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International Year of Indigenous Languages

The United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL), with a global campaign hosted by UNESCO in collaboration with the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

During 2018–19, IYIL activities have shone a spotlight on AIATSIS’ ongoing work on language, alongside a number of special events to celebrate this important year and draw attention to the situation and value of our Indigenous languages.

AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie is the Co-chair of the International Steering Committee for IYIL. Speaking at the launch in Paris on 28 January 2019, he stressed the value of a united, global effort to promote, appreciate and revitalise Indigenous languages:

Language is more than just a means of communication. It is a repository for history, wisdom, identity and culture. Indigenous languages contain unique systems of knowledge that are valuable to our modern challenges. They are also fundamental to the world’s cultural diversity and social integration. The good health of Indigenous languages is in everyone’s best interest.

More than 250 Indigenous Australian language groups were present on our continent at the time of European settlement in 1788. Today, only 13 of these languages have a sufficient number of young people speaking them to sustain the language into the future. The research shows that knowledge of language helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people strengthen their cultural identity, integral to health and wellbeing and by extension, the health and wellbeing of society as a whole.

The Australian Government Action Plan for the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages was launched in early 2019. AIATSIS has a significant role in delivering the plan, which includes action in the following areas, adapted from UNESCO’s themes:

  • Support for the revitalisation and maintenance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language
  • Access to education, information and knowledge in and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages
  • Promotion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and values.


Songs in Language: The Australian Indigenous Languages Playlist

In February 2019 AIATSIS launched a Spotify playlist. Designed to bring languages into everyday life, the playlist includes up-and-comers such as Young Australian of the Year Baker Boy and Eurovision Song Contest finalist Electric Dreams, classic artists such as Yothu Yindi, Christine Anu and Gurrumul Yunupingu, and lesser known musicians such as Waak Waak Djungi and Maroochy Barambah. Languages on the playlist include Yolŋgu, Kala Lagaw Ya, Darug, Muruwari, Pitjantjatjara, Gubbi Gubbi and Anindilyakwa. With suggestions from online audiences, the playlist has grown from thirty-five to fifty songs and will keep growing throughout the year. So far the playlist has had over 150 000 impressions. Feedback from artists has been very positive, noting a spike in plays of their music and a subsequent increase in royalty payments.

 The Australian Indigenous Languages Playlist on Spotify.
Songs in Language: The Australian Indigenous Languages Playlist - Spotify
International Women’s Day celebrating language

AIATSIS’ annual International Women’s Day celebration featured the language work of Laurie Baymarrwaŋa, Senior Australian of the Year 2012. Baymarrwaŋa spent a lifetime promoting the intergenerational transmission of languages. Starting in 1993 in her eighties, and with no English, she worked for over twenty years to save her language—Yan-nhaŋu. She worked with linguist Bentley James in Yolŋu matha to create the first Yan-nhaŋu maps, visiting and recording over 600 sites. From a start of barely 250 recorded Yan-nhaŋu words, they produced the 576-page Yan- nhaŋu Atlas and Illustrated Dictionary of the Crocodile Islands, alongside many self-funded projects to sustain lifelong language learning. At her own expense she distributed the illustrated dictionary free to children in over thirty homelands, twelve schools, eight Northern Territory ranger programs, and 300 libraries nationally. Her final unfinished project was a book of Yolŋu hand signs. The Illustrated Handbook of Yolŋu Sign Language of North East Arnhem Land is being completed by Dr James in her honour, for release later in 2019. The handbook has been crowdfunded, with significant awareness generated by AIATSIS’ IYIL communications campaign.

An image showing Dr Bentley James talking to Laurie Baymarrwana
Dr Bentley James and Laurie Baymarrwana

IYIL commemorative coin

On 9 April, the Year of Indigenous Languages commemorative coin was launched. The fifty cent coin was created in partnership with the Royal Australian Mint, and with the support of 14 Indigenous communities from around the country who agreed to have their language words for ‘money’ included in the design.

An image showing Professor Jakelin Troy, AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie, Kaurna man Jack Buckskin with his children, and Royal Australian Mint CEO Ross MacDiarmid.
Professor Jakelin Troy, AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie, Kaurna man Jack Buckskin with his children, and Royal Australian Mint CEO Ross MacDiarmid.

ANZAC Day: the Ode of Remembrance in first languages

On 25 April, to commemorate ANZAC Day, AIATSIS shared three translations of the Ode of Remembrance into Nyoongar, Warrimiri and Marrithiyel. The translations were posted to social media and were extremely popular, the Nyoongar Ode in particular reaching 74 000-plus people on Facebook alone.

IYIL commemorative stamp

On 30 April, a Year of Indigenous Languages commemorative stamp was released by Australia Post. The $1 stamp features the official United Nations logo for the International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019, and the sheetlet pack features a map representing the regions associated with the hundreds of Indigenous language variations, both current and historical, recorded in AUSTLANG, the Australian Indigenous languages database developed and maintained by AIATSIS. Australia Post released a blog interview with CEO Craig Ritchie about Indigenous languages to support the stamp’s release.

