Prior to 1788, more than 300 distinct traditional languages were spoken across Australia with many more dialects of the languages.

Traditional languages are strongly grounded in particular tracts of lands and waters and have an important connection for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities, cultures and wellbeing. This is true regardless of the extent to which they are spoken.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ historical experiences have varied. Some groups have been able to live on their lands and speak their traditional languages, perhaps also going to school and learning to read and write in their language. In many other situations, individuals or groups have been removed from their Country or prevented from speaking their language. For example, some settings actively encouraged the use and maintenance of traditional languages, but in others the opposite was true.

Historically, speakers of most traditional languages were not supported to maintain their languages. Some settlements, reserves and missions actively prevented Indigenous people from speaking their languages, by:

  • forcibly removing different language groups from their lands into a combined setting
  • making them work away from (Indigenous language-speaking) family
  • removing children from their language-speaking families either into segregated dormitories, children’s homes or to mainstream families
  • inflicting punishments for speaking their languages.

Such practices have directly led to:

  • fewer strong traditional languages
  • the development of new Indigenous languages, of the type often referred to as contact language or lingua francas. These include creoles and varieties of Torres Strait and Aboriginal English.
  • many speakers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander varieties of English.

This goes to explain why certain languages are spoken – or not spoken – in the communities you might work in as an early childhood educator.

Languages in communities today

These days there is an increasing acknowledgement of traditional Indigenous languages, for example in Welcome to Country ceremonies and Acknowledgements of Country. (For more about the differences between these activities see Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country.)

There is also increasing recognition of new contact languages as full and proper languages, for example, in interpreting services. The new Indigenous contact languages Kriol and Yumplatok (Torres Strait Creole) have the largest numbers of speakers of any Indigenous language.

And there is more awareness that different Indigenous ways of speaking English are equally valid as other English varieties.

However, children who speak Indigenous languages may not be able to follow a full pathway through school, access government services, or find employment, using their home language(s) alone. This can put enormous pressure on Indigenous families to drop their first language(s).