Language and Well-being – Is there a link?

Earlier this year (5th February, 2014), the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) released the results of the National Indigenous Languages Survey 2 (NILS 2) which was aimed at gathering information about a variety of issues pertaining to Australian languages. It focuses on their current health, the activities used to support Australian languages, the attitudes towards Australian languages,and the most effective language actions that can be taken to maintain language use.

The survey indicates that not only is language maintenance important to the retention of culture, but it is also closely linked to the view held by the majority of respondents that “connecting with and learning about language has a powerfully beneficial effect on people’s well-being” (AIATSIS, 2014). The report recommends that more research is necessary to explore a possible connection between language and identity/self-esteem. 

You can find more information on the story (and links to the AIATSIS report) at:

http://www.indigenous.gov.au/indigenous-languages-link-to-health-and-well-being

A great deal of research has been conducted on the importance of maintaining or revitalising a language in regards to the preservations of a society’s cultures and values. In 1797, Wilhelm von Humboldt argued that “language is the spiritual exhalation of the nation” (Cowan, 1963, p. 118, cited in Edwards, 2013), and many researchers hold this view today.

It is not only the loss of culture that is affected by a lack of communicative competence, but as suggested in the AIATSIS report, well-being and identity are influenced by language. Edwards (2013) states that identity is the manner in which an individual regards themselves or their group, or the way they are recognised or labelled by others. The potential loss of identity through language loss may have significant influences on an individual’s outlook on life.  Battiste (1998, as cited in Hallett, Chandler & Lalonde, 2007) argues that “the loss of any such indigenous language spells the end of another way of looking at the world, of explaining the unknown and of making sense of life.”

It is this “making sense of life” that can be linked to wellbeing. Research of Aboriginal societies in North America has indicated that lower suicide rates are connected to the ability to communicate in their Aboriginal language and that suicide rates can be up to six times higher for speakers without conversational knowledge of the language (Hallet, D., Chandler, M. & Lalond, C. 2007.) As suicide rates among Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been becoming increasingly prevalent (ABS, 2012), it is my personal view that more research needs to be done in the area of language and well-being in the context of the indigenous peoples of Australia.       

References

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2014). Community, identity, wellbeing: the report of the Second National Indigenous Languages Survey. Canberra, Australia: Marimon, D., Obata, K., & Troy, J.

Hallett, D., Chandler, M., & Lalonde, C. (2007). Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development, 22, 392-399.

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. Language and Identity (2013). Edwards, J. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal0599

 

Geoffrey Morris 13/08/2014

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