Frequently Asked Questions

How can the MLT assist me?

The MLT may be able to:

  • Give advice on language matters (spelling systems, finding archival source materials, how and what to record from old speakers)
  • Pay a visit and spend a day or two working alongside you or your language workers and community
  • Facilitate a short language workshop around a particular issue or theme
  • Put you in touch with sources of funding
  • Put you in touch with people who can best help with a particular problem or issue

What sources of funding are available for language work?

  • The Federal Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport is the main source of funding for community-based Aboriginal language work. This is offered annually through the Indigenous Languages Support (ILS) program through a competitive grant scheme.
  • Local and State Government agencies may provide limited funding for local Aboriginal languages – especially in relation to language teaching in schools and community settings and research on local Aboriginal placenames.
  • Industry (eg mining enterprises) may provide funding for specific projects
  • A range of philanthropic organisations (national and international) have supported initiatives in Aboriginal languages

How many Aboriginal languages are there in South Australia?

This is a difficult question to answer with precision. As a rule of thumb there were probably between 40 and 50 Aboriginal languages whose territories lay within the borders of South Australia. Of course, the territories of many languages straddle the neighbouring states of Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory. Most, if not all, languages probably had a number of dialects and often speakers of these respective dialects see their particular language variety as a language in its own right (just as Swedes regard Swedish to be a separate language to Norwegian etc). However, many of the languages present in South Australia at the time of colonisation have now disappeared or survive only in fragments. There are now very few languages spoken on a daily basis and passed on to children but there is a growing number undergoing revival.

How many Aboriginal languages are still spoken in South Australia?

The languages of the northwest, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (both being varieties of Western Desert) are still spoken widely by all age groups in communities such as Pukatja (Ernabella), Amata, Indulkana, Kaltjiti (Fregon), Mimili, Kalka, Pipalyatjara and Murputja. These languages are also spoken in towns and regional centres outside the Anangu Pitjantjatjara / Yankunytjatjara Lands. There are also a number of speakers of these Western Desert languages living in Adelaide, the capital of the state. Other languages including Adnyamathanha, Arabana, Wirangu, Dieri and Gugada (Kokatha) are spoken by some adults, but are not spoken fluently by the children. There are a number of other languages that are currently being revived with Elders and learnt by the younger generation, including Kaurna, Ngarrindjeri, Narungga and Ngadjuri.

How many speakers are there of South Australian languages?

In order to answer this question, we first need to think about what we mean by the term ‘speaker’. Does the person need to be able to hold a lengthy conversation in the Aboriginal language, without using any English, to qualify as a language speaker? Or is it sufficient to be just able to use a number of words and key phrases from the language? There are only a few languages in the remote north west of South Australia that are still spoken fluently by all ages in the community (Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and the close variety Antikarinya). Other languages (such as Arabana, Wirangu, Adnyamathanha and Dieri) are only spoken fluently by a few adults. There are still other languages which are being revived with Elders, and these are being learned by the younger generation, including Kaurna, Ngarrindjeri, Narungga and Ngadjuri.

According the 2006 Australian census, the following numbers of people listed below speak their languages in the home. But it should be noted that this does not mean they all speak the language fluently:

  • Pitjantjatjara = 2,657 speakers
  • Yankunytjatjara = 557 speakers
  • Aboriginal English = 488 speakers
  • Ngarrindjeri = 160 speakers
  • Adnyamathanha = 113 speakers
  • Kaurna = 34 speakers
  • Narungga = 24 speakers
  • Kukatha = 19 speakers
  • Arabana = 13 speakers
  • Antikarinya = 12 speakers

What Aboriginal languages are currently taught in South Australian schools?

