The 2016 Census results found 159 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages reported to still be in use. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) 2018–19 survey of 141 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language varieties found that at least 123 are in use or being revitalised/ revived in Australia today, but that less than 10 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are reported to be speaking language at home.
Language is a fundamental part of human culture and identity, and a platform within which much cultural knowledge and heritage is passed on. More than 250 Indigenous Australian languages including 800 dialects were spoken on the Australian continent at the time of European settlement in 1788. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are widely spoken in Australia, but only 14 of these languages are still spoken by all generations as a first language. About another 123 languages are spoken by small numbers in the older generations. All Australian Indigenous languages are at risk by many of these languages are at critical risk if elders pass away.
The landmark decision of Mabo and Others v Queensland (No 2)  HCA 23; (1992) 175 CLR 1 (Mabo), acknowledged the pre-existing native title rights and interests of the Meriam people on Murray Island. The Mabo decision recognised that Indigenous people have lived in Australia for many thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs. The process for recognising native title rights and interests is set out under s 223. Evidence provided in court typically includes proving continued ownership and use of language and its connection to the claimed land, for example by naming places and sites. Language is an integral part of this body of traditional laws and customs.
Article 13 of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states that:
“Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their … languages … and States shall take effective measures to ensure this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.”
Maintenance, revitalisation, renewal and reawakening activities are very important to make sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are also spoken in the future. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a range of different relationships to language and the strength of a language can be measured as outlined in chapter three of the National Indigenous Language Report 3. The preservation of languages is critical to strengthening the cultures, identities, and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians and Australia as a nation.
Even traditional languages currently considered relatively strong require purposeful and ongoing maintenance actions so that they do not become endangered. The AIATSIS 2018–19 survey found that there are at least 31 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language varieties being reawakened by communities in Australia. This means that the language has not been used as an everyday language for some time, but some people are now learning and speaking the language. A number of books have been published outlining the theory and practice of reawakening languages. For a history of the journey of strengthening Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages from the 1970s until now visit Jarrak.