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Aboriginal Australian conducting a smoking ceremony

Preserving Aboriginal languages provides opportunity to unite Australia

Language can be a powerful tool; it is one of the remaining pieces of cultural importance Aboriginal people still hold close to their hearts.

It is a great way for people to connect with traditional owners and is one of the more fascinating aspects of learning about the culture and history of the land we live on.

Around the time of colonisation, there were more than 250 native speaking languages. That number has now dwindled to around 120 commonly spoken.

Unfortunately, we lose more languages each year. It is important to remember there it is not one universal ‘Aboriginal language’, rather there are many languages that each represent a unique culture from a specific region.

Noongar Elder Len Collard recently spoke about his experience as a child, relating that he was often asked the question: ‘do you speak Aboriginal’? His response: ‘no, I speak Noongar’.

While people are doing better to acknowledge culture and country, people forget that our country was built on the lands of hundreds of tribes, and there is not enough being done in a timely manner to preserve the smaller languages from being forgotten.

As of the 2016 Census, there were 649,200 people who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and from that number only 10% of that population were recorded to speak an Aboriginal language.

From this number, 85% reported speaking English at a reasonably high level, hinting that most Aboriginal people want to re-connect with their culture by learning their local language.

Moving on to 2021 Census data, there were 167 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages used at home in 2021, by 76,978 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The number has risen to match the increase in people identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

We also know that there was an undercount of 170,752 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people which equates to 17.4%.

Many of these could be regional traditional owners, who are speaking lesser-known languages and have a disconnect from the average Australian way of life.

Languages spoken in the largest regions are not at risk to be lost, such as the Noongar language, as there are elders working with the right people to record the culture, and it is spoken by many.

But the languages spoken in our small regions inland are most at risk to be forgotten.

A discussion that always stood out to me was a story famous Aboriginal football player Eddie Betts related while talking about racism in the industry.

When sitting down to talk with a playing group, he asked the question, ‘how much do you know about Aboriginal culture’?

He started at 100% and decreased the number in intervals of 10, asking for the players to raise their hands when they felt confident about their level of cultural knowledge.

Many rated their knowledge at around 30% to 70%, but when they got down to 10%, Eddie then raised his hand.

Even as a proud Aboriginal man, Eddie said he was only familiar with about 10% of Aboriginal culture.

This illustrates a huge gap in awareness and the need to capture our remaining cultures, while also trying to regain the vast knowledge that has been lost.

One of the benefits of Aboriginal language is that we can combine it easily with the English language.

Many people use a combination of the two, often resulting in a mostly English sentence with local language used in place of the verb or key point.

When I was growing up, this is how my family spoke. Dad would often come into my room and tell me to get off the computer and go outside to protect my ‘gurus’ (eyes), or go feed the ‘duthus’, (our dogs).

This is how many Aboriginal people speak today and is a good way for non-indigenous people to learn the language, connect with their friends and learn more about the land they live on.

In recent years, the business community has embarked on a journey to not only connect more closely with Aboriginal cultures, but to also incorporate First Nations languages in their communications.

Welcomes or Acknowledgements of Country have become commonplace at business events, with corporate Australia showing a willingness to recognise and celebrate those that have come before us.

But while Aboriginal history and languages have been embraced during celebrations such as NAIDOC Week or National Reconciliation Week, they can be forgotten for the other 50 weeks of the year.

Of course, people aren’t expected to pick up a local language to show their commitment to reconciliation.

However, understanding the way Aboriginal language works is a good step to changing the way non-Indigenous Australians connect with our First Nations people.

About the author

Justin Ware is a Yamatji man from Geraldton, who is part of the Cannings Purple Corporate Affairs team. 

Following his passion for online communications, Justin has explored many aspects of the industry including website design, digital media, journalism, and computer science, and is eager to channel these skills to help clients share their stories and make a difference in the community. 

Contact Justin.