Closing the Gap

Cultures and languages are strong, supported and flourishing

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Cultures and languages are strong, supported and flourishing

Outcome

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and languages are strong, supported and flourishing.

Target

By 2031, there is a sustained increase in number and strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages being spoken.

Summary on Target

At the time of colonisation, it is estimated that around 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken in Australia. Since 2004, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) has conducted a nationwide survey every five to six years to capture the state of First Nations languages, called the National Indigenous Languages Survey (NILS). To date, three NILS have been completed. Each survey has had a slightly different objective and methodology, and while they reveal a comprehensive view of Australia’s Indigenous languages, they are not comparable over time. In general, it is likely that First Nations languages in Australia are in decline, or at best, have plateaued. The most recent survey found that:

  • Of the 123 languages currently spoken, 14 First Nations languages are classified as ‘strong’.
  • 51 languages were classified as ‘endangered’.
  • Between 31 and 40 languages are gaining speakers.

Language strength is defined by the number of speakers, and transmission of language. However, even the languages classified as ‘strong’ require purposeful and ongoing maintenance.

All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages need to be maintained and revitalised. The focus of this target is to recognise the importance of language and culture in the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

 

Baseline data

Baseline data for the target measure is presented below at the national level; data by state and territory was not available.

Table 16.1: Indigenous languages, Australia, 2004–05 to 2018(a)

  NILS1 2004-5b NILS2 2014-15c NILS3d
Total languages spoken currently (including those being reawakened) 145 Around 120 123
Total new languages spoken currently     2
Strong languages 18 13 traditional 12 traditional
2 creole 2 creole
Critically endangered languages 110 100 29
Severely endangered languages 22
Languages gaining speakers   30f 31e

Source

National Indigenous Languages Surveys, AIATSIS.

Notes

  1. The figures in this table represent the findings from the National Indigenous Languages Survey (NILS). Each NILS been carried out with different objectives and methodologies, but broadly represents an in depth analysis of the state of First Nations languages in Australia.
  2. NILS1 focused on measuring levels of endangerment across as many languages as possible.
  3. NILS2 focused on language activities and attitudes among organisations undertaking language activities.
  4. NILS3 reports that a total of 141 languages were surveyed. This is as reported in the Commonwealth Government’s National Indigenous Languages Report.
  5. Analysis of NILS3 survey responses indicates this figure is at least 31, but may be within the range of 31-40.
  6. NILS2 reports this figure as being “perhaps 30 or more”.

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National Target Trajectory

The charts below present the data on the number of languages spoken according to the NILS, and the number of languages which were classified as ‘strong’ in the NILS over time. Caveats to the data are also noted. Since this is not a numeric target, possible pathways to the agreed target are presented in terms of total number of languages spoken as well as for the number of strong languages.

Source

NIAA analysis of NILS data.

Data caveats

The NILS data aims to be detailed and comprehensive. However, historical differences in the way languages have been defined and classified make it difficult to capture and present data on the languages target in the same way as other targets. Although best available data has been used to produce the baseline, there are several factors need to be considered when interpreting the baseline:

  1. Each NILS has had slightly different objectives and therefore methodologies have differed. The methodology for future NILS may change, making it difficult to provide time series data.
  2. The term ‘languages’ usually refers to distinct systems of communication that are not mutually intelligible. Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages may be mutually intelligible but speakers prefer to describe them as different languages. For example, Western Desert Language includes Ngaayatjarra and Pitjantjatjarra, which are mutually intelligible, but speakers tend to refer to them as separate languages.
  3. Assessing and comparing proficiency of languages across the NILS series is difficult because of the use of different measures of proficiency.
  4. It can be difficult to grade the vitality of a language.
  5. There are complexities in arriving at precise numbers. NILS respondents self-report, and various respondents for an individual language variety may have differing interpretations of survey questions, or may be considering differing criterion or measures in their response.
  6. Survey data may be affected by poor geographical and demographic coverage due to an inability to reach remote and rural areas, and an undercounting of children.
  7. There is no single First Nations language situation throughout Australia. For example, in some parts of Australia, the dominant language learned from birth is an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language, with English learned as an additional language. In other areas, English is the dominant language with First Nations language(s) learned as additional languages. These different language contexts are expected to influence the possible pathways to the target.