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Australia Showcases Diverse Indigenous Languages

FILE - Two Aboriginal performers painted in traditional colors play the Didjiridoo aboriginal instrument at the launch of the Festival of the Dreaming in Sydney, July 22, 1997.

A new project is celebrating the linguistic culture of Australia's Aboriginal communities by working to introduce Australians to everyday words and phrases from hundreds of Indigenous languages.

The 50 Words Project is an interactive online language map. Words and phrases from across the continent are brought to life with recordings from Indigenous speakers. It is run by the University of Melbourne's Research Unit for Indigenous Language and aims to maintain linguistic and cultural heritage.

Jill Vaughan from the academic unit says she hopes it will help more Australians understand rich linguistic traditions.

"It is, unfortunately, quite a common misconception that there is only one Indigenous Australian language, when, in fact, there are hundreds of languages, each with thousands and thousands of words," she said. "It is also the case that for some Australians, they assume that Indigenous languages are just a relic of the past, and this isn't the case at all."

Researchers say the sounds used in Australia's Indigenous languages are very similar across the country. Neighboring communities, however, can have very different words for the same things.

Some Indigenous languages in Australia have faded away since European colonization, while others are spoken by just a handful of people and are considered critically endangered. Until the 1970s, government policies banned and discouraged Aboriginal people from speaking their mother tongues.

Indigenous communities consider languages to be living things that connect people to their land, culture and the spirits of their ancestors.

Aboriginal history in Australia dates back up to 65,000 years. Indigenous people make up about 3% of the national population of 25 million.