NAIDOC Week 2017 theme reveals language matters for health

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A close up photograph of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man looking directly at the camera
NAIDOC Week 2017 celebrates traditional languages but there are also health benefits when everyone values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' languages and culture.

You mightn’t know it, but the language you speak says a lot about who you are. You might speak one, two, three or more, but the fact remains that when it comes to our identity, words aren’t just words.

‘Our language matters’ is the theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week, recognising that language is inseparable from who we are, how we connect with others and even how we think. How we see ourselves is rooted in the language we speak.

Traditional languages express more than words. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, each traditional language has deep geographical and spiritual roots. It forms the foundation of the relationships with forebears, land and lore.

NAIDOC Week 2017 brings together all Australians, from individuals to institutions, to celebrate traditional languages. Events held this week demonstrate that the loss of language can be reversed if we provide opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to speak and celebrate traditional languages.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a unique history with diverse culture, customs and circumstances. To close the gap and reduce disparities, it is necessary to build cultural competence across hospitals including the integration of cultural issues into the planning and delivery of healthcare services.

Initiatives such the Lighthouse Hospital Project, a joint venture between The Heart Foundation and the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA), provides a framework to help make this happen.

View down Swanston St Melbourne of crowd during NAIDOC Week 2017 March

Celebrating traditional languages: NAIDOC Week march, Melbourne 2017.

A positive experience for anyone increases the likelihood they will follow medical advice. The project is looking at how hospitals can enhance the patient experience. The goal is to create a hospital environment where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples receive culturally appropriate care and feel safe, which can lead to better health outcomes.

Being a patient in a hospital is a daunting experience for most of us, but such fears and emotions are heightened for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who face language and cultural barriers. Having access to information in your own language and hospital staff who understand the fears and apprehensions of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander patients can help to break through these barriers and enable patients to make informed decisions about health.

Losing your language and culture impacts every part of life, including your wellbeing. Though Australia is a privileged nation by world standards, not everyone is equal when it comes to heart health. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are among the most disadvantaged. Statistics show Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have lower life-expectancies, suffer more premature deaths compared with non-Indigenous Australians and are three times more likely to suffer a heart attack.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples speak more than one traditional language. Prior to colonisation, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples spoke up to five or six languages of neighbouring tribes. Today there are around 120 languages still spoken and many of these are at risk of being lost.

Languages can die as older Elder speakers pass on. But the loss of a language is to everyone’s detriment, not just those who speak it. Losing a language disempowers individuals, communities and nations alike.

Despite the decline, there’s still a rich linguistic base to build from. Thirty-eight per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over 15 years of age speak an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language. For one in 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, that is a primary and preferred language.

For non-Indigenous Australians, celebrating the richness and diversity of traditional languages by recognising words in place names across the country is more than just gesture. Small changes can make a big difference. Doing such things in all spaces throughout Australian public life – including hospitals – can turn negative relationships into positive ones.

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