default logo

Australian Languages

The United Nations has, for over 60 years, stated the importance of cultural and linguistic expression. This includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ right to access and participate in cultural expression[1], the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, affirming peoples’ right to enjoy their own culture or to use their own language[2], and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples setting out the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit their history, language and oral traditions.[3] Further, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation recognises oral traditions as intangible cultural heritage.

Maintaining Australia’s cultural heritage generates both human capital and economic dividends. Respecting, nurturing and supporting intangible cultural heritage enriches Australia’s cultural and civic life, supports cultural industries and tourism and contributes to the social and physical wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[4]

The Centre supports these rights and aspirations and advocates for the benefits cultural heritage provides to the whole of Australian society. Through its work, CALL will contribute to the security of Australia’s intangible cultural heritage, the preservation of endangered languages and to maintain their cultural and scientific integrity for future generations. Australian languages are of international significance and intrinsically linked to culture, land and identity. These are expressed through a myriad of languages covering the entire continent that are unique in vocabulary and grammar and have evolved over tens of thousands of years.

From more than 250 known Australian languages at the time of colonisation, only about 145 languages are still spoken and the vast majority of these, about 110, are critically endangered. Eighteen languages are strong, being spoken by all age groups, though some of these are showing signs of moving into endangerment.[5] In total there has been a 90% decrease in the number of Indigenous languages spoken fluently and regularly by all age groups in Australia since 1800.[6] The majority of Australian languages still spoken today are in the remote regions of Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and far north Queensland. The following map indicates the location of Australian language speakers, based on Australian Bureau of Statistics Census 2011.

Australian map of Indigenous languages

Figure 1: People who speak Indigenous languages at home as a fraction of total persons, in Australia, according to the 2011 census results. The map is divided into geographical subdivisions by Statistical Local Area.

[1] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Article 27
[2] UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), Article 27
[3] UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1994), Article 14
[4] Ratification of 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2008).
[5] National Indigenous Language Survey Report 2005 (published by AIATSIS).
[6] McConvell, P. & Thieberger, N. 2001. State of Indigenous Language Report