An Australian researcher says the revival of an Aboriginal language in South Australia could bring mental health benefits.

University of Adelaide linguistics expert Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Australia’s only Chair of Endangered Languages, say the push to resurrect the Barngarla Aboriginal language could serve as the first “test case” for the potential mental health benefits of reclaiming “sleeping beauty” languages.

He says the restoration of the language of Barngarla communities on the Eyre Peninsula offers hope in the quest to better understand the significant relationship between linguistic continuity, and social and personal wellbeing.

Professor Zuckermann says that Canadian studies have previously demonstrated a correlation between a lack of conversational skills in the native Aboriginal language and youth suicide rates. In communities whose language was subject to linguicide (the destruction of a language), youth suicide was more frequent.

“But so far there has been no systematic quantitative study of the impact of language revival (rather than loss) on wellbeing, mental health and suicide ideation. This is partly because language reclamation is still rare and in its infancy.”

The Barngarla community has worked to reclaim their language in close collaboration with Professor Zuckermann since 2011.

“Since colonisation, Indigenous Australian people have suffered the effects of wide-scale linguicide,” Zuckermann said.

“Out of 330 Aboriginal languages, only 13 are alive and kicking today.”

“Language loss and the consequent lack of cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty and spirituality – not to mention the dependence on the coloniser’s tongue – unfortunately increase the phenomena of disempowerment, self-loathing and suicide.

“Colonised people all over the globe sometimes hate not only the colonisers but also themselves,” he says.

He says efforts to reclaim hibernating Aboriginal tongues – such as those seen with the Barngarla community – reflect the desire to recover one’s identity and reconnect with one’s ancestors.

“I have noticed, qualitatively, that language reclamation is often empowering for those involved. It strengthens one’s soul and validates one’s pride, dignity and sense of cultural heritage,” Professor Zuckermann says.

“However, I plan to also conduct quantitative research in Revivalistics, the new trans-disciplinary field of enquiry. So that we can improve our approaches to reviving languages, and thoroughly and systematically evaluate its impact on individuals and communities."

Professor Zuckermann is one of the teachers of a free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on language revival that begins on July 28.