Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages
At the time of colonisation, there were up to 250 Aboriginal languages and dialects spoken in Australia. Today there are only 60 known languages in use. One of the major practices of colonists was to stop Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people speaking their own languages, which interrupted the passing of language from one generation to another. Despite these challenges, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are working hard to maintain or revive their languages, and a number of schools are running Indigenous language programs.
Aboriginal English is the first language, or home language, of many Aboriginal children throughout Australia. Standard Australian English can at times be an Aboriginal child’s second language. Although many Aboriginal languages are no longer spoken, there are patterns and influences from traditional Aboriginal languages in the way that Aboriginal people speak English.
Aboriginal English is used by a large proportion of the Aboriginal population and is reflective of language and culture. It is made up of acquired terms from different parts of Australia and can fit along a scale ranging from “light” forms, (close to Standard Australian English) to heavier forms, such as Creole.
“Using Aboriginal English is making a statement about identity. Valuing a child’s use of Aboriginal English tells them that you value them, their Aboriginality and their history.”
– Department of Education, Training and Employment, (1999), Aboriginal perspectives on the early years of learning, p 15. Adelaide: DETE.
Torres Strait Islander Languages
There are three main languages spoken on the islands of the Torres Strait and on the mainland by Torres Strait Islander people.
Kala Lagaw (which also has several other names) is a language spoken on several western Torres Strait Islands. It is the most spoken Indigenous language within Australian territory.
Meriam (also Miriam, Meryam, Mer, Mir, Miriam-Mir, etc. and East Torres) is the language of Meriam people of Murray Island (Mer) in the Torres Strait, Queensland.
Torres Strait Creole (also Torres Strait Pidgin, Torres Strait Broken, Cape York Creole, Lockhart Creole) is a creole language spoken on several Torres Strait Islands. It has around five dialects: Papuan, Western-Central, TI, Eastern and Cape York.
Why is language important?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families develop deeper connections with community, culture, family, land, water and history when they have opportunities to connect with their language.
Language is a critical component of culture and children need encouragement and support from their carers to use and explore their language.
“Our language is like a pearl inside a shell. The shell is like the people that carry the language. If our language is taken away, then that would be like a pearl that is gone. We would be like an empty oyster shell.”
– Yurranydjil Dhurrkay, Galiwin’ku, North East Arnhem Land, quoted in House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. (2012). Our Land Our Languages. Language Learning in Indigenous Communities. Canberra, p.7.
“Language is a community—a group of people. Not only do you speak that language but generations upon generations of your families have also spoken it. The language recognises and identifies you, who you are and what is you.”
– Amelia Turner, on behalf of the Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, quoted in House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. (2012). Our Land Our Languages. Language Learning in Indigenous Communities. Canberra, p.10
What can I do to support a child to use their language?
- Find out the child’s family language group/s
- Explore ways to use the child’s traditional language – for example, through signs around the house, in greetings and through activities to support learning
- Find out local language names for the child’s area
- Don’t correct or prevent children using Aboriginal English in normal conversation
- Find out if there are any children’s books in the child’s family language
“Have you ever seen a kid’s face when they learn the language of their people and country and see the joy, the pride and the identity that comes from that and the wonder that will take them into the future? It is absolutely magic.”
– Dr Alitya Rigney, former Principal of Kaurna Plains School, quoted in House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. (2012). Our Land Our Languages. Language Learning in Indigenous Communities. Canberra, p.14.
These websites include ideas, information, links, resources and other materials relating to the documentation, preservation, sharing, teaching and learning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.
National / multi-state
- Australian Indigenous Languages Database (Austlang)
- Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity (RNLD)
- Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre
- ABC Open – Mother Tongue
- Our Languages
- First Languages Australia
- Aboriginal Languages of Australia
- Australian Institute of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies Language Collection Resources
- Australian Society for Indigenous Languages
- Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages
- Aboriginal Interpreter Service
- Papulu Apparr-Kari Aboriginal Corporation
- The Wagiman online dictionary
New South Wales
- Kamilaroi – Gamilaraay Dictionary
- Yuwaalaraay gaay Gamilaraay garay
- NSW Department of Education and Communities – Languages
- Murrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative
- Aboriginal Language & Culture Nest
- Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre
- Kaartdijn Noongar – Noongar Knowledge
- Miriam Dawang Woorlab-gerrin – Language and Culture Centre
- Irra Wangga Language Centre
- Kimberley Language Resource Centre
- State Library of Queensland – Indigenous languages in Queensland
- Yugambeh Museum, Language and Heritage Centre
- Queensland Indigenous Languages Advisory Committee
- State Library of Queensland – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages
- Central Queensland Language Centre