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Language and communication

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.

Source: Brooke Joy, Boandik descendant (cited in Marmion, Obata, & Troy, 2014).

Although English is Australia’s accepted language, for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (especially for those from the remote regions), English is a second or third language.

There is no universal Aboriginal language. Each nation has its own distinct language and/or dialect. (Remember the maps at the beginning of this practice kit?)

In some areas, ‘Aboriginal English’ may be spoken. While this is a version of English, there are often slight differences in pronunciation and grammatical structure, which may make it difficult for you to understand at first.

As mentioned previously, we cannot assume that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can speak, understand and read Standard Australian English. People may nod in what appears to be agreement or understanding, when in fact they are just being polite.

It is your responsibility as a practitioner to ensure that the people you are working with understand what you are saying and understand what is happening.

There may be times when you need to access a culturally appropriate interpreter.


In communicating with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:

  • speak clearly
  • do not assume they will understand Australian English
  • think about the language and communication used (written, verbal and non-verbal). Use simple English and avoid acronyms or jargon
  • be aware that words might have different meanings in different communities
  • do not assume that people are literate. Sensitively ask if they would like help
  • access a cultural interpreter when it is appropriate
  • respect the use of silence and don’t mistake it for misunderstanding a topic or issue
  • don’t mimic Aboriginal speech patterns or attempt to speak ‘Aboriginal English’ as a way of encouraging an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person to be more open
  • always wait your turn to speak
  • do not assume that people nodding means that they agree or even understand
  • do not continually ask a person to repeat themselves if it is difficult to understand them, especially in front of a large group
  • be aware that swear words may be a part of accepted conversation
  • always consult with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander staff/people if unsure.

Aboriginal English is spoken by many Aboriginal people throughout Australia. While there is commonality with Australian English, accent, grammar, words, meanings and language use will differentiate Aboriginal English (or ‘lingo’) from Australian English and slang.

There are also similarities between Aboriginal English and traditional Aboriginal languages. Just as similarities between traditional Aboriginal languages and dialects vary between areas, the use and meaning of Aboriginal English also varies according to geographic location.

These are some of the common words you may hear used by many Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples:

Aboriginal English Standard Australian English
Country Land, home
Mob Family, kin, group of people
Grow [a child] up Raise [a child]
Growl Scold, chastise
Gammon Pretending, kidding, joking
Cheeky Mischievous, aggressive, dangerous
Deadly Fantastic, great, awesome
Shame Embarrass, humiliate (see section on Shame)
Tidda girl Female friend, best friend, peer
Sista/sister girl

Female friend, cousin, peer

(Could also refer to a male to female transgender person)
Brotha/brother boy

Male friend, cousin, peer

(Could also refer to a female to male transgender person)
Gunja, yaandii Marijuana
Gubba/migaloo Non-Aboriginal/white person
Charge-up, charge Drink alcohol
Bully man Policeman
Durri (durry) Cigarette, smoke


Note: This list is not exhaustive. Take the time to learn what words are used in your area.

Pronunciation or accent is a fundamental differentiation of Aboriginal English from Standard Australian English. Even though the words used have the same meaning, some Aboriginal people tend to pronounce words and letters differently. Letters are overcompensated, left out or substituted. (See following example tables)

Aboriginal English Standard Australian English
They wait longa river. They wait along the river.
They frighten o doctor. They are frightened of the doctor.



Do not imitate Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander speech patterns or assume people will be more open with you if you attempt to speak their language with them.

The differences between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander non-verbal communication and that of other cultures provide additional scope for misinterpretations. (Non-verbal communication includes hand and facial gestures, eye contact and silence.)

If there are concerns about misinterpreting non-verbal communication, clarify by rephrasing the question or repeating the non-verbal response back using verbal language. For example, if you ask a person how many children they have and they hold up three fingers, clarify by asking ‘So you have three children; is that right?’

Be sensitive to the use of nonverbal communication cues that are a part of Aboriginal communication patterns. The use of silence does not mean Aboriginal people do not understand. They may be listening, remaining non-committal, or waiting for community support. During discussions, Aboriginal people may delay expressing a firm opinion, preferring to listen to others’ opinions first before offering their own.

If you are working with people who have limited literacy and numeracy skills, it may be necessary to provide assistance with completing forms, reading information and writing statements. It is important to approach this sensitively and not cause embarrassment or shame to the person by asking them whether they can read or write.

When the time comes for the person to read or write something, ask them if they would like you help or read it out for them, or who they would like to look over the paperwork with (such as a relative or community member). In most cases the person will ask for assistance if they need it, as long as the topic has been approached with sensitivity and respect.

To understand more about language, watch the Who We Are: Culture video from Reconciliation Australia.

The power of your words

Use respectful language when describing or referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures and using words associated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, cultures and peoples.

Language is so powerful in our work with families, through our conversations and when writing material.  We need to choose our words carefully and be mindful that what is considered respectful may vary across cultures. It is important to use respectful language in every interaction with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, when describing or using words to refer to people, communities or cultures.


What’s respectful is determined as much by who’s delivering the message—man, woman, Elder or younger person, traditional owner, a non-Indigenous person—as it is by who’s receiving it. It’s not just the message, it’s not just the way you deliver it, or the way you package it or the words used, and it’s also about who delivers it and in what context.

Uncle Chris, departmental and community Elder, Respectful Language Guide, 2016

It is always best to check with and seek advice from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders you are partnering with.

Considering your words when speaking and documenting

The words we use to describe Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children, young people and families matter. The Queensland Government has developed a Respectful Language Guide that will assist you with this.

Note that before using the term ‘Indigenous Australians’ or ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’:

  • it’s best to find out what individuals prefer to be called, rather than making assumptions
  • while the term ‘Indigenous Australian’ is often used to encompass both Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not like to be referred to as ‘Indigenous’ as the term is considered too generic.

In line with the Child Safety Framework for Practice, we should use strengths-based language in all our interactions. This type of language identifies opportunities to highlight and promote the existing strengths and capabilities of an individual to face a problem or concern. This is in contrast to focusing on the problem or concern and how the individual is coping.

The underlying impetus is a belief in the possibility of change and an acknowledgment that people can be resourceful and a part of their own change, but it does not mean the problem or concern is not considered.

This is usually done by using questioning strategies that attempt to identify ‘what works’ for the person and ‘how it works’, so we can focus on developing these further.

When working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it is important to identify the collective strengths and capabilities of the network around the person as well, as those strengths and capabilities are shared with the person with whom you are working.

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