For Australia’s Indigenous communities, preserving their languages is a matter of life and death

There is a positive relationship between the sustainability and use of Indigenous language and an Indigenous person’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

There is a positive relationship between the sustainability and use of Indigenous language and an Indigenous person’s emotional and physical wellbeing. Image: REUTERS/David Gray

Yarlalu Thomas
Precision Public Health Fellow, Rare and Undiagnosed Diseases, Roy Hill Community Foundation
Rani Charuruks Ong
Program Manager, Lyfe Languages
Gareth Baynam
Medical Director, Rare Care Centre, Perth Children’s Hospital
Kevin Doxzen
Hoffmann Fellow, Precision Medicine and Emerging Biotechnologies, World Economic Forum LLC
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  • Indigenous people in Western Australia can expect to live up to fifteen years less on average than non-Indigenous Australians.
  • Their communities and languages have also been fractured by colonization and the policies that followed it.
  • But these inequitable health outcomes and the generational harm to communities can be addressed, in part, by revitalizing the endangered indigenous languages.

With a history stretching back more than 60,000 years, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, hereafter respectfully referred to as Indigenous people, have one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures.

But that long history — centuries and generations linked by the common thread of shared languages — is at risk.

Indigenous languages and cultures at risk

For thousands of years, Indigenous languages relied on storytelling to pass down historical accounts, and with them a sense of nationhood. In 1788, there were approximately 250 languages and 800 dialects spoken. Today, estimates suggest that just 120 languages are in use.

That number is likely to decrease as more Indigenous communities across the globe lose their languages due to the consequences of colonization: changes to way of life, land dispossession, assimilation policies and migration, as well as the death of native speakers resulting in the loss of intergenerational transmission of Indigenous language.

As language declines, so too does its associated culture and all the knowledge it has acquired over countless generations. It is yet possible, however, to preserve these ancient languages and cultures — and in doing so, improve medical outcomes for Indigenous communities who have too often missed out on the extraordinary medical advances of recent years and decades.

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In Western Australia (WA), Indigenous men have a life expectancy 15.1 years lower than non-Aboriginals, while for women that figure is 13.5 years. According to Australia’s Department of Health, about 80% of this mortality gap is due to potentially avoidable chronic diseases.

The WA Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing Framework 2015 – 2030 concluded that communication significantly impacts Indigenous communities’ social outcomes, be it positively or negatively — showing that the preservation of Indigenous languages can be a tool for improving health.

Linking indigenous language with health

Lyfe Languages, an online platform started in Western Australia’s Pilbara desert region, is seeking to preserve Indigenous languages by translating complex medical terminologies into Indigenous languages. By breaking down communication and cultural barriers, Lyfe Languages is transforming the health and well-being of Indigenous Australian communities — and it is improving access to healthcare, too.

One in ten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people speak an Indigenous language at home, and for people in remote areas that figure is approximately six in 10 people.

Misdiagnosis, medical errors and improper medication is preventable if the communication gap between health professionals and Indigenous Australians is lessened.

There is a positive relationship between the sustainability and use of Indigenous language and an Indigenous person’s emotional and physical wellbeing. To this end, Lyfe Languages has developed an online portal that allows certain users — ‘Language Champions’ — to log in and insert text entries and audio recordings of translated human phenotype ontology (HPO) terms, to be stored on a digital platform. HPO terms cover all medical areas and are utilized within most composition-driven genomic diagnostics software.

The HPO terms on the platform are broken down into lay person synonyms for ease of translating. For example, the term ‘Pes Planus’ means ‘Flat feet, flat foot,’ which then becomes ‘Jina lalypa’ in the Nyangumarta language. From there, audio recordings are made available for medical professionals to communicate clearly to a patient what their ailment is. This avoids ambiguity and can save lives. For treatment to be successful and to avoid errors, people must understand what they are doing and why.

This process not only improves health outcomes, but it also goes some way toward rebuilding communities and mitigating the generational harm of colonization.

Rebuilding intergenerational links

Translations made by Language Champions, who are usually youths from a given ethnolinguistic group, are reviewed and approved by elders of that group, and both the Language Champions’ and elders’ names are noted against the translations. In this way, intergenerational bonding and exchange of ancient language occurs, mirroring that tradition of ancient storytelling ways.

The platform is now expanding globally. Translations have already begun in Ghana and Malaysia, with the creation of a bank of Twi and Dusun medical terms. Preservation of these languages, and the unique knowledge they hold, is a fundamental good for not just the communities that have developed around and because of them, but for all of humanity. Studies suggest the uniqueness of Indigenous knowledge and its strong coupling with threatened languages means that language loss could be even more critical to the extinction of medicinal knowledge than biodiversity loss — this must be avoided.

An open-source global platform or directory of Indigenous languages — an encyclopedia of their unique knowledge — will not only increase health equity, bridge social and cultural gaps and connect generations, but it will also empower Indigenous communities to be their own architects of change.

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