“Language revival could reduce Aboriginal suicides”

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A University of Adelaide linguistics expert says reviving dormant languages in Australian Aboriginal communities could lower suicide rates and improve mental health. Research has linked loss of language with self-loathing and rates of suicide now at epidemic levels among Aborigines. Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Australia’s only Chair of Endangered Languages, says activities to resurrect the Barngarla Aboriginal language – with the Barngarla communities of Eyre Peninsula – offer hope in the quest to better understand the significant relationship between linguistic continuity, and social and personal wellbeing.

The Barngarla community has worked to reclaim their language in close collaboration with Professor Zuckermann since 2011.

“Since colonisation, Indigenous Australian people have suffered the effects of wide-scale linguicide,” Professor Zuckermann says. “Out of 330 Aboriginal languages, only 13 are alive and kicking today.”

Zuckermann said in a radio interview that he plans to use the revival of Barngarla as the first test.
“I believe that the loss of language is more severe than the loss of land. Language death in my view means loss of cultural autonomy, loss of spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, loss of soul, if I may use this term kind of metaphorically.”

He writes on his university website: “Language loss, and the consequent lack of cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty and spirituality – not to mention the dependence on the coloniser’s tongue – unfortunately increase the phenomena of disempowerment, self-loathing and suicide.

"Colonised people all over the globe sometimes hate not only the colonisers but also themselves," he says.

Meanwhile twenty-five Indigenous leaders and mental health experts have taken their case to the federal government in Canberra, urging it to adopt a national plan to drive down the rates of suicide in their communities.

WGAR Background to Suicide and Self-harm in First Nations Communities
(last updated: 21 July 2015)

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