A Record of Study in Aboriginal American Languages

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Australian languages

Where this language came from, how old it is, and how it spread, has been something of a puzzle. Our research, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution , suggests the family arose just under 6, years ago around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. Our findings suggest this language family spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate.

Our research adds further evidence to Australia pre being a dynamic place, where people moved and adapted to a changing land. We used data from changes in several hundred words in different languages from the Pama-Nyungan family to build up a tree of languages, using a computer model adapted from those used originally to trace virus outbreaks. Because our models make estimates of the time that it takes for words to change, as well as how words in Pama-Nyungan languages are related to one another, we can use those changes to estimate the age of the family.

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We found clear support for the origin of Pama-Nyungan just under 6, years ago in an area around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. We found no support for the theories that Pama-Nyungan spread earlier.

The timing of this expansion is consistent with a theory that increasingly unstable conditions caused groups of people to fragment and spread. But correlation is not causation: just because two patterns appear related, it does not mean that one caused the other. In this case, however, we have other evidence that access to ecological resources has shaped how people migrated.

We found that, in our model, groups of people moved more slowly near the coast and major waterways, and faster across deserts. This implies that populations increase where food and water are plentiful, and then spread out and fissure when resources are harder to obtain. You can see a simulated expansion here. Where traditional languages have been taken away from communities, a sense of loss, grief and inadequacy develops.

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To keep communities and generations strong, traditional language being passed from one generation to another is vital. We have a range of activities throughout the year to celebrate and recognise the diversity of Australian Indigenous languages and their importance in supporting cultural resurgence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and shaping our national identity. You can find more information about our activities on our International Year of Indigenous Languages event page.

Language is more than just a means to communicate, it is an essential characteristic that makes people and communities unique, and plays a central role in a sense of identity.


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Language also carries meaning beyond the words themselves, and is an important platform within which much cultural knowledge and heritage is passed on. Speaking and learning traditional languages improves the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, by providing a sense of belonging and empowerment.


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  • Educational outcomes improve when children are taught in their first language, especially in the early years. Interpreting and translating, language teaching and learning, and producing resources in Indigenous Australian languages provide significant economic, social and intrinsic benefits to individuals and communities. This includes:. Today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia are speaking out about the need to maintain, preserve and strengthen Indigenous Australian languages.

    There is currently a wave of activity, with people in many communities working to learn more about their languages, and to ensure they are passed on to the next generation.

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    AIATSIS has a long proud history in supporting language documentation since , and is today a national leader in the collection, documentation, preservation, research and revival of Australian Indigenous languages. We hold the world's largest collection dedicated to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories, over one-million items.

    Naturally many of the items feature Australian Indigenous languages. What is NAMA?

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    The specialized nature of this degree focuses on indigenous languages and meeting the needs of Native American communities: due to the rapid decline in the use of heritage languages tribal communities have pressed for practical linguistic training to: revitalize, maintain, and document indigenous languages; provide skills and expertise for Native American linguists to develop teaching grammars and other educational materials; promote understanding of indigenous peoples' educational issues at every level of policy making; enhance and promote understanding of complex factors leading to language choice, language shift and language loss, and; work with archival media such as audio legacy audio recordings and historical documents to enrich the language record and to produce viable teaching materials We are also open to other community-oriented objectives and projects.

    What do studies include? What can you do with a NAMA degree? There are two major requirements in order to be admitted to the NAMA program: An undergraduate degree: this can be in any field of study, and should be awarded by the start date of the NAMA program.


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    Previous experience or studies in their own native language as a second language or being a native speaker of a native language. The majority of NAMA applicants are non-traditional students who come from diverse educational backgrounds and life experiences. As such, there is no ideal age limit: many students who wish to undertake our program have already had careers in other areas. We encourage older students to apply.