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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1999  
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Contents >> Population >> Population Composition: Indigenous languages

Population Composition: Indigenous languages

In 1996, about 48,200 people spoke an Indigenous language at home. Most speakers lived in the more remote central and northern regions of Australia.

At the time of the first European settlement, more than 500 dialects may have been spoken by the Indigenous population. These dialects made up about 250 distinct languages (in terms of groupings with similar grammar and vocabulary).1 The subsequent expansion of Europeans into the continent resulted in the loss of many languages and dialects as many speakers died and others shifted to speaking other Indigenous languages, English or creoles.

The importance of the maintenance of the remaining Indigenous languages was affirmed in Australia's language policy, formulated in the 1980s.2 This policy recognised the central importance of Indigenous languages in conveying traditional knowledge and expressing the world view of the people who speak them. Recording languages no longer in daily use and regaining knowledge of languages of the past is also a cultural priority of Indigenous Australians. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) has funded community-initiated programs aimed at the maintenance, retrieval and revival of Indigenous languages, and improving awareness and appreciation of them in the wider community.3


Data source

All statistics are from the 1996 Census of Population and Housing unless otherwise referenced.

Definitions

Indigenous person - are identified in Census data through answers to the ABS standard question, 'Is the person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?'.

Indigenous language - those languages which were spoken in Australia by the Indigenous population prior to European settlement. Languages are classified according to the ABS Australian Standard Classification of Languages 1997 (cat. no. 1267.0).

Dialect - a variety of a language, spoken in a particular area, or by a particular group.

Pidgin - a limited form of language made up of words from various languages and with simplified grammar, used in restricted contexts such as trade transactions between groups of people who do not share a common language.

Creole - a full language which develops from a pidgin, because people start to use the pidgin as a general means of communication, and children then grow up learning it as their first language. Australian creoles combine characteristics of English, Indigenous languages and other languages.

INDIGENOUS LANGUAGES AND AUSTRALIAN CREOLES SPOKEN AT HOME, BY NUMBER OF SPEAKERS(a) 1996

Languages
Speakers

Indigenous languages and creoles
number
number
%

Individually classified:
50
36,400
75.4
    > 3,000 speakers
2
7,400
15.4
    2,000 - 2,999 speakers
3
7,000
14.4
    1,000 - 1,999 speakers
7
10,300
21.4
    500 - 999 speakers
9
6,700
13.9
    250 - 499 speakers
9
3,000
6.3
    100 - 249 speakers
9
1,400
2.8
    < 100 speakers
11
551
1.1
Not individually classified(b)
n.a.
11,800
24.6
Total
48,200
100.0

(a) Persons who reported Indigenous languages and creoles as the main language other than English spoken at home.
(b) Indigenous languages and creoles other than the 50 for which separate data were compiled. People who described their language in general terms only (e.g 'Aboriginal language') are also included here.

Source: Unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


Numbers of speakers and languages
Languages or dialects can be maintained by very small groups of people. The small number of speakers of some Indigenous languages is not necessarily a result only of declining use. However, Indigenous people who speak Indigenous languages now have increased contact with speakers of other Indigenous languages, English and creoles. They are also exposed to English through the education system and the media. In this context, the maintenance of Indigenous languages with small numbers of speakers is more difficult.

Each census collects information about the main language other than English spoken in the home. In 1996, just under 48,200 people were recorded as speaking an Indigenous language or Australian creole at home, (including about 1,300 non-Indigenous people). Of the total Indigenous, and the total Australian populations, 13% and 0.3% respectively, spoke an Indigenous language or creole at home.

For practical reasons, separate census counts were held only for 48 of the more common Indigenous languages and 2 creoles. About 100 other known Indigenous languages, believed to be used by only a few people each, were grouped into residual categories. Those who spoke languages in these residual categories, and speakers who did not identify a specific Indigenous language, together represented 25% of all speakers of Indigenous languages and creoles.

The numbers of speakers of the 50 separately counted languages (representing 75% of all speakers of an Indigenous language or creole) ranged from 11 to 3,800 people. Of these, 12 languages had more than 1,000 speakers, 27 had from 100 to 1,000 speakers and 11 had fewer than 100 speakers.

