Australia and Indonesia are losing grip on their languages

indigenous languages

How can we preserve linguistic diversity, and why is it important to do so?


Languages form a bridge between us, helping us to place ourselves within history, to understand what may be unique to our experience, and what lies beyond our imagination.

But across the world, indigenous languages are disappearing at alarming rates – and so 2019 has been named the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IY2019).

Key points

  • 40 per cent of the world’s indigenous languages are endangered
  • Before colonisation, Australia was one of the most linguistically diverse countries on Earth, with more than 250 Australian Indigenous languages in existence – today, more than 90 per cent of those are considered endangered, but just 13 are still spoken by children
  • Indigenous languages all over the world are a cultural resource for everyone, not just indigenous communities – localised languages could play an important role in disaster mitigation and response
  • There are 700 regional languages in Indonesia, of which 137 are considered endangered, but Indonesian serves as a key political tool to unite the multilingual archipelago
  • The loss of language is often political, particularly when it comes to the displacement, oppression and genocide of indigenous peoples in Australia and beyond.

In 2016, the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues reported that 40 per cent of the world’s indigenous languages were endangered. Across the globe, indigenous peoples are often politically and socially marginalised, and yet their languages offer “complex systems of knowledge and communication [that] should be recognised as a strategic national resource for development, peace building and reconciliation.”

In Indonesia, for example, Stanley Widianto writes that indigenous languages hold the secrets to surviving disaster. Oral histories saved thousands of West Acehnese from the island of Simeulue during the 2004 and 2005 tsunamis, when the local people cried out “smong” – the local word for tidal wave, which carries with it stories of how to pass the warning along and the risks that come with not doing so.

In Australia, indigenous languages contain histories that trace back 7,000 to 18,000 years, accurately describing rising sea levels, showing the deep connection between indigenous peoples and the lands they inhabit. But more than 90 per cent of Australia’s indigenous languages are considered endangered, and in Indonesia, 137 of the more than 700 regional languages still in use are at threat of extinction.

Despite centuries of colonisation, displacement and suppression of indigenous culture, indigenous peoples are leaders in environmental knowledge worldwide. With the impending threat of climate change, when could revitalising indigenous languages be more important?

Australian indigenous languages in ‘deep sleep’

Strong cultural identity enables one to feel proud of themselves, and speaking and maintaining one’s language raises self-esteem and enables one to feel good about themselves. Traditional language is important for maintaining strong cultural connections. Where traditional languages have been taken away from communities, a sense of loss, grief and inadequacy develops. To keep communities and generations strong, traditional language being passed from one generation to another is vital.

Brooke Joy, descendant of Boandik people from the Mount Gambier region in South Australia

Before colonisation, more than 250 Indigenous languages existed, with more than 800 dialectal varieties, making Australia one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. But today, more than 90 per cent of those are considered endangered – or as some describe it, in a deep sleep. Data from the ABS in 2016 shows that while just one in ten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people speak an indigenous language at home, there are more than 150 Australian Indigenous languages still in use, demonstrating the continued linguistic diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. But as Jane Simpson points out:

Of [the 150 languages in use], only 13 traditional Indigenous languages are still spoken by children. It means that in 60 years’ time only 13 of Australia’s languages will be left, unless something is done now to encourage these children to keep speaking their language, and to encourage children from other language groups to start speaking their heritage languages.

This is particularly the case in urban areas: ABS data shows that more than 60 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people speak an indigenous language in the Northern Territory, but in states such as New South Wales and Victoria, this number drops to just 1 per cent.

Even within the top languages still being spoken, the number of speakers are tiny:

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Approximate number of speakers among top Indigenous Australian languages in use. (Image: AIC, with data sourced from The Conversation)

It’s important to note that these languages did not simply slip from existence, but were and continue to be actively silenced.

In 1964, linguist Arthur Capell wrote, “government policy looks forward to the loss of Aboriginal languages so that the Aborigines may be ‘assimilated’.” The Commonwealth Government banned Indigenous languages in schools at the time, and the forced separation Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families through the period of time known as the Stolen Generation ensured that languages could not be passed down to the next generation.

Lance Box of the Yipirinya School Council makes an important point on the interconnectedness of language, kinship and land: “If you take people away from country, they cannot conduct ceremony, and if they do not conduct ceremony, they cannot teach strong language. Ceremony is the cradle to grave, a delivery place for education for Indigenous people. If you do not have ceremony and you do not have language, then your kinship breaks down.”

Through the forced separation of community, and subsequent breakdown of traditions and loss of language, Indigenous Australians have lost access to a shared cultural memory, to the communities of which they are a part, and to their own sense of self – a trend that will continue unless we take action.

Indigenous languages: an important cultural resource

Benjamin Mitchell, NAIDOC Committee Co-Chair, points out that indigenous languages offer important cultural knowledge for not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, but for the Australian community as a whole: “The preservation and revitalisation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages – the original languages of this nation – is the preservation of priceless treasure, not just for Indigenous peoples, but for everyone.”

