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First Languages Australia leads meeting to address issue of national significance

Date: 30 August 2017

Efforts to establish a national focus on the connection between wellbeing and first languages was the topic of conversation at a recent meeting between First Languages Australia, the Research Unit for Indigenous Language (RUIL) and CoEDL.

First Languages Australia works to ensure that the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members are voiced in key decision-making processes that impact on the current and future management of Indigenous languages. Manager Faith Baisden said a major aim of her organisation is to create long-lasting partnerships that support language retention and revitalisation, and that linguists are important to this process.

She said the main purpose of the meeting was to commence an identification and documentation process showing the positive associations between Indigenous language activities and wellbeing. “We know there is a growing body of evidence but we need to bring it together and have it in one place,” she said. She described the meeting as productive and exciting. “When you bring to the table people with the same interests, everything can grow exponentially.”

RUIL director and CoEDL Chief Investigator Rachel Nordlinger echoed Faith Baisden’s comments about the meeting, “There is increasingly more research into the positive impact that language and language-related activities have on wellbeing outcomes for Indigenous people.” However, she said that with different projects happening all over the country, it could be hard for everyone to know what was going on. She said by bringing together researchers with Indigenous language experts, “great leaps could be achieved in the process of putting the research together”.

Faith Baisden said Indigenous language leaders have always known about the connection between language and wellbeing but it was important for others to find out also. “Indigenous people understand, but outsiders don’t always. We need to bring along not only governments but also just the people we live with, friends, family, people in the community… we want to show people what we know already; gather up the examples and ensure it’s in a detailed and accessible report.” One area that the report will cover is the education of children whose first language is not English.  “It is completely obvious, if you fail to teach children using the language they understand, they’re going to face enormous hurdles in terms of their education,” she said. Unfortunately, however, barriers arose when even well intentioned people failed to understand this.

Associate Professor Nordlinger agreed. “Establishing a positive correlation between language and wellbeing has the potential to significantly impact policy and funding decisions in the area of Indigenous language revitalisation and maintenance, and consequently have a profound effect on the lives of Indigenous Australians,” she said. “As research organisations actively engage with Indigenous Australians on language, both RUIL and CoEDL are committed to supporting First Languages Australia in this important initiative to support and build research into the relationships between language and wellbeing.”

Both women described the meeting as an important step towards establishing a national focus on the matter. Faith Baisden said she looked forward to future gatherings bringing together Indigenous community members, academics and language workers and particularly to the not-to-distant time when a report could be produced bringing together the qualitative and quantitative evidence.

She said the discussions were also a bridge to richer engagement between researchers and Indigenous community members, encouraging increased Indigenous community participation in language research.

Photo: Attendees at the meeting included Associate Professor Rachel Nordlinger (left) and Faith Baisden (centre in red top).

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University