In writing this blog I pay my respects to the Elders past and present and the emerging leaders of the future. I recognise and acknowledge the Gumbaynggirr people upon whose land I reside, who have cared for and been the guardians of the lands, rivers, mountains, and ocean for thousands of generations.
The importance of ancestral language is crucial to the wellbeing of whole cultures, to individuals, and to all aspects of human endeavour. Yet, to European colonisers this was not recognised, with many indigenous languages throughout the world having been outlawed, decimated, and often exterminated. The dominant culture of the country I now live in (Australia,) and that of the land of my birth (Aotearoa/New Zealand,) introduced the English language and made that the official language of each country. As a boy growing up in Aotearoa I recall being told by teachers, family members, and officials, that Māori (the indigenous people, and language, of Aotearoa) was dying out, and that it was pointless learning the language because it would have no relevance in the coming years.
Coincidentally, wherever in the world the colonising powers dismantled the indigenous language the health of the First Nations peoples inevitably suffered. Still, today the health of indigenous peoples, whether in North America, Australia, Aotearoa, or the Pacific Islands, lags well behind that of non-indigenous residents of those same countries.
Beginning in the second half of the 20th century many indigenous languages began to be revitalised. The Welsh example is commonly referenced.
As far back as 1563, the Act of Union under Henry VIII saw Wales governed solely by English law and the use of the Welsh language in courts and other government offices banned. By 1961 only one-in-four Welsh people could converse in the Welsh language, although some pockets of high numbers of speakers did remain.
From 1925 onwards though, a number of events took place that led to todays’ significant revival of the language. The Welsh political party (Plaid Cymru) was founded in 1925 with the promotion of the Welsh language being its primary focus. In 1936 the British government attempted to set up a RAF training camp at Penyberth. The locals were incensed, and the resulting protest became known as Tân yn Llŷn (Fire in Llŷn) after the peninsular on which the camp was to be cited. One of the protesters wrote that the British government intended turning ‘essential homes of Welsh culture, idiom, and literature" into a place for promoting a barbaric method of warfare.’
Three decades later the flooding of the Tryweryn valley to create a reservoir to supply Liverpool created tensions around forced removal of locals and the destruction of the valley. Graffiti proclaiming Cofiwch Dryweryn ('Remember Tryweryn') could be seen in many surrounding locations – always written in the Welsh language. These events, and others, kept alive local aspirations to retain language and culture. In 2011 the Welsh language was granted official status for the first time in four and a half centuries. Notwithstanding this, concerns around its health remain, with possibly less than 20% of the population speaking Welsh.
In the land of my birth, the Māori language was banned and those speaking it at school punished for doing so. However, since the 1970s a revitalisation has taken place, kindled primarily by the establishment of pre-school language nests (Kohanga Reo) in the early 1980s. In 1987 an Act of Parliament established Māori as an official language of the country.
Although the number of people stating that they are able to hold a conversation in Māori remains low, there are many young people who are now growing up bilingual. In 2017 Rotorua (the city in which I was born) became the first city in Aotearoa to declare itself bilingual, so that both Māori and English would be promoted.
In the city in which I now live (Coffs Harbour) the Gumbaynggirr Giingana Freedom School opened its doors (although in reality, a lot of the learning takes place on country rather than indoors) in early 2022. The school is the first (and presently the only) bilingual Aboriginal language school in New South Wales. The vision of the school is to be ‘Strong in: language, culture, purpose, identity, motivation, and education.’
This vision fits neatly into the theme of Aboriginal Language Week – ‘Languages Alive, Culture Thrives.’
When cultures thrive, the well-being of the cultures members also flourish.
Culture and Health Thrives
A recent review of research attests to this statement.1 Although many of the revitalisation efforts world-wide are aimed at language promotion and use, a number of other benefits also accrue, including health benefits. The authors of this study summarised their conclusions by stating that, ‘The published literature supports the hypothesis that active use or learning of an Indigenous language has positive health benefits.’
Two aspects of health that showed exceptional health benefit were those of mental health and suicide prevention. In these two areas, around 80% of research programs showed a positive effect of language revitalisation.
What is worthy of further note in this review is that use of Indigenous language has positive benefit, regardless of proficiency level.
Nature Thrives Too
When Indigenous language comes alive, cultures thrive – and so too does the natural world in which we live.
Indigenous cultures have co-evolved with the animals, plants, rocks, rivers, insects, mountains, and oceans of their place. In that time such cultures have come to intimately connect with those places and to learn their ways. Indigenous languages have spoken of these connections for hundreds of generations. Within the languages there is a wealth of knowledge, recognition, and wisdom about place.
When Indigenous languages get lost or destroyed then the knowledge of the natural relationships also get lost or destroyed.
Additionally, Indigenous languages not only provide knowledge about nature, but also offer us a different way of thinking about nature.
For example, Galina Angarova, a Buryat woman living beside Lake Baikal in south-east Siberia, explains that her language (Bargu-Buryat, a variety of the Mongolian languages) has no word for environment.2 In the Bargu-Buryat language one word has the meaning of state of being (or self) and the environment. Galina describes how this single word ‘signifies a unity and non-separation between a human and their environment.’
Far from being of no value, Indigenous languages are vitally important for individual and community well-being, as well as being essential in the preservation of the planet’s natural biodiversity.
1. Whalen et al., Health effects of Indigenous language use and revitalisation; a realist review, in International Journal for Equity in Health, (2022) 21:1692. Galina Angarova is the Executive Director of Cultural Survival, an NGO that has been advocating for Indigenous people’s self-determination, culture, and political resilience world-wide since 1972. Listen here to a podcast with Galina speaking of being raised in an intact Indigenous culture and the values she inherited from within that culture.