While giving an indication of the number of people who spoke an Indigenous language at home, and of the diversity of languages, the Census did not measure the full knowledge or use of Indigenous languages, particularly creoles. Some languages may be much more widely known, but no longer used at home. In addition, only the most often used language other than English spoken at home could be recorded in the Census, but many Indigenous speakers are thought to speak more than one Indigenous language.1

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE WHO SPOKE AN INDIGENOUS LANGUAGE OR CREOLE AT HOME(a), 1996


Location of speakers
Most Indigenous people in Australia live in the more populous eastern and southern States (see Australian Social Trends 1998, Growth and distribution of Indigenous people). In contrast, almost all the speakers of Indigenous languages and creoles live in the more sparsely populated centre and north of Australia.

In 1996, more than half (60%) of Indigenous people who said they spoke an Indigenous language at home lived in the Northern Territory, where they made up 65% of the Indigenous population. In no other State or Territory did the majority of the Indigenous population speak an Indigenous language. The 19% of speakers who lived in Western Australia made up 18% of the Indigenous population in that State. About 14% lived in Queensland, making up 7% of Indigenous people there. The 4% of speakers who were counted in South Australia made up 11% of the State's Indigenous population. (This is an under-estimate for that State, as no census figures are available for 1996 in some areas near the border with the Northern Territory). The remaining south-eastern States and the Australian Capital Territory together accounted for only 3% of Indigenous people who spoke an Indigenous language at home. These speakers made up 2% of the Indigenous population of the Australian Capital Territory and less than 1% of the respective Indigenous populations of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

Speakers of Indigenous languages tended to be clustered in locations in the south and far north of Northern Territory, and the Torres Strait Islands. Within these areas, the great majority of the Indigenous population spoke an Indigenous language (79% or more). In most other areas, Indigenous language speakers were outnumbered by Indigenous people who spoke only English at home.

In most locations where 79% or more of the Indigenous people spoke an Indigenous language, these speakers also made up the majority of the total population. In 79% of these specific locations, Indigenous language speakers made up more than three quarters of the total population. In locations with lower proportions of language speakers, non-Indigenous people tended to make up a larger proportion of the population.

PROPORTIONS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLE WHO SPOKE AN INDIGENOUS LANGUAGE OR CREOLE(a), 1996

MOST COMMONLY SPOKEN INDIGENOUS LANGUAGES AND CREOLES(a), 1996

Language
No. of speakers

Indigenous languages
44,000
    Arrernte (Aranda)
3,800
    Dhuwal-Dhuwala
3,600
    Warlpiri
2,700
    Pitjantjatjara(b)
2,100
    Tiwi
1,800
    Alyawarr (Alyawarra)
1,400
    Murrinh-Patha
1,400
    Kunwinjku (Gunwinggu)
1,400
    Anindilyakwa
1,200
    Anmatyerr (Anmatyirra)
1,200
Australian creoles
4,200
    Kriol
2,200
    Torres Strait Creole (Broken)
1,700
Total
48,200

(a) Indigenous languages and creoles reported as the main language other than English spoken at home.
(b) Data quality problems are thought to have resulted in an underestimate of speakers of Pitjantjatjara.

Source: 1996 Census of Population and Housing.


Most commonly spoken languages
Out of the 50 individually classified languages, there were 10 Indigenous languages and two creoles which had more than 1,000 speakers. Most of the 10 major Indigenous languages were spoken in those regions in the Northern Territory in which a larger proportion of the Indigenous people spoke an Indigenous language. Four languages: Dhuwal-Dhuwala, Anindilyakwa, Murrinh-Patha and Kunwinjku were spoken in Arnhem land and adjacent areas. Tiwi was spoken on Bathurst and Melville islands. Arrernte was spoken in locations in the vicinity of Alice Springs and, like Anmatyerr and Alyawarr, in more remote locations in the arid central region. Warlpiri was spoken in central western parts of the Northern Territory while Pitjantjatjara was spoken across the north-western parts of South Australia and adjacent areas of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Kriol (one of the two individually classified creoles) was spoken in locations across the north of Australia from the border of Queensland and the Northern Territory to Derby in Western Australia. Torres Strait Creole was spoken on the Torres Strait Islands and also, due to the migration of Torres Strait Islanders, in centres in Queensland such as Cooktown, Cairns, Townsville and Brisbane. In total, creoles were named by 4,200 people as the language other than English that they spoke most often at home. This is most likely a considerable underestimate of total use, since creoles are often used as an additional language by people who speak an Indigenous language. For example, many people who listed Torres Strait Island languages such as Kalaw Lagaw Ya (900 speakers) as the language other than English they speak most often at home, might also speak Torres Strait Creole. Creoles also tend not to be recognised as distinct, bone fide languages, even by the people who speak them, and may not be recorded for this reason. Rather, many speakers of creole might identify themselves as speaking only English at home. Indeed, language experts estimate that as many as 15,000 people speak each of the two major creoles, Kriol and Torres Strait Creole.1


