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.
Current language activity
There is currently a wave of activity, with people in many communities working to learn more about their languages, and to ensure they are passed on to the next generation. Recent research produced clear evidence that Indigenous language use is positively associated with social capital formation. The 2020 National Indigenous Languages Report (NILR, chapter 3) states that:
Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in communities has resulted in:
- Increased regard and trust for institutions that engage with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.
- Increased student confidence and engagement.
- Increased community pride in the local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander culture.
- Increases productivity and/or competitiveness for particular businesses in land management, tourism and hospitality, and service sectors.
The Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity is an active forum for language maintenance practitioners since 2004.
Establishing a language project
First Languages Australia have produced a number of comprehensive tools to assist communities in their language journey. The framework for planning a community language project has a step by step approach. Tools and templates for language workers are collated in several overarching categories including:
- collection management
- language learning
- making resources
- media production
- project management
- teaching languages.
There are also guides for communities who want to produce written or digital language resources and a “how-to” guide and plain English template for writing a learner's guide.
The language teaching and employment strategy highlights key actions for each state's and territory’s consideration in appropriately developing and supporting Indigenous language teachers in schools.
- Indigenous Languages Preservation: Dictionaries Project, AIATSIS
- Indigenous arts and languages, Australian Government, Office of the Arts
- Mura Catalogue, AIATSIS
- Austlang, AIATSIS
- State libraries and archives
- National Library of Australia
- National Archives
- Living Languages
- First Languages Australia
- Junyirri: A framework for planning community language projects, First Language Australia, 2015
- Jarrak – our languages journey, First Language Australia
- Gambay - First Languages Map (interactive), First Languages Australia
- Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity, Living Languages
Publishing language materials:
- National Indigenous language report 3, Australian Government, Office of the Arts, 2020
- National Indigenous language report 2, Australian Government, Office of the Arts, 2014
- National Indigenous language report 1, Australian Government, Office of the Arts, 2005
- Language Learning in Indigenous Communities. Submission to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, ANTar, Sydney, 2011
- Indigenous Language and Language Rights in Australia after the ‘Mabo’ (No 2) Decision - a Poor Report Card, Laura Beacroft, 2017
- Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution: Report of the Expert Panel, Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, 2012
- Language in Native Title, John Henderson and David Nash, AIATSIS, 2002
- Final Report, Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, November 2018
- Examination of Legislation in Accordance with the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011, Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, 2013
- Re-awakening languages: theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages, John Hobson, Kevin Lowe, Susan Poetsch and Michael Walsh, 2010