Image showing the Indigenous Languages map from the 2019 IYIL stamp pack
Indigenous Languages map from the 2019 IYIL stamp pack.

On 7 May, decals celebrating Australia’s Indigenous languages were installed on the front window of the AIATSIS building, which greet visitors to AIATSIS and to our neighbour, the National Museum of Australia. The decal highlights pertinent statistics related to the state of Indigenous languages in Australia and the world, and uses data from AUSTLANG to illustrate the diversity of Australia’s Indigenous languages.

More to come

More events are planned for the second half of 2019, including an exhibition in AIATSIS’ Rom Gallery, opening in September 2019. To ensure that Indigenous voices are at the forefront of the exhibition narrative, community visits have been undertaken to consult with the Warlpiri of Yuendumu, the Meriam on Mer Island (Torres Strait) and the Wangka Maya Aboriginal Language Centre in Port Hedland, as well as engagement with the Ngunnawal Elders Council in the ACT.

Also in September AIATSIS will run a series of ‘Paper and Talk’ language workshops, pairing community researchers from little-spoken language groups with experienced linguists for two weeks of linguistics and archival research skills development, supporting community-based language revitalisation.


In 2019 AUSTLANG, the authoritative international resource on Australian Indigenous languages, became the single platform for discovery of and research on these languages. This was the culmination of years of work to develop AUSTLANG as the comprehensive platform. Work is continuing nationally to integrate it into collection systems. See page 31 for more detail.


As a contribution to the International Year of Indigenous Languages, AIATSIS prepared a composite finding aid for the entire collection of linguist Gavan Breen. Beginning in 1967 and continuing for over a decade, Breen recorded at least 49 Indigenous languages across three states. Covering the full collection and organising descriptions by language (rather than date), the finding aid gives users a view of the full scope of Breen’s work, makes the collection easier to interrogate for research into a specific language, and recognises the language speakers as co-creators. It incorporates the latest information about language naming from AUSTLANG and, in recognising speakers as creators of the collection, demonstrates best practice in ethical collection management. This very significant language collection can now be much more easily accessed by the relevant language communities and by other researchers.


AIATSIS has conducted the third National Indigenous Languages Survey to update our understanding of the state of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. From November 2018 to April 2019, AIATSIS surveyed language centres, other communities and organisations carrying out language projects, and linguists who specialise in Australian Indigenous languages.

For each language, the survey sought to capture:

  • approximate numbers of speakers
  • the degree of intergenerational transmission
  • when and how language is used
  • engagement with language activities and resources.

AIATSIS has partnered with the Department of Communications and the Arts and the Australian National University to produce a report that presents the results of the survey and articulates our understanding of the evidence of the benefits of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. This will be released in late 2019. AUSTLANG datasets will be updated with the survey results (see page 90).

The survey and report will provide an up-to-date evidence base for researchers, policymakers and communities, and tell all Australians the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

Indigenous Languages Preservation: AIATSIS Dictionaries Project

Dictionaries play an important role in language preservation and revitalisation, yet there are many cases where a good dictionary database has been created but a lack of funding has impeded publication. In numerous other cases publication has taken place in low-quality physical formats that have now deteriorated, leaving the community without a dictionary.

In response, AIATSIS has launched a project to support the publication of Indigenous language dictionaries. Dictionaries nearing the point of readiness for publication but lacking funds have been identified and connected with funding support provided by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. A plan to produce nineteen dictionaries (see Table 50 for details) is now being implemented, with several additional dictionaries in negotiation. A range of publishers will be involved, including Aboriginal Studies Press, IAD Press, Miwi-inyeri Pelebi-ambi Aboriginal Corporation, Wakefield Press and Muurrbay.

Publication work is well underway, starting with a new edition of The Sydney Language by Jakelin Troy, published in June 2019—see page 62 for more details.




The Sydney Language, new edition

Sydney (Dharug, Gadigal, Eora).

Ngarinyman to English Dictionary


Ngarrindjeri Dictionary, 2nd edition


Alyawarr to English Dictionary, second edition


Ngaanyatjarra/Ngaatjatjarra to English Dictionary


Dhurga Dictionary and Learners Grammar—a South- East Coast NSW Aboriginal Language


Ngarrindjeri Dictionary, 3rd edition


Mudburra to English Dictionary



Gurgun Mibinyah

Yugambeh, Ngarahngwal, Ngahnduwal

Eastern and Central Arrernte to English Dictionary, updated edition


Gija-Kija – English Dictionary


Kaurna Warrapiipa: a Kaurna Dictionary


A dictionary of Umpithamu


Mawng Dictionary


Ngiyampaa wordworld 1. thipingku yuwi, maka ngiya: names of birds and other words


Warlpiri to English Encyclopaedic Dictionary


A Dictionary of Yinggarda, Western Australia


Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara to English Dictionary, updated 2nd edition


Dhanggati grammar and dictionary with Dhanggati stories