Why learn an Aboriginal language?


Learning an Aboriginal language has so many advantages that you could write a book about it. Sadly, because of the way the dominant culture views Aboriginal languages, many of them are dying out and we are losing powerful academic concepts from Aboriginal languages that have never  been recorded. Learning an Aboriginal language is one of the most useful tools you can use to help close the gap, but people often have many questions about why it is important and how to go about it.

People have asked me the question: “You have talked about the importance of (learning) language, but is this possible considering the diversity and variability of the Aboriginal languages across Australia? How can we bridge this communication barrier?”

Yes, it is true there are many languages, and sometimes there can be several in the one community or region. In fact, many Aboriginal people now speak some form of English as a first language. For many, this Aboriginal English has a grammar structure like their original Aboriginal languages that they cannot speak any more, so it is quite different to mainstream English. However there are other groups of Aboriginal people in “isolated” areas that still speak and think in one of the Original Australian languages, and generally these Aboriginal people often understand several Aboriginal languages. For most of them, all forms of English are still a very foreign language. These people often have a common language that is understood across a large language region.

The fact is, if we are going to communicate effectively then we need to be able to speak to people in a language they understand. A fact not lost on the European Economic Community (EEC). Under the rules of the EEC doctors are not allowed to go and work in another county in Europe unless they can speak the language of the host country. And English is a related language to many of the EEC languages in Europe. But in Australia people come to work in Aboriginal communities with no such requirement, where English and the Original Australian languages have no commonality whatsoever. This is why I would suggest, that many of the health and other statistics for these communities do not change – in fact in some cases they even get worse – and it is also a major factor in why education and training fails. So we waste opportunities for good or better communication to occur and then  blame Aboriginal people for things not working.

I was forced to learn language when I arrived in Arnhem Land 40 years ago and I believe it should still be the policy today. In fact it was the one thing that has kept me here; once I knew a little bit of the language my relationships developed so fast with the people that I could not leave. Just the other day a medical doctor asked me could I explain in Yolŋu Matha (the language of Yolŋu people) what cancer was? My response was, “No problem”, as I had done it over the phone for a female Yolŋu patient just last week. That patient was beside herself in fear before the conversation. She did not understand what cancer was, what the DNA testing was about, or what the treatment options were and how they might work or not. And because there is a lot of confusion about this whole subject within her language group she was even being given misleading information by other Yolŋu. She was ready to go home and die. After a 20 minute conversation she had a clear picture right down to the DNA level. How? By us discussing her condition in an Australian language that she understood; Yolŋu Matha. We have no problem going down to a deep biomedical level in the original Australian languages. They are very powerful communication tools that are just being brushed aside because of what I believe is a neo-colonial mindset that is still very strong in modern day Australia.

Learn a language

So, start by looking at the area you want to do the most work in, and learn that language. Stop being a dominant culture nomad and work in one region. Even if you are working with Aboriginal people who speak an Aboriginal English, you need to learn some of their language if you want to have better communication.  Try and learn the language that has the most resources in a particular region. You don’t have to become an expert – very few English speaking people become truly proficient. But it would be great if more English first language people would learn an Aboriginal language adding to the skill pool in that particular language region. There is just so much more good communication work that needs to be done.

Many advantages in learning a language

There are many advantages to learning an Original Australian language or even Aboriginal English if that is the region you are in, or going to work in:
  • All Australians should learn an Aboriginal language, because as soon as you do, you also start to learn something about the Original Australian culture and worldview.
  • Attempting to learn also shows the people that you are different from most other dominant culture people. You will be seen as taking the peoples language and culture seriously and they will respond to you in a much more positive way. This can happen by just learning even a few words. From the people’s point of view you cross the line from being just one of the dominant culture mass out there imposing an imported European language and culture on them to someone that is interested in them.
  •  Straight away you will help to ‘bridge the gap’ from both sides, rather than expecting Aboriginal people to do all the hard work of communicating across the massive cultural communication divide. And along the way you will also probably teach them more English than the people who make no attempt to learning their language. You will also learn how hard it is to learn a language. This might stop you joining the course of mainstream English speakers out there that tell Aboriginal people all the time that they, “should just learn English”. You might even join us to push for good English learning programs and material for Aboriginal people to learn English efficiently and effectively. Even Aboriginal people who speak a form of Aboriginal English need well-constructed, open access, English learning programs. These people have no such resources in a wealthy country like ours.
  • Learning their language also gives you a great opportunity to empower Aboriginal people because you can become the student asking them to help you learn. When the English speaker asks for help it immediately empowers Aboriginal people, placing them in the role of teacher – something that does not happen very often. This has massive psychological benefits for people who usually have dominant culture people telling them how to suck eggs. Constantly being told what to do is very demoralising for anyone.
  • Lastly, when you know one of the Original Australian languages, you will find when you go to other Aboriginal language regions, you will then pick up their language much more quickly because of the corporate knowledge you have learnt from your first experience. This can occur even if you are just visiting for a few days, or even just hours, you will be picking up their language. This can give you a richer and more rewarding experience in a short time than if you had been there for years without learning the language. You will be told things that you would not otherwise hear, because you are now one of the small team of people who attempt to relate to the people on their terms. They will also find you can communicate better with them even if you cannot speak their language because you are beginning to see things from the perspective of an original Australian culture.

