For tens of thousands of years before Cook’s voyage to Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people inhabited this land, speaking hundreds of different languages.

To Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, language is about more than communicating. It is critical to identity, place, people and culture.

During Cook’s voyage, the Endeavour crew recorded words from several languages across the Pacific. This included Dhurag and Dharawal words from the place Cook named Botany Bay and Guugu Yimithirr language words while the Endeavour was being repaired.

Loss of language

In the 250 years since Cook’s voyage, colonisation and various policies have had a great impact on the practice of language and culture.  In some instances, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were prevented from speaking their language and practicing their culture.

There are now only around 120 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages spoken with all them identified as endangered.

Keeping language alive

To put the spotlight on the importance of first languages globally, the United Nations declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

The Australian Government is a critical partner, supporting many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that are working to capture, revive and maintain their language.

First Languages Australia is the national body working with regional and local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups throughout Australia to capture and maintain languages.

This work includes developing an interactive map of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. The map is called Gambay, which means ‘together’ in the Butchulla language of the Hervey Bay region in Queensland.

As a first step in your language journey, explore Gambay. There you can learn how to pronounce the language of the land on which you live or hear from local custodians about their language work. 

Gambay is a living map that is growing through community contributions. Language custodians can add the pronunciation files on Gambay by contacting First Languages Australia at

Sharing language stories

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups are developing resources and activities to keep language alive. Many have partnered with First Languages Australia and the ABC to share place stories through a project titled This Place.

In partnership with the National Museum of Australia, for the anniversary of the Endeavour voyage, the This Place project has extended with a series called View from the Shore. Through these stories custodians have been sharing the traditional names and stories of places that Cook renamed on his journey. You can see these stories on the Endeavour Voyage website.

A growing collection of place stories is being collated on a placenames page on the Gambay map. Here communities are sharing the local names they would like used by the public into the future.

There are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups sharing their language. Language can be a bridge to reconciliation and provide a better understanding of people, place and histories. Keeping languages alive by developing resources and speaking language every day is important for current and future generations of Australians.