MEDIAN AGE OF SPEAKERS, BY NUMBER OF SPEAKERS OF INDIGENOUS LANGUAGES(a), 1996
(a) Creoles not included.

Source: Unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing.

Indicators of maintenance
The maintenance of languages in everyday use depends on their being passed on to new generations of speakers. In 1996, 32% of all speakers of Indigenous languages were children under 15 years of age. However, this proportion largely reflects the youthful age structure of the Indigenous population. As might be expected, older people were more likely to speak an Indigenous language than younger people. Thus while 12% of all Indigenous children aged 5-14 spoke an Indigenous language, the proportion was about 14% for each 10 year age group aged between 25 and 44, 15% for those aged 45-54 and 22% among those aged 65 and over. These proportions and the degree of difference between young and old Indigenous people varied between the States and Territories.

In the Northern Territory, the proportions of Indigenous people who spoke an Indigenous language were much higher, and ranged from 60% of children aged 5-14 to 76% of those aged 65 and over. Compared to the Northern Territory, the difference between age groups was more marked, and increased more steadily with age, among Indigenous people in Western Australia and Queensland. In Western Australia, the proportions ranged from 14% of children aged 5-14 to 43% of those aged 65 and over. In Queensland the proportions ranged from 2.5% of children aged 5-14 to 13% of those aged 65 and over.

It is not possible to predict the future of language use, although it might be expected that those with smaller numbers of speakers and those whose speakers have older age profiles are likely to be those at greatest risk of falling into disuse. The speakers of Indigenous languages with fewer than 1,000 speakers had higher median ages than those whose languages were more commonly spoken.


PROPORTION OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLE WHO SPOKE AN INDIGENOUS LANGUAGE AT HOME(a), BY AGE, SELECTED STATES, 1996
(a) Creoles not included.

Source: Unpublished data, 1996 Census of Population and Housing.

Familiarity with English
The census question did not measure how fluently people spoke an Indigenous language or in what contexts at home they used it. However, self-rated proficiency in spoken English, and indications of the use of English at home, may provide indirect indicators of language displacement.

Certainly most Indigenous people who spoke an Indigenous language also spoke English (95%) and of these, 74% said they spoke English well or very well. Proficiency in English is a subjective measure. Some people may consider they speak English well if they can conduct basic transactions satisfactorily in English while others might mean they can converse fluently in English or that they usually speak English.

Among the most commonly spoken languages, the proportion who spoke English well or very well was highest for people who spoke Tiwi (94%), followed by Anindilyakwa (83%). It was lowest for Anmatyerr (41%) and Kunwinjku (57%). Over three quarters (77%) of speakers of each of the two creoles said they spoke English well or very well.

A greater proportion of people who spoke languages with fewer than 1,000 speakers rated themselves as speaking English well or very well (78%) than did those whose languages were spoken by 1,000 people or more (63%).

It appears that many people who speak an Indigenous language at home interact on a daily basis with people who speak only English. Of all Indigenous people who spoke an Indigenous language at home, 27% lived in a dwelling where at least one person was said to speak only English.

Non-Indigenous speakers
At the 1996 Census, 1,300 non-Indigenous people said they spoke an Indigenous language at home. Non-Indigenous people may speak Indigenous languages at home when communicating with Indigenous people, either other household members or visitors. In addition to acquiring some ability in Indigenous languages through everyday interaction, people working in some communities take intensive training in an Indigenous language as part of their work requirements.


Endnotes

1 Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1994, Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, pp. 279, 601, 728, 867.

2 Lo Bianco, J. 1987, National Policy on Languages, Commonwealth Department of Education, AGPS, Canberra, pp. 8-14.

3 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 1998, Annual Report 1997-1998, AGPS,
pp. 77-78.

4 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, Australian Indigenous Geographical Classification, cat. no. 4706.0.30.001, ABS, Canberra.



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