State of Indigenous Languages in Australia - 2001

Australia State of the Environment Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage), Series 2
P McConvell and N Thieberger
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 642 54871 4

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A recent book on the extinction of the world's languages begins with the following statement (Nettle and Romaine 2000:ix):

Few people seem to know or care that most of Australia's 250 languages have already vanished and few are likely to survive over the long term.

Just as this is true of the world at large, it is also true of Australia itself. The imminent loss of the Indigenous languages has not worried many Australians, or their governments. We are witnessing, in the last fifteen years, a change in attitude, but whether it will be effective enough to turn the tide of language loss, remains to be seen.

The Indigenous languages of Australia represent a great storehouse of knowledge and tradition about the environment and ancient culture of Australia, both for the Indigenous people themselves, and for all Australians. The Indigenous people of Australia are the owners and custodians of the languages, but in the spirit of 'two-ways' exchange and reconciliation, many groups are prepared to share access to this heritage, to preserve a unique national body of knowledge and tradition. This technical paper points out that the Australian nation has begun in recent years to recognise the value of the Indigenous cultures and languages, and to support Indigenous Australians in their efforts to maintain them. The level of commitment and resources made available by governments remains low, and there are no guarantees that even this level will be maintained in the future; indeed there are some ominous signs of major gains being wound back in the period since 1995.

Indigenous Australians are struggling to maintain and revive their languages and associated traditions against great odds. This paper documents some of the efforts that they are making to do this, and the positive steps taken in the last decade to recognise Indigenous languages and give them a place in our society, instead of destroying them as has happened all too often in our history. Yet the pressures working against the languages at the beginning of the twenty-first century remain as strong as ever. The facts and figures in this paper still present a bleak picture of language endangerment, which could all too easily lead to the loss of all Indigenous languages in this century.

This technical paper not only documents the state of Indigenous languages at this time, but through this documentation hopes to provide tools which will help maintain the languages. If we can find out where languages are staying strong and why, we have a much better chance of putting those favourable conditions in place in other areas. This paper is not in itself however a handbook for language maintenance, but provides some ways of working towards that goal.

The paper was commissioned as part of the State of the Environment reporting program by Environment Australia, and carried out as a consultancy by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, with Patrick McConvell as project officer and Nicholas Thieberger (Department of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, University of Melbourne) as sub-consultant. Key findings of the paper will be incorporated into the Natural and Cultural Heritage Theme Report for the national 2001 State of the Environment Report. This paper provides more detail and background than the section of the theme report dealing with Indigenous languages.

The research for this paper was oriented towards providing a baseline set of data on the state of Indigenous languages with which subsequent surveys could be compared. Census data, which records speakers of individual named languages for the first time in 1996, has been used alongside other sources of information, and for the first time indicators have been rigorously defined and systematically applied to the data. The indicators used in the data collection were, in the main, those provided by Henderson and Nash (1997) and Pearson et al. (1998) (see Appendix 1), but some changes have been made to that list.

The concept of indicators is the key to the approach taken by the State of the Environment reporting project, and in this paper. Indicators are elements which can be measured relatively easily and cost-effectively, which do not give a complete picture of the state of a certain resource, but which indicate relatively reliably the overall condition of the resource and trends in its condition over time. In order to establish the robustness of indicators it will be necessary from time to time to carry out a more thorough study of the resource, or of a sample taken from it, to check that the more detailed study does in fact echo the results from the indicators.

In the case of Australian Indigenous languages, it would be advantageous to undertake a more complete study of the state of the languages as is being done currently by New Zealand for the Maori language, and/or to study a sample of language situations in detail, so that feedback from these studies would be available in time for the next round of State of the Environment reporting in 2006. This paper also recommends changes in the Australian Census in order to capture more relevant data on languages.

Along with this paper we have established a set of linked databases that can be used to assess the state of Indigenous languages over time. We have also recommended how data could be obtained in advance of a future State of Indigenous Languages report by suggesting to agencies that their record keeping include useful types of data about Indigenous languages.


For bibliographic purposes, this document may be cited as:

McConvell, P. and Thieberger N. 2001, State of Indigenous languages in Australia - 2001, Australia State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage), Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.