Linguistic Diversity

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

Where to go for more information about Australian languages

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