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Language breathes life (article) 7.82 MB

Traditional languages are a key element of Indigenous peoples’ identity, cultural expression, autonomy, spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and wellbeing. While the links between Indigenous language loss and poor mental health have been demonstrated in several settings, little research has sought to identify the potential psychological benefits that may derive from language reclamation. The revival of the Barngarla language on the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, offers a unique opportunity to examine whether improvements in mental health and social and emotional wellbeing can occur during and following the language reclamation process. This paper presents findings from 16 semi-structured interviews conducted with Barngarla community members describing their own experienced or observed mental health and wellbeing impacts of language reclamation activities.

Language is central to culture, and its loss is a source of grief for many. The main purpose of the Barngarla Language and Wellbeing Study is to assess the effectiveness of language revival in improving the mental health and social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal people across Eyre Peninsula. 

Key Findings:

  • Traditional languages are a key element of Indigenous peoples’ identity, cultural expression, autonomy, and spiritual and intellectual sovereignty. As such, they are vital to wellbeing. However, for many Indigenous peoples globally, the processes of colonisation have involved the systematic separation of people from their languages. Linguicide (language killing) and glottophagy (language eating) have been in operation in Australia since the early colonial period, when efforts were made to prevent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from continuing to speak their languages in order to “civilize” them.
  • The link between language loss and poor mental health has been demonstrated in a number of settings. In Australia, language loss has been shown to have negative impacts, with high levels of acculturative stress seen in children living in regional centres where language loss was occurring.
  • Key outcomes of the study as a whole will include: the first formal test of a causal relationship between language revival and mental health; establishing community-based methods for evaluating mental health interventions; and an innovative wellbeing intervention in high-risk communities.
  • This will also provide a model for language revival for use in other Indigenous communities. If the hypothesis is supported, we will have gained a powerful, novel tool in improving mental health in high risk communities.
  •  The research's findings suggest that language reclamation can create flow-on effects at a community level. Participants in our study reflected on how language activities within the community both had shifted negativity and acted as a “reconciliation tool”.

Aligning with a social and emotional wellbeing framework from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective, key themes included connection to spirituality and ancestors; connection to Country; connection to culture; connection to community; connection to family and kinship; connection to mind and emotions; and impacts upon identity and cultural pride at an individual level. These themes will form the foundation of assessment of the impacts of language reclamation in future stages of the project.

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