Latest release

Language Statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

Information from ABS collections on the speaking and learning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages

Reference period
June 2016
Released
11/04/2022
Next release Unknown
First release

Key statistics

  • Over 150 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken in 2016.
  • 63,754 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported speaking an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language in 2016, up from 60,550 in 2011.
  • 9.8% spoke a language in 2016, down from 16.4% in 1991.

This publication has been externally peer-reviewed. The ABS greatly values the knowledge, expertise and contributions of these reviewers and thanks them for their time and input.

Information sources and comparability

Language information for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is available in a number of ABS collections. See the Information Sources table below for further information.

These data sources provide information about the number of speakers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and general information about language learning and speaking.

The information in this publication was sourced from the Census and the NATSISS. The NATSIHS collects a narrow range of language information so has not been included in this publication. When reading this publication, keep in mind that data from the Census cannot be compared to data from the NATSISS due to different collection methods. This is discussed further in ‘Comparability of Census and Survey Data’.

Information Sources

Table 1 summarises key information about the use, design and scope of ABS sources that collect data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

Table 1. ABS sources that collect data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages

 

Census of Population and Housing (Census)

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS)

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS)

Best For

Analysis at small disaggregations such as low-level geography or age groups on key topics.

 

Analysis at national, state/territory and remoteness geographies.

Cross-classifying socioeconomic, cultural, health and wellbeing information.

Analysis at national, state/territory and remoteness geographies.

Cross-classifying socioeconomic, cultural, health and wellbeing information.

Scope

All people in Australia on Census night in private and non-private dwellings. Excludes foreign diplomats and their families.

A sample of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of all ages living in private dwellings in non-remote and remote areas of Australia, including discrete Indigenous communities.

A sample of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of all ages living in private dwellings in non-remote and remote areas of Australia, including discrete Indigenous communities.

Sample

Not applicable.

 

The most recent 2018-19 NATSIHS had a sample of 10,579 fully responding people/6,388 households (see Methodology for more information).

The most recent 2014-15 NATSISS had a sample of 11,178 fully responding people/6,611 households (see User Guide for more information).

Response rates and undercoverage

For the 2016 Census:

Item non-response to the Indigenous Status question: 6.0%

Net Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander undercount (from the 2016 Census Post Enumeration Survey): 17.5%

See Understanding the Census and Census data for more information.

For the 2018-19 NATSIHS:

Household response rate: 73.4%

Undercoverage: 67% of the in-scope Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

See Methodology for more information.

For the 2014-15 NATSISS:

Household response rate: 80.3%

Undercoverage: 62% of the in-scope Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

See User Guide for more information.

Applicable population

All persons

All persons

All persons

Geography

Available at all levels of the Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS)

Data quality better at higher levels of geography such as State and Territory and Remoteness

Data quality better at higher levels of geography such as State and Territory and Remoteness

Frequency

Collected every 5 years. Most recent available data is 2016.

2004-05, 2012-13, 2018-19.

1994, 2002, 2008, 2014-15.

Comparability

Not comparable with other collections.

Language data is comparable with the NATSISS only.

Language data is comparable with the NATSIHS only.

More information – data and analysis

Find Census data

 

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey

 

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014-15

More information - methodology

Census of Population and Housing: Understanding the Census and Census Data, Australia , 2016

Census of Population and Housing: Census Dictionary, 2016

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey methodology, 2018-19 financial year

 

 

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey: User Guide, 2014-15

 

 

Table 2 provides an overview of the language topics available in the Census, NATSIHS and NATSISS.

