Australian Indigenous Languages (UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages)

2019 is the UNESCO International Year of Indigenous Languages. UNESCO has chosen to focus on languages for the following reasons:

“It is through language that we communicate with the world, define our identity, express our history and culture, learn, defend our human rights and participate in all aspects of society, to name but a few. Through language, people preserve their community’s history, customs and traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking, meaning and expression.  They also use it to construct their future.

Language is pivotal in the areas of human rights protection, good governance, peace building, reconciliation, and sustainable development.” (from the UNESCO website)



  1. Read through the statement from the UNESCO website given above. Summarize in your own words the reasons given for focusing on languages this year. 
  2. Click on the link to the website. Discuss with a partner:
    • What can you learn about indigenous peoples and languages? Do any of these numbers surprise you?
    • What key areas are UNESCO hoping to work with in the IYIL? Explain them in your own words. 
    • What are UNESCO´s objectives? Explain them in your own words.


Australian Aboriginal Languages


(Poster from NAIDOC 2017)

Some 250 distinct Indigenous language groups were found in Australia at the time of the European contact in the late eighteenth century. Most of these languages would have had several dialects, so that the total number of named varieties would have been hundreds more. Today only around 120 of those languages are still spoken and many of these are at risk of being lost.

In this link, you can read about four different Indigenous Australian languages and watch videos with young people explaining a few words in each of the languages:

NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week in early July each year, is a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and achievements. In 2017, the theme for the week was “Our Languages Matter”.

“Our Languages Matter” aimed to celebrate the unique and essential role that Indigenous languages play in cultural identity. Languages play a vital role in linking people to their land and water, and in the sharing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and spirituality through story and song.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages are not just a means of communication, they express knowledge about everything:  law, geography, history, family and human relationships, philosophy, religion, anatomy, childcare, health, caring for country, astronomy, biology and food.

Each language is associated with an area of land and has a deep spiritual significance and it is through their own languages, that Indigenous nations maintain their connection with their ancestors, land and law” (Anne Martin, National NAIDOC Committee Co-Chair 2017).

Aboriginal languages



  1. Read more about Aboriginal languages in the links below. Then make a presentation on  one of the following topics:
  • Aboriginal languages – past and present.

Compare the situation as it was before the European settlement and the situation now.

  • Language and identity.

Discuss how Aboriginal languages are important for Aborginal identity both in past times and today. Discuss what challenges there are in modern times.



2. Discuss these questions:

a. How does language form identity? If you speak more than one language, do you feel that your identity changes depending on which language you speak?  Why/ why not?

b. Are there certain words or concepts in the language you speak that are not found in other languages? What are they? Are they linked to special cultural activities or ideas that are only found in your culture?

c. If someone in authority announced that you could never speak your language again and would be punished if you did, how would that make you feel? What do you think would be hardest to deal with?

d. If you could never speak your language again, which parts of your culture do you think would be lost? Which do you think you could maintain?

e. Can you relate your answers to a-d to what has happened historically to indigenous peoples in Australia and elsewhere? (you could compare what happened in Australia to what happened with the Sami in Norway).



Say G’Day in an Indigenous Language (Queensland)



For more information on Aboriginal languages, check out the language map at