This is particularly the case given that there are certain concepts where there is no English equivalent, such as an indigenous phrase for the area of Bendigo in Victoria. Mishel McMahon of La Trobe University points out that the indigenous phrase translates to “upside-down land”, referencing Bendigo’s gold mine past. Each language, indigenous or not, is influenced by the culture and people who speak it, but the Bendigo example shows that indigenous languages offer rich understandings of Australia unparalleled in English.

The 2006 Garnaut Review into climate change showed that conceptions of health in Indigenous communities divert from Western understandings of health. For many Indigenous Australians, wellness of the body is connected to wellness of ‘country’ – a term to mean a place of ancestry, identity, livelihood and community connection – meaning that indigenous communities are closely attuned to changes in the land. Marine geographer Patrick Nunn and linguist Nicholas Reid believe that indigenous languages recount events of rising sea levels from 7,000 to 18,000 years ago, when the sea levels rose by 120 meters. The researchers highlight that while this happened across the globe, it’s only in Australia “that we’re finding this large canon of stories that are all faithfully telling the same thing”.

For them, this shows that oral history traditions could have significant implications. It’s clear also that Indigenous languages are repositories of transgenerational communication, transmitting important knowledge of historical events from one generation to another. In the context of wider conservation and disaster mitigation efforts worldwide, indigenous languages could (and should) play a much larger role.

Slivers of light have begun to creep through the altogether dismal state of indigenous languages in Australia: at the University of Sydney, students can study a Master of Indigenous Languages Education. At Charles Darwin University, there are degrees specifically focused on indigenous languages and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge. ABC’s ‘Word Up’ offers listeners the opportunity to learn an indigenous word a day, and communities across Australia have begun to ‘wake up’ languages such as Kaurna and Awabakal. There’s hope, but obstacles such as prejudice, resourcing and funding mean that there is still a long way to go.

Indonesia: a linguistically diverse archipelago

Indonesia, too, is losing the battle against preserving its linguistic diversity.

The national language, Bahasa Indonesia, (a modified version of Malay, literally meaning ‘the language of Indonesia’) emerged from a call to unify the country: ‘one motherland, one nation and one language’. At this time – at the birth of the independent republic – just 5 per cent of the population spoke the national language. Though Javanese formed the largest group of language speakers in Indonesia at this point in history, Indonesian served as a political tool to both cultivate a shared cultural identity, and as a way to communicate among vastly different linguistic groups.

Today, hundreds of languages are still in use, but Indonesian acts to bind together the massively multilingual archipelago.

Defining indigeneity in contemporary Indonesia

Indonesia is home to more than 260 million people comprised of 1,340 recognised ethnic groups, according to 2010 BPS data.

The term pribumi was conceived in reaction to the derogatory Dutch term ‘inlander’ to describe native Indonesians, and following independence was used as a way to discriminate predominantly against Chinese Indonesians. Today, the terms pribumi or penghuni asli translate to ‘original, native or indigenous inhabitant’ – echoing a common sentiment centred on the idea that ‘all Indonesians are indigenous’, which is to say (in its most basic form) that all Indonesians originate from Indonesia.

Fifty to 70 million of the total population are considered to be part of indigenous communities. These communities are referred to as ‘masyarakat adat’, or people who adhere to customary laws, but there is no real word in Bahasa Indonesia for these groups – highlighting the blurred boundaries around the category.

While there are similarities between the experiences of masyarakat adat and Indigenous Australians, Indonesia’s history of colonialism (and then of independence) has followed a very different path to Australia’s. Indigeneity is therefore defined and understood differently in Indonesia compared to Australia, including when it comes to thinking about the role of indigenous languages.

The combined multitude of different ethnic groups in Indonesia, including masyarakat adat, speak over 700 regional languages, and factors such as migration have led to the extinction of some languages, but also to the evolution of others. John McWhorter describes that new dialects emerge as different linguistic groups move around, using their mother tongue as a framework for speaking the regional language. This phenomenon is driven largely by the children of migrants, and McWhorter writes that because just one in four Indonesians speak Bahasa Indonesia as their first language, “the vernacular forms [of Bahasa Indonesia] tend to elide or simplify many of the rules laid down for the standard variety… there are now countless multi-ethnolect renditions of it throughout the vast Indonesian archipelago.”

Australian linguist James Sneddon adds to this, describing “‘modern Indonesian’ [as] a lively language used in different forms and variants”.

Indonesia’s endangered languages

According to 2010 census data, Javanese continues to represent the largest linguistic group in Indonesia, but 137 languages have less than 100,000 speakers, and are currently at threat of extinction.

Multamia Lauder, a linguist at Universitas Indonesia, also highlights that eight regional languages are dormant. “The languages still exist but they are not used for daily communication. They no longer have speakers but they are still used as languages used as identities of the people and for traditional ceremonies,” she explains.

