Australian contemporary and historical language use
(This section is reproduced and adapted from the forthcoming Australian section of Atlas of the World’s Languages, edited by Asher and Moseley.)
There are approximately 145 Australian Aboriginal languages with speakers today, a significant reduction from the almost 400 languages estimated at the time of first European settlement in 1788. Previous work has estimated the number of languages at 250-300 but we believe this to be an underestimate, with the real figure being more like 400. Many of these languages are spoken by only a handful of elderly people, with no transmission to younger generations. Others, however, are vibrant, and continue to be the first language of a majority of the community. Yet others are undergoing a renaissance, gaining speakers and support within their communities. Finally, there are also new languages, such as Kriol, Light Warlpiri, Palawa Kani, and Gurindji Kriol. Of course, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders also speak English, and many Indigenous Australians are multilingual.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of Australia is a little under 700,000 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011 census), and just under 10% (or about 60,000) report speaking an Indigenous language at home. This is a decline of about 95% from the previous edition of this book, and may be an overestimate, since the census question does not clearly distinguish between ties to a language through group affiliation and fluent speech of that language. The second National Indigenous Languages Survey, released by the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 2014, states that there are 145 Indigenous languages still spoken in Australia, but all but 35 are "severely or critically endangered".
Australia has been settled for more than 50,000 years, but one language family – Pama-Nyungan – dominates 90% of the Australian land mass. The remaining twenty-three families are crowded into the remaining one-tenth, the area extending from the north-west of Western Australia and across the top end of the Northern Territory as far east as the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Language endangerment in Australia and around the world
Almost half the world’s languages are currently losing speakers and are endangered to various extents. 90% of the world’s languages are spoken by 10% of the world’s population, making linguistic diversity vulnerable.
For more information, see
- Endangered Languages, a catalogue of endangered languages, including speaker numbers, locations, and language samples. There is an accompanying book.
- Unesco also has a strong interest in language endangerment.
- The Living Tongues Institute promotes research on language endangerment worldwide. They also have an active twitter feed for stories on languages and their speakers.
- The Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language in Australia does a great deal of excellent work on Australian languages.
- Glottolog is a free catalogue of the world’s languages (including languages which are not endangered).
- The Endangered Language Fund provides small grants for linguists and communities working on endangered languages.
Where to go for more information about Australian languages
- Within Australia, there are many Aboriginal-led groups working on their own and regional languages. These include the Muurrbay Language and Culture Cooperative (NSW), VACL (based in Melbourne, for Victorian languages), Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre in Port Hedland (WA), The Goldfields Language Centre, and the Ngukurr Language Centre.
- The Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies conducts research and outreach about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. They have an extensive library, audio and photographic collection. They also do Native Title research and work with members of the Stolen Generations and their families.
- The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages has a great online collection of materials for the languages of the Northern Territory.
- Several publishers have released books in Aboriginal languages. For example, Magabala Books, Batchelor Press, AIATSIS (Aboriginal Studies Press, CDU Press, and Muurrbay all publish works on language, culture, and history, including books for children.
- The Chirila site has data about many Australian language words.
- On the research side, apart from AIATSIS, there is First Languages Australia, Coedl, and linguistics departments at universities around Australia.
- Some state libraries have excellent collections about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages
- Here’s a podcast on language endangerment from one of the authors of this study.
- YouTube has a lot of material about Aboriginal languages and culture.
- A Nature Ecology & Evolution blog about this paper.
- A Conversation piece on the paper.
- Setting up an analysis in BEAST.