The scientific case for reviving Indigenous languages

The scientific case for reviving Indigenous languages

I’m sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the floor inside the Laundry Gallery, an art space and cultural hub in suburban Darwin, as women from the Bininj Kunwok Regional Language Centre introduce us to 20 key words in Kunwinjku.

Kunwinjku is one dialect of western Arnhem Land’s Bininj Kunwok language, which is classified as threatened by the Endangered Languages Project, due to the increased usage of English and Kriol (a new Aboriginal language spoken across northern Australia).

It’s our turn to introduce ourselves. “Ngaye ngangeyyo [my name is] Denise,” I stutter.

It’s a simple statement, spoken with (no doubt) mangled pronunciation – but still represents one small part of bigger efforts to maintain and revive fragile Indigenous languages.

Up to half of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing this century, says not-for-profit The Endangered Language Fund.

Locally, some of Australia’s 250 Indigenous languages, including 800 dialects, have been lost since colonisation, according to the National Archives of Australia.

But evidence is emerging that language use and revitalisation projects don’t just preserve history and culture – they may even protect the health of Indigenous people.

Research published late last year in the International Journal for Equity in Health reviewed 130 different publications which explored correlations between health outcomes and Indigenous language use in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.

Evidence is emerging that language use and revitalisation projects don’t just preserve history and culture – they may even protect the health of Indigenous people.

Led by Douglas Whalen, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Yale University, and founder and chair of The Endangered Language Fund, the team of six researchers looked at both quantitative and qualitative studies which considered health outcomes ranging from suicide and smoking to obesity and oral health.

“Indigenous populations across the world are more likely to suffer from poor health outcomes when compared to other racial and ethnic groups,” they wrote.

For instance, figures from Australia’s Department of Health and Aged Care showed the burden of disease for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was more than twice that of non-Indigenous Australians; their rates of psychological distress were also higher.

In addition, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was 8.6 years for males and 7.8 years for females.

The authors of the Health effects of Indigenous language use and revitalization: a realist review coded the effect of Indigenous language use on various health outcomes as either positive, neutral or negative.

About two-thirds of publications found a relationship between Indigenous language use and positive health outcomes; the remainder were split between neutral (16.6%) and negative (21.4%) effects.

The researchers ascribed the negative effects on health to strong correlations between Indigenous language use and confounding factors such as low socioeconomic status.

“Considering that poverty has a well-established negative influence on health, such an outcome is not surprising,” they wrote.

“What is surprising is that the majority of reviewed studies show a positive effect in health outcomes despite the correlation of language use with poverty.

“Thus, Indigenous language use could be a protective factor for health and well-being for those experiencing poverty.”

The results suggest the continued use or revitalisation of traditional languages could be a protective factor in the health of Indigenous people, and should be considered a cost-effective intervention to improve outcomes in multiple domains, the researchers said.

The largest proportion of positive studies in one area occurred for mental health and suicide prevention.

While the mechanisms underpinning the positive health effects are yet to be determined, the researchers nominated several plausible candidates, including increased social connections, increased sense of belonging, a return to traditional food, and increased physical activity related to traditional activities.

People sitting cross legged learning about aboriginal indigenous australian language
A workshop on Indigenous language at Laundry Gallery. Credit: NT Tourism.

“Future studies should work to collaborate with Indigenous culture keepers to learn about these (health promoting) mechanisms,” the authors said.

One of the studies included in this review examined the associations between Indigenous rangers, culture and wellbeing in Australia.

Indigenous ranger projects support Indigenous people to combine traditional knowledge with conservation training to protect and manage their land, sea and culture, according to the National Indigenous Australians Agency.

Published in 2021, the study used data from Mayi Kuwayu, a national longitudinal study of culture, health and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and was conducted by researchers at the Australian National University.

The researchers compared past or present rangers with non-rangers in both Central and non-Central Australia on a range of wellbeing outcomes.

They found that ranger participation was significantly associated with very high life satisfaction and family wellbeing in both locations.

These results strengthen evidence of associations between ranger work and wellbeing among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and demonstrate the relationships are partially mediated by participants’ use of Aboriginal language and maintaining their connection to country, the authors noted.

They said the findings support the importance of the ranger program beyond the employment, economic and environmental benefits of ranger work.

“Australia has the oldest continuously living cultures in the world. It’s the most unique thing about us as a continent and a destination”

“Ranger work is not only good for land, but it is good for people,” they added.

“As such, determining policies that mutually acknowledge and enhance culture, health and wellbeing will likely have additional benefits for the broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.”

The jubilation which greeted the reinstatement of Queensland’s Fraser Island to its traditional name of K’gari further demonstrates the significance of Indigenous people’s cultural ties to the land, and the impact of having these recognised.

Gaining UNESCO World Heritage Area status in 1992, K’gari, located off Queensland’s south-eastern coast, the 123km-long island was formed from sand accumulation over 750,000 years – becoming the world’s largest sand island.

In traditional Butchulla culture, the island holds immense history in its lakes, waterways, coastline, skies and rainforest.

Dr Rose Barrowcliffe, a Post Doctoral Research Fellow and Butchulla woman, explained the importance of returning the original place name.

“For us, in West Arnhem Land, we’re still got our language going on, but when we hear of other places where the language is gone, it’s very sad,”

“Australia has the oldest continuously living cultures in the world. It’s the most unique thing about us as a continent and a destination,” she said in a statement.

“So, by honouring Indigenous cultures and using place names, we are raising up the culture and saying we are proud of it. And we are showcasing a unique part of our offering to the world.”

Back at the Bininj Kunwok Regional Language Centre, established in the Northern Territory in 2018, Kunwinjku lessons are just the beginning of what’s on offer.

The Centre also delivers translating and interpreting services, creates reference materials such as field guides and online dictionaries, and creates and shares audiovisual media in Bininj Kunwok and other languages spoken in Kakadu, western and central Arnhem Land.

Jill Nganjmirra, the centre’s chair, says the loss of so many Indigenous languages to date serves as a constant reminder of the importance of this work.

“For us, in West Arnhem Land, we’re still got our language going on, but when we hear of other places where the language is gone, it’s very sad,” she said in an interview.

One of the Centre’s language workers, Dell Hunter, says that keeping traditional languages alive helps maintain connections to culture, country and ancestors.

As a translator and teacher who speaks several languages, including Kunwinjku (Gunbalanya and outstations) and Kundjeyhmi (from Jabiru and Kakadu), she says she wants to transmit this knowledge – and its intangible benefits – to younger generations.

Doing this work, says Hunter, “makes me really happy and proud.”

Denise Cullen participated in the language workshop as a guest of NT Tourism.

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