Many recent studies have demonstrated that speaking more than one language offers multiple benefits. It strengthens cognitive functions, benefits neuroplasticity and may help prevent diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
But a group of linguists and health researchers in South Australia hope to take these findings into new territory, by establishing a correlation between language ‘reclamation’ or ‘resurrection’ and the wellbeing of the Barngarla people.
“The hypothesis is that language reclamation results in mental health empowerment,” explains Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide.
According to Prof Zuckermann, the only related research that provided quantitative data about the relationship between language loss and youth suicide was undertaken in 2007 in Canada that studied tribes that had experienced severe language loss and presented more cases of youth suicide.
“I began reading all the literature that had been written about language loss and mental health [problems], but there was nothing written about language revival and wellbeing… Linking language gain and improved mental health.”
After identifying this gap, Prof Zuckermann contacted Professor Alex Brown, Aboriginal Health Theme Leader from the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI). Together they applied for a National Health and Medical Research Committee (NHMRC) grant and received more than $1.1 million to explore the effects of Indigenous language reclamation on social and emotional wellbeing.
“In Aboriginal communities, when you feel better, when you have a language, when you perform things [customs, rituals] to ‘re-feel’ your Great grandparents, you feel healthier in your mind and also healthier in your body,” Prof Zuckermann says.
The study hopes to bring together a science-based methodology with a more holistic approach to health.
“Diabetes is just about how fat a person is, it’s just a matter of weight. Wellbeing research is beyond the specific sugar level and kidney failure,” he explains.
“Linguicide or language killing results in loss of cultural autonomy. It results in loss of intellectual sovereignty. It results in loss of spirituality, loss of soul, metaphorically speaking… This results in depression, in overweight, in diabetes…”
"It builds a sense of pride and belonging. It’s multifaceted. Like my mother. She’d lost her language she’s come to a couple of the classes and all of a sudden she’s started to find that there were words there. It’s quite emotional. The language that she’d lost, it’s coming all back out!”
Prof Zuckermann and Prof Brown hope their research will ultimately present the government with facts demonstrating how language revitalization could lower cases of incarceration, lower cases of youth mental health-related hospital admissions, and improve general health, school grades and performance, as well as higher scores results in psychological tests.
“We have a committee of psychiatrists… Almost all the people involved are Aboriginal people,” Prof Zuckermann explains.
“The research has two main aspects: language revival, which I’m responsible for… The other side is led by Prof Alex Brown. He will be in charge of the wellbeing assessments. From time to time, there will be a committee of people, including psychiatrists, psychologists, health assessors, etc.”
The researchers have emphasized that the study will be conducted ethically. Only Aboriginal people who consent will take part.
How it all started: Waking the Eyre Peninsula’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’
Six years ago, Prof Zuckermann decided to find a specific language and a specific community, and ask them if they would be interested in reclaiming their ‘sleeping beauty’ or their ‘dreaming beauty’, the term he uses to refer to a language ‘killed by colonization’. Since then, he’s spent years reviving and teaching Barngarla, a language that was widely spoken until the 1960s in various Aboriginal communities across the Eyre Peninsula, but died as a result of the Stolen Generations.
“I asked them, would you like to reclaim your language? They said, ‘we’ve been waiting for you for 50 years’”.
After their first meeting, members of the community formed the Barngarla Language Advisory Committee (BLAC), to set the direction of how they would go about reclaiming their language.
BLAC Chairperson, Stephen Atkinson, told NITV News Prof Zuckermann’s offer was welcome from the very beginning.
“I was a little skeptical, but I was very interested from the start. My mother had lost that language she spoke almost fluently as a child, and then she was taken away and put in a children’s home in Port Augusta and wasn’t allowed to speak her language. Children got flogged for speaking their language.
“It impacted on me because I grew up in Melbourne away from my mother’s people and language and not hearing language being spoken.”
After receiving the green light from community, Prof Zuckermann began the process of reclaiming the Barngarla language. First, he reconstructed the language’s grammatical structures and compiled a list of three thousand words from a Barngarla dictionary written in 1844 by a Lutheran missionary. Then, he began teaching Barngarla language workshops in Port Lincoln, Port Augusta and Whyalla.
The irony of using a dictionary written 170 years ago by a Christian missionary to reclaim a dead Aboriginal language is not lost on Prof Zuckermann. He told NITV News: “The original reason the dictionary was written was to Christianize. We didn’t use it to Christianise; we used it to ‘Aboriginalise’.
“It’s a beautiful way to righting the wrong of the past.”
Prof Zuckermann first came up with the hypothesis that there was a link between language reclamation and wellbeing after seeing the positive effects learning Barngarla had on his students.
“The evidence at that stage was qualitative, rather than quantitative… I discovered that people felt better about themselves while learning their heritage language.
“I remember receiving emails saying, ‘it gives me a sense of identity’. ‘I feel better about myself and my family’. People said, ‘it’s liberating’. And then I received a Facebook message saying, ‘our ancestors are happy’. So, it’s a kind of beautiful, historical, very profound way of expressing empowerment.”
Stephen Atkinson has also seen how children in his community feel pride when they speak the language of their ancestors.
“It gives you identity. It gives you a connection with those who have come before you. You start to learn names of sites and land features. You start to understand part of their mindset,” he says.
Mr Atkinson has no doubt his community has benefitted from the experiment so far, and hopes Prof Zuckermann’s and Prof Brown’s research will be able to scientifically prove their hypothesis in the coming years.
“I think the links are there; I’ve seen it myself. It builds a sense of pride and belonging. It’s multifaceted. Like my mother. She’d lost her language she’s come to a couple of the classes and all of a sudden she’s started to find that there were words there. It’s quite emotional. The language that she’d lost, it’s coming all back out!”
Ancient languages, new tech and a new world order
In December 2016, BLAC and Prof Zuckermann launched the Barngarla Dictionary app, as a means to ensure their work is accessible to generations to come.
All recordings done for the app were voiced by Bargarla people.
“We used technology in order to undo what technology did, which was to destroy Aboriginal culture,” Prof Zuckermann says.
For him, ‘revitalistics’, the new field that combines linguistics and revitalization, has the potential to help people all over the world.
As of January 2017, the online Barngarla study course already had over 7200 students.
“Barngarla people have already helped people in South America and Canada, and they don’t even know about it.
“These students learn about Steven Atkinson, who is a Barngarla person. He doesn’t even know there is a person in Argentina who actually looks at Steven’s mother and analyses why she was stolen,” Prof Zuckermann explains.
“This is why revitalistics goes far beyond Australia. My vision is to turn Australia from being the world’s [number one] ‘linguicider’, to the world’s language life-giver.”