U.S. English Foundation Research



Language Research

8. Miscellaneous: What else can be found about languages and minorities?


When Governor Phillips arrived in 1788, there were approximately 500,000 Aboriginal people in Australia speaking between them over 500 different languages.

The people belonging to one tribe spoke the same language and shared the same religion, customs and beliefs.

Although there were probably about 500 Australian languages, many of these included several dialects, in all numbering some 600. Aboriginal languages have some basic similarities in vocabulary and sound system but can differ significantly in their grammatical structure. Besides the every day-spoken word the Aboriginals in some areas had special languages for use in sacred rituals, songs and for use when talking to particularly close relatives.

Unfortunately there are only about 50 languages that are functional today (spoken by young children). The most widely used being the several dialects of the western Desert language Pitjantjatjara. Aboriginal languages have a lyrically sounding, repetitious quality that gives them a pleasant almost musical sound.

Aboriginal custom was in most circumstances to use as few words as possible, so one Aboriginal word often translated into several English words or in extreme cases, a lengthy phrase. One example being the Aboriginal word for animal could describe if the animal was drinking or running simply by changing the pronunciation. Words pertaining to sacred issues were not spoken in front of uninitiated, which means that large portions of some languages, which were otherwise recorded, have gone missing.

Sign language was often used, as it was clearly understood by most groups in the areas of Australia. This was helpful when different groups came together for trade, social events or other reasons.

The main responsibility for initiating, coordinating, and monitoring all governmental efforts to improve the quality of life of indigenous people has the Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs, in conjunction with the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission (ATSIC). A wide variety of government initiatives and programs seek to improve all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander life. In 1998 the Federal Government spent approximately $1.13 billion on health, welfare, education, and regional development programs targeted at assisting Aboriginal people.

However, in practice indigenous Australians continue to experience significantly higher rates of imprisonment, inferior access to medical and educational institutions, greatly reduced life expectancy rates, elevated levels of unemployment, and general discrimination, which contribute to a feeling of powerlessness.

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