Table 2. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language topics available in ABS sources

 

Census of Population and Housing (Census)

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS)

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS)

Applicable population – language questions

All persons

The applicable population has changed over time – see (a)

Persons aged 3 years and over

Main language spoken at home

N

Y(b)

Y(b)

Main language spoken at home – ASCL code

N

Y

N

Language spoken at home

Y

N

N

Language spoken at home – ASCL code

Y

N

N

Proficiency in spoken English

Y

Y(c)

Y

Whether speaks an Australian Indigenous language

N

N

Y

Whether understands an Australian Indigenous language

N

N

Y(d)

Whether currently learning an Australian Indigenous language

N

N

Y(d)

Who is teaching or where learning Indigenous language

N

N

Y(d)

Whether has difficulty communicating with English speakers

N

N

Y(e)

  1. In the 2018-19 NATSIHS, main language spoken at home was collected for all people. In the 2012-13 NATSIHS, main language spoken at home was collected for people aged 2 years and over. In the 2004-05 NATSIHS, main language spoken at home was collected for people aged 18 years and over only.
  2. Includes ‘English’, ‘Aboriginal language’, ‘Torres Strait Islander language’, ‘Other’, and ‘Not currently speaking’ only.
  3. Only collected for people aged 2 years and over.
  4. Only collected for people aged 3 years and over.
  5. Only collected for people aged 15 years and over.

 

When to use Census for analysing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages:

The type of language information collected in the Census is limited to ‘Language spoken at home’ and ‘Proficiency in spoken English’.

The Census is currently the only ABS data source that can output data for all languages in the Australian Standard Classification of Languages (ASCL). In the Census, respondents can use a mark box to indicate the language spoken at home or record the name of any other language in a text field.

When to use survey data for analysing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages:

The ABS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander surveys collect information about learning and speaking language that is not included in the Census.

These surveys cannot currently output data for all languages in the Australian Standard Classification of Languages (ASCL) (see Language spoken at home for further detail).

Comparability of Census and Survey Data

Data collected from the Census and surveys are not comparable due to the differences in their scope and design.

In the Census, all people present on Census night are approached to participate so there is no weighting required, and no sampling error involved.

In the ABS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander surveys, only part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is approached to participate. Responses are weighted to make inferences about the whole population. As a result, surveys are subject to a degree of sampling error. The ABS publishes measures of sampling error for survey data that provide an indication of the accuracy of survey data. Further information about measures of error in sample surveys is available in Errors in Statistical Data.

Further information about the differences between the Census and surveys, and the advantages and disadvantages of each is available in Samples and Censuses.

Using ABS Language Data

When using ABS language data, it is important to consider the impacts of how the data is collected and processed. These are outlined below.

Language spoken at home

The 2016 Census collected information about language spoken at home through the question ‘Does the person speak a language other than English at home?' and allows for one answer only from a set list of options. Respondents can also specify which language they speak at home.

The NATSISS and the NATSIHS collect information about language spoken at home through the question ‘Which language do you/does [first name]/will [first name of child under two years] mainly speak at home?’ and allow for one answer only from a set list of options.

The NATSIHS is currently the only ABS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survey where respondents can specify which language they speak at home.

The way that language spoken at home information is collected means that:

  • ABS data does not fully capture multilingualism, which is common in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The NATSISS asks limited questions on whether people who speak English at home can speak or understand an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language. These questions do not however provide detail on the number, name or proficiency of additional languages spoken.
  • ABS data may not capture heritage languages that are also spoken or being actively learnt though language revitalisation projects.
  • ABS data requires respondents to name and spell the language they speak at home. Some respondents may not have a name for the language they speak or there may be variations in spelling. This can impact how responses are coded to the ASCL.

It is recommended to use the Census, not Survey data to analyse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages represented in the ASCL.

Whether learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language

The NATSISS is currently the only ABS source of data about whether people are learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language.

The NATSISS is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only, so it does not provide information about whether non-Indigenous people are learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language. The ABS does not currently collect data on non-Indigenous people learning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

In 2022-23, the NATSIHS will collect information about whether people are learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language.

Available Geographies

Surveys are generally not designed to produce data at sub-state geographies (i.e., below State and Territory) – see information sources and comparability. This means that the language information collected in surveys is often not available at the regional or community level. It is recommended to use the Census for detailed regional or community level language information.

It is not possible to use data from the Census or surveys to analyse specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages or language groups. The data collected is about people who speak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and allows analysis of the characteristics of these people, such as where they live.

The Australian Standard Classification of Languages (ASCL)

Language data collected by the ABS is coded to the Australian Standard Classification of Languages (ASCL). The ASCL was introduced in 1997. It includes languages which are universally recognised as distinct and separate languages, dialects, creoles, pidgins, groups of linguistically distinct languages and sign languages.