Cornell University linguist Abby Cohn argues that though Javanese is still spoken by tens of millions of Indonesians, it too is at risk of extinction: “if the next generation isn’t learning a language, there will be a precipitous drop in the number of speakers.” What her research has found is that regional languages in Indonesia are not being passed from generation to generation as they did in the past, similar to patterns seen among immigrant populations in the US. She says, “they’re building a new national culture with Indonesian, and it’s pushing out the local languages, similar to the pattern we see with immigrant communities in the U.S.” While Cohn describes the spread of Indonesian as being a success story of language planning and policy, she also points out that this success presents a threat to the country’s linguistic diversity.

Setiono Sugiharto, linguist at Atma Jaya Catholic University, points out that through the promotion of Indonesian as the national language, “the social, economic and political interests of those speaking minority languages will eventually be sidelined”, especially when Indonesian is seen as being key to upward mobility.

Realistically, according to Cohn, the number of languages spoken in Indonesia will drop from 700 to around 50 in the next 50 to 100 years. This is particularly pronounced among groups of masyarakat adat, who are often pressured into speaking Indonesian through national policies.

The role of localised knowledge in disaster mitigation and response

Indigenous languages, rooted in culture and place, hold important knowledge, as Stanley Widianto observes through a study into how a regional language in Simeulue in West Aceh saved thousands of people during the 2004 and 2005 tsunamis. He describes how islanders called out “smong!” (the local word for tidal wave) across the area, spreading news of the tsunami. Researchers argued that this system worked when “even a high-tech warning system with a 15-minute response time would have been of no help.” During these disasters 150,000 people died, but in Simeulue, the number of people lost was seven – a fairly significant difference.

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PALU, INDONESIA – OCTOBER 09: Children read the Quran at a temporary shelter after the tsunami and earthquake on October 9, 2018 in Palu, Indonesia. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

The reason why this worked was because the indigenous people of this area have a strong sense of local learning, embedded in songs and stories. Localised knowledge of the 1907 tsunami, built into a song embedded within the concept of ‘smong’, meant that the people of this area followed the directions of the song: “When there’s a strong earthquake, followed by a low tide, don’t go near the coast to collect the fish on the shore, because there will be a [tsunami]. When that happens, run to the mountains to save yourselves. Take your kids, parents and women to run away from the beach. Yell out, ‘smong, smong’.”

Daryono, head of the earthquake information and early tsunami warning division at Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, argues that merging indigenous knowledge with modern disaster response systems could be a gamechanger, especially considering that the 2018 earthquake in Lombok, for example, cost upwards of AUD$500 million in damages. He says, “Our cultural inheritance could still be taught in middle or elementary schools.”

An Australia-Indonesia relationship that predates colonisation

Australia’s indigenous people could also be key to unlocking an important part of Australia and Indonesia’s shared history. As Gunditjmara man Richard Frankland describes, “the Makassans used to come to Australia… and they used to trade!” Leading a project between Australians and Indonesians, Richard Frankland brought together artists “from both sides of the water”, to explore ‘what was, what is, and what can be’ – specifically in relation to the Australia-Indonesia relationship that began with Indigenous Australians, and predates colonisation.

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The six artists at the centre of the Makassar-Yirrkala Artist Exchange Program in South Sulawesi: (left to right) Adi Gunawan, Muhammad Rais, Dion Marimunuk Gurruwiwi, Arian Pearson, Nurabdiansyah and Barayuwa Munuŋgurr. (Credit: AIC/Sophie Couchman)

Researchers have also identified that Australia’s first people may have travelled through Indonesia to Australia over 60,000 years ago, painting a picture of a much longer shared history between Australia and Indonesia. They say, “archaeologists have yet to explore most of Indonesia’s northern islands for human settlements predating the oldest sites found in Australia. These islands could hold the key to the mystery of how the first humans made it to Australia’s shores.”


All languages are unique; they act to form community, to construct our worldview, culture and history, and serve as the “repository of the cultural, intellectual and artistic life of [each] community”. The loss of a language closes off a window into a specific way of being in the world, closing off the specific knowledge contained within that language.

It’s true that languages are constantly evolving and and also falling out of use – consider the ancient languages of Etruscan and Basque civilisations as examples – but the loss of language is often political, particularly when it comes to the displacement, oppression and genocide of indigenous peoples in Australia and beyond. Language holds the key to unraveling who we are, and how we are connected to one another, and indigenous languages are an important cultural resource that offer a unique perspective that often goes unheard.

We have made some steps towards preserving our linguistic diversity in both Australia and Indonesia, but there is still much to be done.

This article is part of this month’s campaign exploring Indonesian language studies in Australia. The campaign aims to draw attention to the important role of language and cultural knowledge in the bilateral relationship, and also to celebrate those in the field of Indonesian language, such as our teachers and young people, as well as other cultural leaders who are pushing to close the gap between Australia and Indonesia via education.

For more in this series:

Jesse Kartomi Thomas is a non-Indigenous Australian. Her family is a mix of Australians and Indonesians, and her Indonesian family speak Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Jawa and Bahasa Sunda.