Recovering Aboriginal Languages

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In Australia, English is by far the most commonly spoken language. Of course, that wasn’t always so.  According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, before Europeans set foot there, about 250 languages were spoken, divided into at least 500 different dialects.

Many of those languages are completely extinct. As it stands now, only about 15 of them are still taught to children, which is necessary for any language to survive long-term.

However, indigenous activists like Diane McNaboe are leading an effort to recover some of these lost languages. McNaboe is a member of the Wiradjuri people, an indigenous group living in New South Wales. Although their language was once effectively dead, Ms. McNaboe is one of a group of activists trying to piece it back together. In an interview with, she explained her efforts to recover the lost words her ancestors spoke by asking for help from local communities:

“A lot of our old aunties and uncles could speak between 4 and 7 different languages, Aboriginal languages. There’s a wealth and knowledge out there and if it can be saved and recorded…it might be just people who ring up and say ‘look I know my father used this word when he was talking with the Aboriginal people in the area’, and that word may not seem very much to somebody else but it could be of importance to us. It could be another word that we’ve lost.”

A similar effort by Wiradjuri elder Stan Grant recently led to the first-ever Wiradjuri dictionary, published in 2005.

However, according to McNaboe, lack of written information about the language has hampered further efforts to reconstruct it. She told

“I talked to a lady in the Historical Society in Lithgow and they didn’t have much recorded there. I thought, well that’s a shame, because there’s a wealth of knowledge and there’s a lot of our Aboriginal sites, Wiradjuri sites, in and around Lithgow and into the mountains and things like that.”

With few historical records to go on, collecting scattered memories seems like the best hope for the  Wiradjuri language.