When using the ASCL to analyse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language data, it is important to consider:

  1. To be included as a separate category in the ASCL, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages must record at least three speakers in the previous Census. [VK2] This means the classification does not include all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Further information about the minimum number of speakers threshold is available in ASCL building the classification. The ASCL is dependent on respondents providing enough information to match the language they speak to the ASCL. The ASCL coding index provides a comprehensive list of the most likely responses to questions relating to language and their correct classification codes. If a respondent provides partial information or a response that is not precise enough to be coded to a language category, it is assigned to a residual code such as ‘not further defined’ or ‘not elsewhere classified’. This is particularly significant for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages where there can be a variety of spellings and synonyms for a language.
  2. New languages such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Creoles are not well-represented in the ASCL. For example, a respondent may not have a name for the language they speak or the language they speak is a new contact language (a new language that emerges when speakers of two different languages communicate). Responses which cannot be identified as relating to a separately identified language in the ASCL are assigned a residual category code or a supplementary code such as ‘8000 Australian Indigenous Languages nfd’ (see ASCL coding rules for further information).
  3. The ABS does not publish detail about responses that comprise the ‘not further defined’ or ‘not elsewhere classified’ categories of the ASCL.

How the ABS is improving the collection of language data

The ABS is committed to improving the relevance and usefulness of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language data collections. Some of the ways we do this include:

  • Improving how we collect language data. For example, the 2021 Census online form provided an ‘Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander language’ check box for respondents who identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in the Indigenous Status question. Respondents also had the option to specify which language they speak in a text field. Further information about the changes in the 2021 Census is available here.
  • Tailored collection instruments. In the Census, Remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are enumerated on Interviewer Household Forms (IHF). Additional instructions were added to the IHF in the 2021 Census to improve the reporting of specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Further information about the additional instructions in the 2021 Census is available here.
  • Conducting data quality assurance checks before data is released.
  • Undertaking regular reviews of the ASCL. These reviews can be major or minor and can include changes such as the addition or removal of languages or amendments to the names or spelling of languages. The last review of the ASCL was a minor review in 2015-16. The last major review of the ASCL was in 2011.

Closing the Gap and Other National Government reporting

ABS survey, Census and administrative information are major data sources for a number of government reports that measure outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These include the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework. Language data collected by the ABS is used in these reports.

An overview of ABS collections used in Closing the Gap and other National Government Reporting is available in Closing the Gap and Other National Government Reporting

Speakers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages

The information in this section is available to download in ‘Language Speakers’ from ‘Data downloads’.

The Census asks, 'Does the person speak a language other than English at home?'. Respondents can use a mark box to indicate the language spoken at home or write the name of the language they speak in a free text field. Responses to this question are coded to the Australian Standard Classification of Languages (ASCL).

Throughout this analysis, ‘Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language’ is used when referring to traditional languages, new contact languages, Aboriginal English and supplementary codes that are classified as ’Australian Indigenous Languages’ in the ASCL (codes 8000-8999).

The following abbreviated definitions are sourced from the National Indigenous Languages Report.[¹] More detail can be found in the report.

‘Traditional languages’ refers to languages ‘…spoken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people prior to colonisation, and the directly descended language varieties spoken today.[¹]

 ‘New contact languages’ refers to languages that ‘…have formed since 1788 from language contact between speakers of traditional languages with speakers of English and/ or other languages.[¹]

‘Aboriginal English’ is part of the ASCL classification of Australian Indigenous languages. It refers to ‘…Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of speaking English which differ somewhat from Standard Australian English, but which Standard Australian English speakers can more or less understand.[¹]

In 2016, there were 63,754 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who reported speaking an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home. This was an increase from 2011, when 60,550 people reported speaking a language.

In 2016 this includes:

  • 38,935 speakers of traditional languages
  • 13,110 speakers of new contact languages (Kriol, Yumplatok, Gurindji Kriol and Light Walpiri)
  • 625 speakers of Aboriginal English
  • 11,084 speakers coded to 'not further defined' supplementary codes that are classified as ’Australian Indigenous Languages’ in the ASCL.

