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Wangka Maya's Language Work


The work of Wangka Maya Language Centre is to record, analyse, transcribe and preserve records of the Pilbara’s Indigenous languages and to promote the use of languages.


The centre was ratified by the Commission of Elders as the Pilbara Aboriginal language centre. It has continued this essential work for the past 24 years and is now a nationally recognised leader in the collection and preservation of Pilbara languages.


Wangka Maya promotes the use of a standardised spelling system and in 2011 published How to Read and Write Pilbara Languages, which features a spelling chart for each language and pronunciation guide.


The linguistic work of Wangka Maya is guided by an inventory of languages conducted in 1988 and updated in 2004 and 2010. This Pilbara Language Inventory takes into account the estimated number of speakers of a language and a variety of social and cultural issues which influence the life span of the language. Those languages classified as ‘critically endangered’ were the initial focus of Wangka Maya’s work. Today that focus extends to all Pilbara languages.

Wangka Maya aims to record as much of the languages as possible and to develop essential resources such as dictionaries, grammar documents, stories, maps, videos and recordings for all languages.


There is an increasing focus in Wangka Maya’s work to create resources that can be used in school languages programs, in the media and through the wider community. This work will take many years and may involve development of resources suitable for the relearning of lost languages.


The State of Pilbara Aboriginal Languages

All Pilbara Indigenous languages are endangered due to the use of the English language and the issues around the settlement of Australia by English speakers. Of the thirty-one languages traditionally used in the Pilbara, seven of those are extinct in that there is not a single speaker of the language.


Language Status Categories

The UNESCO categories used to assess a language’s status are explained below.


Extinct Languages

Languages classed as extinct do not have any speakers. Aboriginal people may identify as being from that language group and may speak some words and phrases. Languages in the Pilbara region classed as extinct include Jiwarli, Thiin, Burduna, Yaburarra, Jurruru and Nhuwala.


Critically Endangered languages

Languages classed as critically endangered have less than 10 elderly speakers and very few or no middle aged or younger speakers. It is expected that these languages will most likely become extinct within the next 20 years. Languages in the Pilbara region classed as critically endangered include Binigura, Yinhawangka and Putijarra.


Severely Endangered Languages

Severely endangered languages have few speakers, mostly of the grandparent or parent generation. There may be larger numbers of people who identify as being from that language group but who do not speak the language, or speak very little of it. Very few children, if any, are speaking these languages as a mother tongue. Most people from that language group also speak English or another language between themselves. It is estimated that these languages could become extinct in as little as fifty years. Languages of the Pilbara which fall into this category include Banyjima and Karajarri.


Definitely Endangered Languages

Definitely endangered languages have less than one hundred speakers mostly from the parental generation. Languages of the Pilbara which fall into this category are Ngarluma, Nyamal, Nyiyaparli and Warnman.


Unsafe Languages

Languages classed as being unsafe are still being taught to children as a mother tongue and are used as the language of communication amongst their speech community. These speech communities number from between 100 and a thousand people. The language appears healthy but is under threat from the use of English in a period of between 50 and 100 years time. Languages in the Pilbara that are classed as under threat include Nyangumarta and Martu Wangka.