Withering Words: Australia and Oceania's Endangered Languages

Travel Features Australia
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As I write this, there are more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth. Despite efforts being made by National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project and the Living Tongues Institute, linguists predict that nearly half of those will disappear within the next century as they give way to global languages, like English and Mandarin, which afford greater opportunities to speakers.

If you’re keen on listening to these languages at the source before they disappear, you’ll need to do some planning but the payoff may be worth it; many of these languages are spoken in the world’s least hospitable but most breathtaking places. We put together a guide to some of these destinations and what to see while you’re there—if you can reach them.

Our Endangered Languages series will cover seven destinations and countless languages over the next three weeks. We started with The Americas and have now moved onto Australia and Oceania.

1. “Top End,” Northern Territory, Australia

Language: Nauiyu Nambiyu, spoken in the remote Daly River community, is one of the final traces of the Aboriginal Australian cultures that date back some 50,000 years.

What it’s known for: Daly River was settled on the Aboriginal community of Nauiyu, which as of 2006 has a population of less than 500. The river itself is famed for its large barramundi. It hosts two annual fishing competitions, the Barra Classic and the Barra Nationals. It is also home to more freshwater turtle species than anywhere else in Australia.

What to see: Daly River is close to the Hyland Bay and Moyle Floodplain, an important habitat for water birds. The nearby Daly River Nature Park is a great place to see a spectrum of wildlife, including saltwater crocodiles, wild pigs, and water buffalo.

If you have the time, head south to Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock), a 700 million-year-old sandstone monolith, and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) National Park, which comprises 36 red-rock domes. The formations are sacred to the local Aboriginal peoples.

2. Papua New Guinea

Getting there: Daly River is about 250 miles southwest of the capital city, Darwin, and is accessible by car via Daly River Road. However, floods often obscure the road during the wet season, when access is only possible by private or emergency aircraft or coastal barge.

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Language: With 830 languages identified thus far, Papua New Guinea has the greatest concentration of languages on Earth. Madang Province is the greatest example of this: roughly 200 languages are spoken there alone.

What it’s known for: With only 18 percent of its population living in cities, most of the island’s population still lives in traditional tribal communities, making the island nation largely undeveloped and untainted by tourism. Papua New Guinea remains one of the world’s least explored places and grows flora and fauna that have yet to be documented. Due to its position on the Pacific Ring of Fire, at the collision point of several tectonic plates, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis are common.

What to see: From dense rainforests and exotic wildlife to mountain ranges and volcanoes, Papua New Guinea is one of the most diverse places on earth. 

On the island’s easternmost tip, the Papuan Peninsula — also known as the Bird’s Tail — is dominated by the mountains, of which the 60-mile Kokoda Track attracts thrill-seekers for trekking and mountain climbing. On the southern coast, Port Moresby is the country’s capital and largest city. Strictly preserved reef walls and ship wrecks just miles from the shoreline make the port one of the world’s best diving destinations

Getting there: Fly into Jacksons International Airport, which serves the capital, Port Moresby. Transport in Papua New Guinea is limited by the country’s mountainous terrain and most villages can only be reached by light aircraft or on foot.

Christina is a beach kid living in Brooklyn and a world traveler on a budget. She writes about food, style, travel—and the occasional short story.