The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who speak an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home has declined over time from 16.4% in 1991 to 9.8% in 2016 (see graph 1). During the same period, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who speak English at home has increased (78.9% to 83.9%).

Please note that there are small random adjustments made to all cell values to protect the confidentiality of data. These adjustments may cause the sum of rows or columns to differ by small amounts from table totals.

Data is based on place of usual residence.

Source: Census of Population and Housing, 1991, 2996, 2002, 2006, 2011 and 2016

Data available in table 1.1 in ‘Language Speakers’ from ‘Data downloads’

More than half (54.5%) of people who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language in 2016 lived in the Northern Territory (NT) (see graph 2). This differs from the overall population distribution. In 2016, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived in New South Wales (33.3%) and 9.0% lived in the NT (see Census of Population and Housing - Counts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2016).

Please note that there are small random adjustments made to all cell values to protect the confidentiality of data. These adjustments may cause the sum of rows or columns to differ by small amounts from table totals.

Data is based on place of usual residence.

Source: Census of Population and Housing, 2016

Data available in table 1.4 in ‘Language speakers’ from ‘Data downloads’

The Indigenous locations with the highest number of people who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language in 2016 were:

  • Galiwinku, NT (1,927 speakers)
  • Maningrida, NT (1,818 speakers)
  • Wadeye, NT (1,788 speakers)
  • Wurrumiyanga (Nguiu), NT (1,370 speakers)
  • Milingimbi, NT (1,141 speakers)
  • Aurukun, Queensland (1,078 speakers).

Remoteness

Most people who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language in 2016 lived in Very Remote (72.6%) and Remote (12.3%) Australia (see graph 3). This differs from the overall population distribution. In 2016, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived in Major Cities (37.4%), Inner Regional Australia (24.0%) and Outer Regional Australia (19.7%), compared with Remote (6.2%) and Very Remote (12.2%) Australia (see Census of Population and Housing - Counts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2016).

Please note that there are small random adjustments made to all cell values to protect the confidentiality of data. These adjustments may cause the sum of rows or columns to differ by small amounts from table totals.

Data is based on place of usual residence. Includes Other Territories.

Data on the distribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across remoteness areas in 2006, 2011 and 2016 is available in Census of Population and Housing - Counts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2016.

Source: Census of Population and Housing, 2006, 2011 and 2016

Data available in table 1.5 in ‘Language Speakers’ from ‘Data downloads’

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Status

In 2016:

  • 9.2% of people who identified as Aboriginal spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home
  • 19.6% of people who identified as Torres Strait Islander spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home
  • 10.8% of people who identified as both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home (see graph 4).

Please note that there are small random adjustments made to all cell values to protect the confidentiality of data. These adjustments may cause the sum of rows or columns to differ by small amounts from table totals.

Data is based on place of usual residence.

Source: Census of Population and Housing, 2016

Data available in table 1.2 in ‘Language Speakers’ from ‘Data downloads’

Age

The median age of people who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language in 2016 was 26 years, up from 23 years in 2006.

Between 2006 and 2016, there were small changes in the age distribution of people who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language in non-remote and remote areas (see graph 5).

In non-remote areas, the proportion of people who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language:

  • aged 25-44 years declined slightly (30.1% in 2006 to 26.4% in 2016)
  • aged 45-64 years increased slightly (16.3% in 2006 to 22.1% in 2016).

In remote areas, the proportion of people who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language:

  • aged 0-14 years declined slightly (32.7% in 2006 to 29.6% in 2016)
  • aged 45-64 years increased slightly (13.9% in 2006 to 17.5% in 2016).

Please note that there are small random adjustments made to all cell values to protect the confidentiality of data. These adjustments may cause the sum of rows or columns to differ by small amounts from table totals.

Data is based on place of usual residence. Includes Other Territories.

Source: Census of Population and Housing, 2006 and 2016

Data available in table 1.2.4 in ‘Language Speakers’ from ‘Data downloads’

Number of languages spoken

There were over 150 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander languages in the ASCL that were actively spoken (i.e., had one or more speakers) in 2016, and 56 languages with no reported speakers (see table 3).

