Language use is connected to indicators of wellbeing: Evidence from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2014– 15

Detail from Gulach 2006 by Terry Ngamandara Wilson
Author/editor: Y. Dinku, F. Markham, D. Venn, D. Angelo, J. Simpson, C. O’Shannessy, J. Hunt and T. Dreise
Year published: 2020
Issue no.: 137


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have repeatedly asserted that individuals, families and communities can achieve better life outcomes if they maintain or develop knowledge and use of Indigenous languages. However, the evidence that rigorously quantifies the relationship between the use of Indigenous languages and wellbeing is limited. Applying crosssectional regressions analysis to data from the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), this study examines the link between the use of Indigenous languages and a range of wellbeing indicators. Since Indigenous languages are spoken to different extents in different places, and living in an area where one’s own language is widely spoken may have different effects on wellbeing from residing in a place where only a few people speak the language, the NATSISS sample is disaggregated into two language ecologies. The first comprise areas where new and/or traditional Indigenous languages are  frequently spoken as a first language, and the second consists of areas where most people speak English as a first language and Indigenous languages are spoken as a second or subsequent language.

After controlling for English language proficiency and range of individual and family-level characteristics, we find that speaking an Indigenous language is significantly associated with greater cultural attachment, social connectedness and positive emotional wellbeing. Indigenous language speakers are also more likely than English-only speakers to report that they earn income from producing art and craft and participating in cultural activities. However, Indigenous language use is also associated with increased experiences of discrimination and difficulties accessing services.

Our findings suggest that speaking Indigenous languages is strongly associated with indicators of wellbeing relating to actions over which Indigenous individuals, families and communities can exert agency and self-determination (for example, indicators relating to culture, identity, emotional feelings and connection to Country). In contrast, Indigenous language use is less consistently correlated with those wellbeing outcomes which are most strongly determined by external structural forces. For example, employment, education and health outcomes are strongly determined by access to labour market opportunities, education and healthcare services, respectively, factors which are largely beyond Indigenous control. While Indigenous language maintenance and revival are important in their own right, the findings of this study suggest that implementation of certain non-language policies may be improved by addressing the needs and aspirations of Indigenous people to speak their own languages.

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