According to the 2010 DECS survey, nine Aboriginal languages are currently taught in South Australian schools.
The languages being taught are:

  • Pitjantjatjara (in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, the Fleurieu Peninsula and in Adelaide)
  • Yankunytjatjara (in Port Augusta and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands)
  • Antikirinya (at Coober Pedy)
  • Wirangu (at Koonibba)
  • Adnyamathanha / Yura Ngawarla (in Port Augusta, Leigh Creek, Hawker and Quorn)
  • Arabana (in Port Augusta and Marree)
  • Narungga (on Yorke Peninsula and in Adelaide)
  • Ngarrindjeri (in Murray Bridge, Raukkan and the Fleurieu Peninsula)
  • Kaurna (in Adelaide)

Note that Warlpiri has been taught at different times in Adelaide when Warlpiri people are living in Adelaide. Warlpiri is not a South Australian language. It comes from the Tanami Desert, northwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

There are several different program types taught in schools:

The stronger languages (Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara) are being taught as Languages Other Than English (LOTE) programs:
1. As L1 programs (first language programs to students who already speak the language)
2. As L2 programs (second language programs to students who speak a different first language)

The less strong or endangered languages are being offered as:
3. Revitalisation programs (such as Adnyamathanha) which is still spoken fluently by some speakers
4. Renewal programs (such as Ngarrindjeri) whereby some words and phrases are still remembered by some speakers
5. Reclamation program (such as Kaurna) whereby the language is being reclaimed from books and archives

A final program type is offered when the aim of the class is to make the students aware of social, cultural and some linguistic aspects of the language, rather than concentrating on teaching studetns to speak the language. This is an option if little is known of the language, or perhaps if there is no teacher available who can speak the language fluently The Yankunytkatjara program being taught at Port Augusta High is an Awareness program.

What is the difference between a language and a dialect?

The answer to this question can depend on one’s perspective. Even for linguists the difference between a language and a dialect is not always straightforward. From a linguist’s perspective, speakers of different dialects of one language can understand each other fairly easily, while speakers of different languages cannot understand each other. That is, dialects of the one language are mutually intelligible, while different languages are not. So Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Antikarinya, for example, are all regarded by linguists as dialects of the one language (which is Western Desert). However, Aboriginal speakers of these language varieties may regard these varieties as quite distinct and separate languages.

People often think of separate languages as being identified with individual nations. However, differing language varieties are spoken within all nations and speakers may still consider their own variety to be a distinct language. Recognised languages often have institutional support and official status gained through the production of dictionaries or the writing of grammars and other materials (such as a bible translation), or they may be supported as the target of study within a language research project or teaching program. However, all speech varieties deserve to be recognised, supported, documented and maintained, especially if they are endangered.

What is an endangered language?

An endangered language is one that is in danger of being lost, and is no longer being used by all the community for communicative purposes. There are several indicators of endangerment, the most important being loss of ‘Intergenerational Language Transmission’. If the younger generation are no longer learning and using the first language of their parents, on a regular basis for day to day purposes, the language will inevitably be lost after a period of time.

Why are there often many different spellings of the same language name?

Many of the names of South Australian languages were recorded during the colonial period by a variety of people, including explorers, missionaries, pastoral station owners, and anthropologists. These people often had little linguistic training and resorted to the English spelling system to spell the names of languages and to write down the words in languages. English has a hybrid and irregular spelling system that offers a variety of ways of writing down the sounds in a word. Often English spellings were inadequate for representing the sounds in Aboriginal words. Sometimes the recorders also mis-heard the sounds because they were not used to the way Aboriginal languages sound; for example they sometimes missed the ‘ng’ sound at the beginning of words. Note ‘ng’ only occurs in the middle and end of English words, so the language Ngarrindjeri, for example, was once recorded as ‘Narrinyeri’.

I need someone to give a welcome to country. Who do I contact?

It is fast becoming an accepted protocol for many functions to begin by giving the local Aboriginal people, who are custodians of the local city or region, to give a ‘Welcome to country’ speech. It is best to ask an Aboriginal person who has the authority or permission to give such a welcome. You could start by making contact with the people involved in any current Aboriginal language projects operating in the local language. They are probably in the best position to identify suitable knowledgeable and authoritative speakers who are able to give welcome speeches. There are some contact people listed on the MLT website, particularly under the individual language names.