There were 82 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages not spoken by children aged 0-14 years.

Table 3. Number of Languages by number of speakers (ranged), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons, 2016(a)(b)

Number of speakers (range)

Number of languages

5,001-8,000 speakers

2

1,001-5,000 speakers

9

501-1,000 speakers

9

251-500 speakers

18

51-250 speakers

41

11-50 speakers

50

1-10 speakers

32

0 speakers

56

Please note that there are small random adjustments made to all cell values to protect the confidentiality of data. These adjustments may cause the sum of rows or columns to differ by small amounts from table totals.

Data is based on place of usual residence.

  1. Excludes languages that are not further defined (‘nfd’).
  2. Includes languages that are not elsewhere classified (‘nec’).

Source: Census of Population and Housing, 2016

Data available in table 1.2.1 in ‘Language Speakers’ from ‘Data downloads’

Most commonly spoken languages

The most commonly spoken Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in 2016 were:

  • Kriol (7,108 speakers)[²]
  • Yumplatok (Torres Strait Creole) (6,000 speakers)
  • Djambarrpuyngu (4,264 speakers).

There were also 8,625 people who were coded to ‘Australian Indigenous Languages nfd’ (see table 4).

‘Australian Indigenous Languages nfd’ is a supplementary code in the ASCL and is not considered a language group. It includes responses to the language spoken at home question that only provided enough information to indicate a person spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language.

The proportion of people coded to ‘Australian Indigenous Languages nfd’ in 2016 was 13.5%, up from 4.2% in 2011. This increase may have impacted the number of persons coded to more detailed language codes in 2016. Some of the strategies outlined in ‘how the ABS is improving the collection of language data’ may impact the number of people coded to Australian Indigenous Languages nfd in future ABS data collections.

Table 4. Top 10 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Languages spoken at home, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons, 2016
LanguageNumber of speakersIndigenous Locations with the highest number of speakers

1.       Australian Indigenous Languages, nfd(a)

8,625

Wadeye (NT)

Alpurrurulam (NT)

Laramba (NT)

2.       Kriol

7,108

Ngukurr (NT)

Minyerri (NT)

Wugular (Beswick) (NT)

3.       Yumplatok (Torres Strait Creole)

6,000

Port Kennedy (Thursday Island) (Torres Strait, Qld.)

TRAWQ (Thursday Island) (Torres Strait, Qld.)

Badu Island (Torres Strait, Qld.)

4.       Djambarrpuyngu

4,264

Galiwinku (NT)

Milingimbi (NT)

Gapuwiyak (NT)

5.       Pitjantjatjara

3,054

Amata - Tjurma Homelands (SA)

Pukatja (Ernabella) (SA)

Kaltukatjara (Docker River) (NT)

6.       Warlpiri

2,276

Yuendumu and Outstations (NT)

Lajamanu (NT)

Willowra (NT)

7.       Tiwi

2,020

Wurrumiyanga (Nguiu) (NT)

Milikapiti (NT)

Pirlangimpi (NT)

8.       Murrinh Patha

1,966

Wadeye (NT)

Nganmarriyanga (Palumpa) (NT)

Thamarrurr exc. Wadeye (NT)

9.       Kunwinjku

1,702

Gunbalanya (NT)

Maningrida (NT)

Cobourg Peninsula - Demed Homelands (NT)

10.   Alyawarr

1,549

Ampilatwatja and Outstations (NT)

Utopia - Arawerr - Arlparra (NT)

Alpurrurulam (NT)

Please note that there are small random adjustments made to all cell values to protect the confidentiality of data. These adjustments may cause the sum of rows or columns to differ by small amounts from table totals.

Data is based on place of usual residence.

  1. Australian Indigenous Languages nfd is a supplementary code in the Australian Standard Classification of Languages (ASCL) and is not considered a language group.

