 speakers; the Arrernte group southern and central Northern Territory (around 3000); and Warlpiri also in the centre (also around 3000 speakers).

Most Aboriginal people speak English as their first or second language. After English, Kriol is the most widely spoken language – it is spoken from the Kimberley across to northwest Queensland.

Across southern Australia, where perhaps 150 languages have been virtually destroyed by colonisation, most people speak Standard English and Aboriginal English (a unique variety of English used widely by Aboriginal people).

Many of Australia’s Aboriginal languages face a bleak future, although there are vigorous efforts by communities to retain their language heritage wherever possible. However, all Aboriginal languages are in danger because of the decline in number of speakers and with many it is only older people who still speak the language.

There is a tremendous loss of cultural pride and sense of identity for communities that lose their language – one of the saddest and most moving experiences is to talk to an old person who is the last surviving speaker of their language.