Australian Indigenous Languages – Heading for extinction?

Indigenous languages are dying out all over the world, pushed out by the lingua francas and major national languages. Linguists predict that at least half of the 6000 languages spoken worldwide today will disappear within the next century.

Most people think that there is only one Aboriginal language in Australia – this is a misconception! Another misconception is that all Aboriginals speak English, or that English is their native tongue. Aboriginal Australia is one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse regions on earth. It is estimated that between 300 and 600 distinct tribal groups existed in Australia before the white settlement in the late 18th century, and they spoke between 200 and 300 distinct languages.

Today, only about 100 Aboriginal languages are still in everyday use in Australia, with some spoken by only a few elders and most facing extinction. As few as 20 recorded Aboriginal languages such as Yolngu, Arrernte and Warlpiri are in a healthy condition, in which they are spoken by large communities, including children learning them as their first language.

Most but not all Aboriginal people speak English as their first or second language. In a country of 22 million people, only about 55,000 people can speak an indigenous language. After English, Kriol is the most widely spoken language – from the Kimberley to northwest Queensland. Across southern Australia, most people speak English and Aboriginal English (a unique variety of English spoken by Aboriginal people).

Tyankern (Mulga Seed) Dreaming

It is widely accepted that almost all Australian indigenous languages belong to one family and are descended from one original language, spoken thousands of years ago around the central north coast of Australia.

Over time, Aboriginal nomadic tribes moved over the whole continent, with different dialects developing into separate, mutually unintelligible languages.

The first words from an Aboriginal language, including kangaroo, were recorded by Captain James Cook in 1770. Subsequent words, such as boomerang and dingo, were adopted into English after Governor Phillip brought the first group of convicts to Sydney in 1788.

Another little known fact is that there are Aboriginal interpreters who assist their clients in a variety of settings, including medical and legal environments.