Source: Census of Population and Housing, 2016

Data available in table 1.2.1 in ‘Language Speakers’ from ‘Data downloads’

There were slight differences in the age distribution of the top 10 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander languages spoken at home (see graph 6). Of these:

  • Murrinh Patha had the highest proportion of speakers aged 0-14 years (36.3% of Murrinh Patha speakers)
  • Tiwi had the highest proportion of speakers aged 45 years and over (26.4% of Tiwi speakers).

These language age distributions vary from the overall age distribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people counted in the 2016 Census (see Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia - Stories from the Census, 2016). These were:

  • 34.0% for 0-14 years
  • 19.1% for 15-24 years
  • 24.8% for 25-44 years
  • 17.4% for 45-64 years
  • 4.8% for 65 years and over.

Please note that there are small random adjustments made to all cell values to protect the confidentiality of data. These adjustments may cause the sum of rows or columns to differ by small amounts from table totals.

Data is based on place of usual residence.

  1. Excludes Australian Indigenous Languages nfd as this is a supplementary code in the Australian Standard Classification of Languages (ASCL) and is not considered a language group.

Source: Census of Population and Housing, 2016

Data available in table 1.2.1 in ‘Language Speakers’ from ‘Data downloads’

English as a second language

The information presented in this section is available to download in ‘English as a second language’ from ‘Data downloads’.

In the Census, people who speak a language other than English at home are asked how well they speak English on a scale of ‘Very Well’ to ‘Not at All’. Responses to this question are subjective and are not a definitive indicator of a person’s English language proficiency.

The majority (85.4%) of people who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home in 2016 reported speaking English ‘Very well’ or ‘Well’ (up from 78.6% in 2006) (see graph 7).

A small proportion reported speaking English ‘Not well’ ‘(8.9% down from 14.9% in 2006) or ‘Not at All’ (2.2%, down from 4.1% in 2006).

Most (90.7%) of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language speakers who lived in non-remote areas reported speaking English ‘Very well’ or ‘well” – slightly higher than those living in remote areas (84.5%).

Please note that there are small random adjustments made to all cell values to protect the confidentiality of data. These adjustments may cause the sum of rows or columns to differ by small amounts from table totals.

  1. Excludes people whose language spoken at home was English.
  2. Place of usual residence. Includes migratory-offshore-shipping and no usual address.

Source: Census of Population and Housing, 2016

Data available in table 1 in ‘English as a second language’ from ‘Data downloads’

The 2014-15 NATSISS asked people aged 15 years and over whose main language spoken at home was an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language ‘When you go to places where only English is spoken, do you have problems with: Understanding people there? People there understanding you?’. Responses to this question provide a measure of whether people have difficulty communicating with English speakers.

In 2014-15, just over one-third (37.9%) of people aged 15 years and over whose main language spoken at home was an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language reported experiencing difficulty understanding and/or being understood by English speakers.

Understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages

The information presented in this section is available to download in ‘Language learning’ from ‘Data downloads’.

The information in this section is from the 2014-15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS). The NATSISS is currently the only source of information collected by the ABS on the learning and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages amongst people whose main language spoken at home is English.

Speaking and/or understanding part, or all, of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language is an important part of strengthening the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages spoken[³].

The 2014-15 NATSISS asked people whose main language spoken at home was not an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language a series of questions about whether they could also speak or understand an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language. Of these people:

  • 22.7% could speak and understand some words
  • 12.2% could understand some words but not speak any words
  • 7.2% could speak and understand an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language.

Of people in remote areas whose main language spoken at home was not an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language:

  • 36.3% could speak and understand some words
  • 20.0% could speak and understand an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language.

Of people in non-remote areas whose main language spoken at home was not an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language:

  • 20.4% could speak and understand some words
  • 12.4% could not speak an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language but could understand some words.

Cells in this table have been randomly adjusted to avoid the release of confidential data. Discrepancies may occur between sums of the component items and totals.

  1. Data is for persons aged 3 years and over. Excludes persons whose main language spoken at home was an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language and persons not currently speaking.
  2. Includes migratory-offshore-shipping and no usual address.

Source:  National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014-15

Data available in table 2 in ‘Language speakers’ from ‘Data downloads’

Learning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages

Around one in ten (11.6%) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people whose main language spoken at home was not an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language were learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language in 2014-15 – similar to 2008 (11.8%).

