Losing languages

Losing languages

I have just seen ‘Last Speakers’ by Paul Adams and Jordan Layton.

Beautiful tintype photographs of remaining speakers of endangered languages in North America, where there are more than 280 vulnerable and endangered languages spoken within Indigenous communities. Language keepers of North America present viewers with the question: What is lost when a language goes silent?

Nick Alokli, Alutiiq. From ‘Last Speakers’ by Paul Adams and Jordan Layton.

Kat Eschner writes, ‘Four Things That Happen When a Language Dies’:

  1. We lose ‘The expression of a unique vision of what it means to be human’;
  2. We lose memory of the planet’s many histories and cultures;
  3. We lose some of the best local resources for combatting environmental threats; and
  4. Some people lose their mother tongue. The real tragedy of all this might just be all of the people who find themselves unable to speak their first language, the language they learned how to describe the world.[i]

Of around 7000 languages that are spoken globally, only the top 100 are widely spoken.

In 1788 there were between 300 and 700 Indigenous languages spoken across Australia by millions of people. However in the Australian 2016 Census, only around 160 of these languages were reported as being spoken at home. And of these, only 13 traditional Indigenous languages are still spoken by children. For the 13 traditional Indigenous languages still spoken by children, the total numbers of speakers are tiny. The largest speaker numbers are:

  • Djambarrpuyngu (one of the large group of Yolŋu languages spoken in Arnhem Land – 4,264 speakers)
  • Pitjantjatjara (one of the large group of Western Desert languages – 3,054 speakers)
  • Warlpiri (spoken in Central Australia – 2,276 speakers)
  • Tiwi (spoken on the Tiwi Islands – 2,020 speakers )
  • Murrinh-Patha (spoken at Wadeye in the Northern Territory – 1,966 speakers)
  • Kunwinjku (one of a group of related languages spoken in west Arnhem Land – 1,702 speakers)

13,733 people report that they speak a new Indigenous language. New languages have developed since 1788 from contact between English speakers and Indigenous languages speakers.[ii]

Of the 600,000 other Indigenous people, many are actively relearning their ancestral languages. And this is true of the Gumbaynggirr people in this area of NSW.

Jane Simpson suggests, ‘Governments could say that in communities where the majority of the population speak a language other than English, then the schools should recognise the children’s mother tongue in the initial years of schooling, in order to make the best decisions on how to use languages in their education.’


I still recall the passion for language by Micklo Jarrett and Gathang language teacher Rhonda Radley.[iii]

Rhonda’s grandmother had language when young but didn’t keep it to her everlasting regret. Rhonda feels the spirit of country when she speaks language, she knows she’s loving her ancestors, doesn’t want their stories to be forgotten. ‘When I speak language it puts me in a different space, in county. I can’t say it any other way.’

Gathang covers 3 nations and different dialects so they have to negotiate. They have about 1,000 words in their dictionary, they have old recordings and are working on developing the language. As Rhonda says, ‘The language is sleeping.’


Michael Jarrett is a descendant of the Gumbaynggirr people from the Baga-Baga clan of Nambucca Heads. He teaches language and culture and is a tireless campaigner. He is known as Uncle Micklo.

10 April, Camp Nunguu. Uncle Micko, Welcome-to-Country

He was doing Welcome to Country last Saturday at the Gumbaynggirr protest camp to stop logging in Newry State Forest.

He says, ‘My family lived on Bellwood Reserve, where I spent all my childhood attending school and growing up with a lot of my relatives. Also the majority of my adult life was spent on the Reserve. There were old people who spoke Gumbaynggirr language but did not speak it to the children, only certain words.’[iv]

10 April, Camp Nunguu. Uncle Micko and others singing a Gumbaynggirr song.

Gumbaynggirr language is being revitalised. In 1985 eight Gumbaynggirr elders got together in Kempsey and started a language club. Now Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative Located in Nambucca Heads provides strategic support to revitalise the languages of seven Aboriginal communities. They have published a Gumbaynggirr dictionary and a book of stories.

Welcome to country – a rough video I took earlier this year at Koala Action Day here at Valla Beach

You can see him talking Gumbaynggirr and teaching children here.

Micklo at Stop Adani. ‘We all need to live on this land together’ he says.



[i] Kat Eschner, ‘Four Things That Happen When a Language Dies’, Smithsonian feb 21, 2017.

[ii] Jane Simpson, ‘The state of Australia’s Indigenous languages – and how we can help people speak them more often’, The Conversation, January 21, 2019.

[iii] Aboriginal Language Evening, 22 February 2017. Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance in partnership with Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery with Gumbaynggirr language teacher Michael Jarrett and Gathang language teacher Rhonda Radley.


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