Resources to get started

For details about the official language centres around the country visit the Our Languages website. There are also many other organisations out there doing work in different language regions. Some include NGOs like Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS), Summer Institute of Linguistics, the Australian Society for Indigenous Languages and also some universities like Charles Darwin University. Ask around to find the best language resources.
About Richard Trudgen

Richard was born in Orange NSW and trained as a fitter and turner. He moved to Arnhem Land in the NT in 1973 and became a community worker, learning to speak Djambarrpuyŋu. Has now worked with Yolŋu people for over 45 years. He was the CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) for 10 years during which time he developed discovery education methodology with Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM and also established Yolŋu Radio in 2003. He is the author of Why Warriors Lie Down and Die and facilitated ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminars, and delivered corporate training across Australia. He is currently the CEO of Why Warriors Pty Ltd, a community development social enterprise organisation working with Yolngu people. He spends his day writing, producing podcasts and building online learning platforms, producing videos and working face to face with Yolngu. He is also involved in building online cross-cultural training material to build understanding between Indigenous peoples and the Dominant Culture.


Add your comment:

  1. I'm Old Gregg!

    Hm. Yep. After 235 years, we British occupiers (still the vast majority of this continent’s current inhabitants) can come to understand a little bit about this foreign land, that we have tried and tried to make like our home country, and thereby make our own lives a bit easier. 👍

  2. Tony Goodluck

    Thanks Richard,
    A helpful, focussed and easy to read article.
    I am doing a brief intro to Bininj Kunwok at CDU (online) and this article was recommended reading.
    Keep up the good work.
    Grace and Peace

  3. Tailah

    This is so stupid I cant get what I’m after

  4. Johnny YourMumn

    One question i am interested in learning a aboriginal language one question before hand.If i do learn a language how will it help me? and how many people speak the language??????????????? Because I want to learn a language that will benefit my future and how will it help if not many people speak it???????????

  5. tom wilkinson

    Hi there great to find some advice on where I can learn more of the language of the cape York people that I am going to work in there part of this amazing country so learning more about it will be great thx

  6. Alexandra

    Hi Richard,

    A very good read. I am a speech-language pathologist and i work with regional and rural school students, a lot of whom have Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background. I agree that more needs to be done to be preserving and teaching Aboriginal Language, I also really agree with your point that a lot of the standard teaching methods and practises occuring in communities where students speak Aboriginal English are failing/ or not improving, because of the requirement to use Standard Aus English. This is an area of interest for me, as to try and work out the best way to support this group of students. It is an area that is often over looked with regards to education.

  7. Shezza

    Thanks for a great read. It would be great if all Australians learnt an Aboriginal language at school. You’ve inspired me to go out and try and learn an aboriginal language.

  8. Wamut

    Kevin I don’t know if you’ll see this or have heard from anyone, but I suspect the person who went to Cape York surveying language was Ken Hale. I think he went there in the early 60s and surveyed many languages but spent only a short time with each group. He’s passed away but all his material is kept in the AIATSIS archives.

    Alternatively, you could try contacting Peter Sutton at the University of Adelaide. Peter spent a lot of time on the Cape in the 70s researching language and culture.

  9. Kaiyu Bayles

    To me u r wat my Granny taught me about being an honourable ancestor. I also believe there r 2 types of people, those who leave behind nothing and those that leave behind cultural heritage. Thank u so much for being my beacon of faith, as a Koori woman who is the first generation to be free from forced removal, slavery and abuse. You gave me the tools to understand the worlds I try to survive and all of my people too. I have clarity, vision, a renewed strength and fire in my belly, thanks to reading of your journey. I refuse to be assimilated and believe the key to ending disadvantage n improving outcomes for everyone is through our culture. I will push hard for re emergence and uprising of a proud people. I call us guardians of the old, those who treasure the essence of all that was before we all got so lost. I look forward to reading more, spreading the good word and keeping up the connections. Big love, admiration and respect to you always… Kaiyu Bayles

  10. Kevin Conway

    Hi Richard
    I’m wondering if you gathered languages from Arnehm Land and West Cap York. A friend of mine from Mapoon had family who came to Old Mapoon from Pompurraw. She mentioned her Gran talking about a man collecting a wide range of languages, taping them on an old reel to reel and then transferring to written form. She thought he was a surveyor and that he was going to provide the languages to the National Library but this didn’t happen. Her gran thought this was back in the 60’s and 70’s but didn’t know who it was. I wondered with your experience in this field in the 70’s whether you may have know who this person was. Her gran and pop were the last speakers of their dialect and she wanted to revive it for her children.

  11. Erik Schurink

    Good on ya mate!

    Would want to learn a indigenous language myself, but living in Switzerland that would be quite difficult I guess.

    Keep up the good work though! It’s time “westerners” should start understanding the old language of your beautifull country.

    Best regards

    Erik Schurink

  12. Merrilee Baker

    Great to read this in article format. Since reading this advice originally in Richards book I have made a more serious endeavour to learn Djambupunu. I love the connection with little children that is possible with even a few words and sentences in their language. I will be advocating for Yolgnu to teach health practitioners a word a day at our morning meetings. Thanks for your inspiration!

    • Richard Trudgen

      Thanks for your comments guys.

      You might find this link of some use https://www.whywarriors.com.au/elearn/literacy/
      If you visit the site, open up one of the modules and put your cursor over the top of the words. If you have the sound enabled on your computer, you will hear the sounds of the words and the syllables in both Yolŋu Matha and English.

      This is a site we are hoping to develop in to a whole online school for Yolngu people if we can get some backers. It is still a bit crude but is another example of how the people’s language can be used to teach English in a highly active and efficient way once the material is developed. The material also has a long life span and same material can be accessed by thousands of people at will. As this resource is online individuals can work whenever they have a chance, at their own pace and according to their level of prior English language knowledge.

      the other great thing about the development of this sort of resource is that it can also be use to teach English first language speakers how to start learning a Original Australian Language. I just wish we could find some with some $$$ to help us get resources out there.. PS you might be able to use this in your morning sessions. thanks Richard Trudgen