In non-remote areas, there was very little change in the proportion of people learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language between 2008 and 2014-15 (see graph 9).

In remote areas, there was a small increase in the proportions of children and young adults learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language between 2008 and 2014-15, though the increase was not statistically significant (see graph 9).

Cells in this table have been randomly adjusted to avoid the release of confidential data. Discrepancies may occur between sums of the component items and totals.

  1. Data is for persons aged 3 years and over. Excludes persons whose main language spoken at home was an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language and persons not currently speaking.

Source: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2008 and 2014-15

Data available in table 1.1 and 1.2 in ‘Language learning’ from ‘Data downloads’

Where people were learning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages

Families and communities play an essential role in sharing and promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. The 2014-15 NATSISS asked people who were learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language ‘Where are you learning or who is teaching you the language?’. People could choose more than one option from a list that included:

  • Parent
  • Brother/sister
  • Partner/husband/wife
  • Other relative (e.g. Auntie or Grandfather, Community Elder Neighbour/friend/other community member)
  • Volunteer organisation or community group organisation
  • School
  • TAFE/University
  • Adult learning centre/community centre/library
  • Other.

The main sources of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language learning were:

  • Family members (62.1%)
  • School, TAFE or University (26.5%)
  • Community members (21.2%) (see graph 10).

In non-remote areas, volunteer organisations, community groups, adult learning centres and libraries were also important places of language learning (14.0%).

A considerable proportion of children aged 3-14 years (39.5%) were learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at school.

Cells in this table have been randomly adjusted to avoid the release of confidential data. Discrepancies may occur between sums of the component items and totals.

  1. Data is for persons aged 3 years and over. Excludes persons whose main language spoken at home was an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language and persons not currently speaking.
  2. Includes migratory-offshore-shipping and no usual address.
  3. Includes parent, sibling, partner and other relatives.
  4. Includes elder, neighbour and friend.
  5. Includes volunteer organisations, community groups, adult learning centres, libraries and other.

Source:  National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014-15

Data available in table 2.1 in ‘Language learning’ from ‘Data downloads’

Useful resources

The following resources provide invaluable insights into the study, learning and sharing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

References

[¹]  Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, AIATSIS, ANU, CAEPR & CoEDL. 2020, p. 17.

[²] Kriol is usually found in the Northern Territory, in certain Kimberley communities, the Katherine, Daly River and Barkly Regions, and in some western Queensland towns (Angelo, O’Shannessy, Simpson, Kral, Smith, and Browne, 2019). In 2016, there were 4,365 Kriol speakers in the Northern Territory, 2,367 in Western Australia, 354 in Queensland, 18 in Victoria and three in South Australia. There were no Kriol speakers in New South Wales, Tasmania or the Australian Capital Territory in 2016.

[³] First Languages Australia, 2019, Notes to assist reporting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, available from: https://www.firstlanguages.org.au/resources/reporting, accessed 27 October 2021.

Bibliography

Angelo D, O’Shannessy C, Simpson J, Kral I, Smith H, and Browne E (2019). Well-being & Indigenous Language Ecologies (WILE): A strengths-based approach. Literature Review for the National Indigenous Languages Report, Pillar 2. Canberra: The Australian National University. Available from: <https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/186414>

Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, formerly the Department of Communications and the Arts. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) (Battin J, Lee J, Marmion D, Smith R, Wang T). Australian National University (ANU) researchers at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) (Dinku Y, Hunt J, Markham F), and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL) (Angelo D, Browne E, Kral I, O’Shannessy C, Simpson J, Smith H) (2020). National Indigenous Languages Report. Canberra: Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, formerly the Department of Communications and the Arts. Available from: <https://www.arts.gov.au/what-we-do/indigenous-arts-and-languages/national-indigenous-languages-report>

