Our Languages

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Indigenous Australians are among the nation’s most skilled users of language. Before European settlement, more than 200 distinct languages, and countless dialects of them, were in use around Australia. It was usual for people to speak at least one or more neighbouring languages besides their own. Sadly, only a small number of our languages are spoken fluently today. While people in some communities continue to speak their own languages, others are seeking to record and revive threatened ones.

Kriol and Yumplatok

Kriol has emerged in northern Australia as a means of communicating across our cultures and between English-speakers and us. While some people are unhappy that Kriol tends to be used instead of traditional languages, it has unified many Aboriginal people. There are two major creoles in Australia: one spoken in Queensland, the Northern Territory and the West Australian cattle-station belt (Kriol); and one spoken in the Torres Strait and Cape York (Torres Strait Creole).

Language maintenance and revival

Many of our languages have been lost under European influences. Those of us who were forced into missions and institutions were not only discouraged from speaking our languages, but were actively punished when we tried to do so.

While some languages have been irretrievably lost, there is work being done to revive and maintain languages by communities, cultural centres and institutions. The maintencance of language is crucial to our cultural health. For many of us, our languages represent the keystone to our identities, Law and land claims.

a poster of a child's face

Language resources. Photo © Batchelor Press.

Many in our communities have a strong desire to publish our own material in a way that respects our Indigenous Law, traditions and culture. Batchelor Press (part of the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education in the Northern Territory) was created to meet this need and it helps Indigenous elders, educators and the Press satisfy common law needs as well as Indigenous communal rights.

The Press publishes Indigenous books, DVDs and CDs in our languages and English, as requested by elders and communities. It also publishes research reports and educational resources for Indigenous adults and early childhood teachers.

Community elders and members, artists, storytellers and language workers, along with linguists, illustrators, editors and the publisher, work together to create the publications. The skills and experience of all these people in English as a second language, curriculum development and teaching and learning in a variety of ways are used in a collaborative effort.

Source: The Little Red Yellow Black Book: An introduction to Indigenous Australia (second edition), AIATSIS.

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Daryn Mckenny, Arwarbukarl Cultural Resource Association, teaches students to record their local Indigenous language. Photo © Karen Shrosbery.

At Arwarbukarl Cultural Resource Association, language activities are divided into two separate categories: local work reviving and maintaining the local Awabakal language, and then national work involving language technology development and training.

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Using Aboriginal Words.

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The Machine Story, an anti-gambling animation in Arrernte language. Photo © italk Library (www.isee-ilearn.com).

When dealing with issues such as health and education it is important that we communicate in our first language to ensure understanding and ownership of these issues. Often outsiders come into our communities and expect us to deal with complex matters in English, even when it is not our first language. isee-ilearn is an organisation that produces stories ‘spoken in the first languages of Aboriginal people, making information more accessible to communities whose first language is not English.’ Educational tools and resources in a number of different languages are kept online in the italk library. Individuals can access these resources or create stories in their own language to use in their communities.

'The Machine Story', spoken in Arrernte, a language from central Australia, is about the misleading lure of poker machines. To access a version of this animation in English go to www.italklibrary.com/stories/the-machine-story/.


Words like mulga have come into English to mean not just one acacia species, but the bush in general. Mallee is probably a Wemba Wemba word. The name of the Victorian Moomba festival comes from the Kulin word moom, which means backside. People find this amusing but it more correctly refers to sitting down or camping, which is what happens at a celebration, corroborree or festival. All Australians are familiar with the word corroboree for an Aboriginal dance and song festival but few know it is a Dharug word meaning to dance. Gibber, the word for stony plains, is also a Dharug word meaning to dance, while many Australians call the small thorn that sticks into your foot in summer by a word from several New South Wales languages: bindi-eye. Yabber is used now to describe voluble talk and it comes from the Woiwurrung language.