NAIDOC Week 2017 – 10 facts about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages

This week, 2nd-9th of July is NAIDOC week. The theme for this year is “Our languages matter”. To celebrate I thought I would share 10 interesting facts about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

  1. Prior to European colonisation there over 250 languages and 600 unique dialects of these languages spoken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  2. Each of these languages has there own unique phonology (sounds), vocabulary (names for different things), grammar (markers of tense, plurals etc.) and pragmatics (rules for how languages are used in social interactions). Languages of neighbouring groups were as different as say French and German.
  3. In order to communicate between groups, people have often been able to speak a number of languages.
  4. Today there are over 120 unique Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages still spoken.
  5. In addition to traditional languages, new languages have also formed since European colonisation. These include Kriol and Torres Strait Islander Creole. These languages have formed as a result of contact between English and Indigenous languages and contain features of both.
  6. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also speak a unique dialect of English known as Aboriginal Australian English (AAE). AAE has unique phonology, vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics from Standard Australian English (SAE). Given that children are taught in SAE in Australian schools, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are bidialectal.
  7. Research from the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children found that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are able to speak up to 8 different languages!
  8. NAIDOC chair Anne Martin states: “Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages are not just a means of communication, they express knowledge about everything: ¬†law, geography, history, family and human relationships, philosophy, religion, anatomy, childcare, health, caring for country, astronomy, biology and food”.
  9. Around Australia many groups are working to revitalise their languages so that they can continue to be transmitted to future generations.
  10. Practices such as language revitalisation facilitate the ongoing transmission of cultural knowledge and practices which has made Indigenous Australians the oldest continuous culture in the world.


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