Where can I find an Interpreter/Translator?

There are various organisations in South Australia that provide interpreting and translating services for Aboriginal languages, particularly Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara. These organisations have a list of people who can be called on for assistance. These people are qualified professionals who are registered with National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI).

For more information, see 'Interpreting and Translation' under the Information tab on our menu. 

I would like to know what XXXX means? How do I find out? How do I know what language it belongs to?

It is very hard to establish what a particular word means when you don’t know what language it comes from, especially if you are unsure of the source of the word and what region it is from. There are a number of dictionaries now available in a number of Aboriginal languages which can be consulted to find the meaning of some words, but it can be difficult to look up a word if it is not spelt using the standardised spelling conventions of the language. We have a reasonably good collection in the MLT office of the available contemporary dictionaries that have been produced for the Aboriginal languages of South Australia, including Kaurna, Ngarrindjeri, Ngadjuri, Narungga, Wirangu, Bunganditj, Nukunu, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (Antikarinya). We also have some draft contemporary wordlists for Adnyamathanha, Arabana, Gugada, Mirning and Dieri plus copies of some of the older wordlists which we have accessed from various libraries and archives, including Barngala and Ngayawang.

I would like to know the name of the language associated with a particular place. How do I find out?

A number of maps have been produced for South Australia with the various boundaries marked out for each language group. These often contradict each other, largely because language boundaries were never clear distinct lines that could be neatly transferred onto a map. However, there are some maps which can be consulted as a guide, if the information you require is not available from living speakers. The ‘Tribal Boundaries’ Maps in Norman B Tindale’s 1974 publication: Aboriginal tribes of Australia : their terrain, environmental controls, distribution, limits and proper names, can be accessed in most university libraries, but should be used as a guide only. Another map that can be purchased from the South Australian Museum Shop in Adelaide is the Aboriginal Australia Wall Map produced by David Horton in 1996. Two places to visit which hold maps with Aboriginal names and boundaries is the SA Museum and the Geographic Names Board, which are both in the city of Adelaide.

How can we revive our language? What does it involve? How long does it take?

There is no set formula or approach to reviving a language, as every language situation is different, and each has its own sensitivities. But no matter what the language, all revival activities demand commitment from the community, and a lot of hard work over a long period of time. It is also important that the revival process involves respected Elders and community members, as well as specialist people such as linguists and people with IT skills who can assist in the production of dictionaries, sound CDs and other important resources.

The revival process can take different paths, depending on how much is still remembered and used by the community. For languages, such as Adnyamathanha and Wirangu, where some senior members of the community can still speak the language in sentences, it is important to utilise their knowledge and record them speaking whole sentences. Similarly, for languages such as Ngarrindjeri where Elders still remember large numbers of words, it is important to record these words for assistance with the pronunciation. But with languages such as Kaurna, where no words were remembered, the whole revival process is dependent on old written sources. In such circumstances, the more there is written in the language, and the better the quality of these sources, the further the revival process can go. But no matter what the language, it is very advantageous for revival projects to produce key resources of: a dictionary (with a finder list at the back), a Learners Guide that outlines the grammar, plus a pronunciation guide with a CD of oral recordings. If the language is to be taught in schools, it is also very helpful to have a language curriculum to aid the teacher with lesson planning.

If the aim of the community who are reviving their language is to produce a younger generation who speak the Aboriginal language as their first language (just like Hebrew was revived in Israel 120 years ago), then it is necessary to only speak the Aboriginal language to the children in the first years of their life. This has never been done successfully before in Australia in a revival situation, and would be quite an achievement. Current revival programs are just teaching the younger and older generations to speak the language for specific purposes, and as an additional language to English.