Indigenous languages

Indigenous languages

There are many, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, as can be seen from the Languages map created by David Horton. While a number of these languages are sleeping, a number continue to be spoken, written and read on a daily basis.

As a result of colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages came to be mixed with English and other languages for purposes such as trade and negotiation. These languages, such as Aboriginal English, Creole and Kriol are often the first languages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Even though many children may not have heard their traditional language being fluently spoken, the English that they speak is influenced by their ancestors’ traditional languages.

19th and 20th century colonialism outlawed first languages and demanded they be replaced by rudimentary competence in the master language (Phillips 2015), so it was that their ancestors learned English in an oral manner with no written form, and the type of English that they were taught was never intended to empower them to access the mainstream (Donaldson 1985).

They were taught only convenient forms of English as a means for governments and other people to control and manage (Fletcher 1989; Donaldson 1985), and as Perso and Hayward explain, ‘It was left to the Indigenous people in Australia to make themselves understood by the British, who generally wouldn’t learn to speak Aboriginal languages’ (2015).

Australian languages, together with Kriol and Creole, are the languages of storytelling (history/teaching/education), the languages of children talking to each other and they are the languages of pre-primary school, the languages of immediate and wider community.


Wandei dis wan olgamen en olmen bin go wugubut blanga gowena en kengurru en eni kain bush taga (James 1986).

Is this literacy? If literacy is understood as the ability to read and write in any language, then the Kriol sentence above is literacy. I can read it. I can write it. I can understand it. I have read many times this little book about the old woman and the old man going hunting for goanna and kangaroo and any kind of bush tucker.


Similarly I enjoy the story of ‘Da ol man’ (Shnukal 1988, cited in Connor, Moyle, Smith & Price 1996, p. 61 ).

The story begins ‘Longtaim i bin gad wan olman. Em I sebenti. Em no sabe wiskain po rid ene rait.’

I can read it. I can write it. Is this literacy? Or does the story need to be written in English and read in English as follows:
For a long time I have been a good man. I am seventy. But I don’t understand how to read and write.


Connor, L, Moyle, D, Smith, S & Price, K 1997, Signposts … to country, kin and cultures, Carlton, Victoria.

Donaldson, T 1985, ‘From Speaking Ngiyampaa to Speaking English’, Aboriginal History, vol. 9, pp. 126–147, viewed 29 August 2016, <;dn=057755931923451;res=IELIND>.

Fletcher, J 1989, Clean, clad and courteous : a history of Aboriginal education in New South Wales, J Fletcher, Carlton, NSW.

Horton, D 1996, Aboriginal [and Torres Strait Islander] Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, viewed 25 June 2015 <>.

James, T 1986, Faniwan stori: olgamen en olmen bin go wugubat, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Darwin.

Perso, T & Hayward, C 2015, Teaching Indigenous Students: Cultural awareness and classroom strategies for improving learning outcomes, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Phillips 2015, p.108 – details missing

Troy, J 2015, ‘Language and literacy’ in K Price (ed), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education: an introduction for the teaching profession, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.