Available data

Language speakers

Table title
TopicDisaggregationCollectionTable number
Main language spoken at home, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 1991-2016Time SeriesCensus 1991-2016Table 1.1
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home by Indigenous status(a), Census 2006-2016Language, Indigenous status, Time SeriesCensus 2006-2016Table 1.2
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home by age(a), Census 2016Language, AgeCensus 2016Table 1.2.1
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home by age(a), Census 2011Language, AgeCensus 2011Table 1.2.2
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home by age(a), Census 2006Language, AgeCensus 2006-2016Table 1.2.3
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home by Age by Remoteness, Census 2006-2016Remoteness, Age, Time SeriesCensus 2006-2016Table 1.2.4
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home by age(a), Census 2006-2016Age, Time SeriesCensus 2006-2016Table 1.3
Distribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who spoke an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language at home by State/Territory(a), Census 2006, 2011 and 2016State/Territory Language spoken at homeCensus 2006-2016Table 1.4
Main language spoken at home by Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 2006-2016Remoteness, Time SeriesCensus 2006-2016Table 1.5
Whether speaks or understands an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language by Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), NATSISS 2008 and 2014-15RemotenessNATSISS 2008 and 2014-15Table 2

Language speakers by State/Territory and Indigenous Location

Table title
TopicDisaggregationCollectionTable number
Language spoken at home in New South Wales by Indigenous region and Indigenous location, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 2016Indigenous Region, Indigenous Location,  Language spoken at homeCensus 2016Table 1
Language spoken at home in Victoria by Indigenous region and Indigenous location, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 2016Indigenous Region, Indigenous Location,  Language spoken at homeCensus 2016Table 2
 Language spoken at home in Queensland by Indigenous region and Indigenous location, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 2016Indigenous Region, Language spoken at homeCensus 2016Table 3
 Language spoken at home in South Australia by Indigenous region and Indigenous location, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 2016Indigenous Region, Indigenous Location,  Language spoken at homeCensus 2016Table 4
Language spoken at home in Western Australia by Indigenous region and Indigenous location, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 2016Indigenous Region, Indigenous Location,  Language spoken at homeCensus 2016Table 5
Language spoken at home Tasmania by Indigenous region and Indigenous location, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 2016Indigenous Region, Indigenous Location,  Language spoken at homeCensus 2016Table 6
Language spoken at home in Northern Territory by Indigenous region and Indigenous location, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 2016Indigenous Region, Indigenous Location,  Language spoken at homeCensus 2016Table 7
Language spoken at home in Australian Capital Territory by Indigenous region and Indigenous location, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 2016Indigenous Region, Language spoken at homeCensus 2016Table 8
Language spoken at home in Other Territories by Indigenous region and Indigenous location, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), Census 2016Indigenous Region, Indigenous Location,  Language spoken at homeCensus 2016Table 9

English as a second language

Table title
TopicDisaggregationCollectionTable number
Proficiency in spoken English by Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who reported speaking an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language(a)(b), Census 2006-2016Remoteness, Time seriesCensus 2006-2016Table 1
Whether experienced difficulty understanding and/or being understood by English speakers, persons aged 15 years and over, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander persons(a), NATSISS 2014-15RemotenessNATSISS 2014-15Table 2

Language learning

Table title

Topic

Disaggregation

Collection

Table number

Whether learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language, by Age and Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), NATSISS 2014-15

Remoteness, Age

NATSISS 2014-15

Table 1.1

Whether learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language, by Age and Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), NATSISS 2014-15

Remoteness, Age

NATSISS 2008

Table 1.2

Where people were learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Language by Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), NATSISS 2014-15

Remoteness

NATSISS 2014-15

Table 2.1

Where people were learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Language by Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), NATSISS 2008

Remoteness

NATSISS 2008

Table 2.2

Table title
TopicDisaggregationCollectionTable number
Whether learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language, by Age and Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), NATSISS 2014-15Remoteness, AgeNATSISS 2014-15Table 1.1
Whether learning an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language, by Age and Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), NATSISS 2014-15Remoteness, AgeNATSISS 2008Table 1.2
Where people were learning an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Language by Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), NATSISS 2014-15(a)RemotenessNATSISS 2014-15Table 2.1
Where people were learning an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Language by Remoteness, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons(a), NATSISS 2008(a)RemotenessNATSISS 2008Table 2.2

Data downloads

Language data tables

Data files

Catalogue number

This content is released under the ABS catalogue number 4743.0