Language as Medicine: The Healing Power of Indigenous Languages

Language as Medicine The Healing Power of Indigenous Languages

Exploring the connection between language revitalization and the wellbeing of Indigenous communities

In the remote Australian desert region of Utopia, the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr peoples have preserved their Indigenous languages for generations. Recent research suggests that the health of a community’s language is intricately linked to the wellbeing of its speakers. This article delves into the concept that “language is medicine,” exploring the impact of language loss on Indigenous communities and the potential for language revitalization to promote physical and emotional healing. As minority languages face ongoing challenges, understanding the role of language in defining wellness becomes crucial.


The Healing Power of Language

Language revitalization scholars argue that the declining health of a community’s language is not merely a consequence of sickness but is itself the root cause of community-wide health issues. Strengthening the use of Indigenous languages offers a path towards physical and emotional healing for their speakers. The concept of language as medicine is gaining recognition as researchers explore the connection between language and wellbeing.

Utopia: A Unique Case Study

Utopia, a region in Australia’s Northern Territory, stands out as a unique case study. Unlike many other Indigenous communities in Australia, Utopia was not subjected to the same level of violence and dispossession by European settlers. The area’s high degree of autonomy and the preservation of Indigenous languages have contributed to better health outcomes for its residents. A study conducted in Utopia revealed lower rates of hospitalization and mortality from cardiovascular disease compared to other Aboriginal communities.

Linguistic Marginalization as a Risk Factor

The Utopia study’s findings highlight the importance of language revitalization as a protective factor for Indigenous communities. Linguistic marginalization is not just a barrier to accessing care but a risk factor for disease in and of itself. Language deprivation and the trauma associated with language loss have lasting negative effects on the physical and mental health of speakers of oppressed languages.

Language Revitalization and Mental Health

Research has also explored the relationship between language loss and mental health. Studies have shown that the erosion of traditional language knowledge is a strong predictor of elevated youth suicide rates in First Nation communities. Language revitalization efforts can play a crucial role in addressing mental health issues and fostering a sense of belonging and identity among Indigenous youth.

Linguistic Oppression and Colonial Violence

The decline of Indigenous languages is not a natural or inevitable process but a result of colonial violence and marginalization. Indigenous languages are actively minoritized and pushed to the fringes of society, resulting in profound health disparities. Recognizing linguistic oppression as a risk factor for disease is essential for promoting linguistic justice and fostering equitable access to healthcare.

Language, Land, and Health

Indigenous peoples’ understanding of health extends beyond individual wellbeing and encompasses community, knowledge, and a connection to land. Language plays a vital role in cultivating a healthy relationship with the world and fostering a sense of rootedness and belonging. Reclaiming traditional languages and lifeways is a form of homecoming and a means to restore cultural identity and wellness.

Challenges and the Path Forward

Efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages face funding challenges and skepticism from those who view language preservation as futile. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dire consequences of linguistic marginalization, with vital health information often inaccessible to speakers of minority languages. Achieving linguistic justice requires dismantling colonial structures and recognizing the interconnectedness of language, health, and social equity.


The connection between language and wellbeing is a powerful reminder of the importance of preserving and revitalizing Indigenous languages. Language is not just a means of communication; it is a source of healing, cultural identity, and community resilience. As we navigate the complexities of language revitalization, it is crucial to prioritize linguistic justice and ensure equitable access to healthcare for all speakers of oppressed languages. By recognizing the healing power of language, we can work towards a future where linguistic diversity is celebrated and Indigenous communities thrive.