ECMI Minorities Blog. Indigenous Languages and Psychological Well-Being: Comparing Educational, Healthcare and Employment Opportunities in Greenland, Sápmi, and Scotland
*** The blog posts are prepared by the authors in their personal capacity. The views expressed in the blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors concerned and do not necessarily reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues. ***
Author: Seira Duncan | https://doi.org/10.53779/GVXP1463
* Seira Duncan is an indigenous Eurasian doctoral researcher in the Social and Cultural Encounters programme at the University of Eastern Finland and was a Fellow at the Arctic Institute and the East-West Center. More recently, she started her fellowship at the International Arctic Science Committee, visiting researcher appointment at the European Centre for Minority Issues and completed her stays as a Visiting PhD Student at the University of Tromsø and Ilisimatusarfik (University of Greenland). She previously discussed the nexus between indigenous languages and psychological well-being in the Arctic and Scottish contexts in an op-ed published in 2022.
In December 2022, UNESCO celebrated the start of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government announced its interest in becoming a ‘European gateway to the Arctic’ and many of the country’s universities are now part of the University of the Arctic, a network of organisations and institutions interested in northern research. Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon highlighted that Scotland is the “most northerly non-Arctic nation” in her talk at the 2021 Arctic Assembly in Reykjavík, Iceland. The Cultural Ties section in Scotland’s 2019 Arctic policy framework recognises that “there is a great deal [Scotland] can learn from Arctic countries as to how they are supporting their own indigenous languages and dialects”. Suicide rates are particularly high among indigenous Arctic populations, and the Scottish Government describes suicide as a ‘significant issue’ in the country. In their response to the government’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy, Bòrd na Gàidhlig (Gaelic Board) made a case for the importance of including references to the Gaelic language given its psychological benefits. As such, this post looks at the questions of how the availabilities of indigenous language resources in educational, healthcare and employment settings in Greenland, Sápmi, and Scotland compare, as well as what these communities may learn from each other in relation to the intersection of indigenous language use and wider psychological well-being.
Indigenous language and psychological well-being
A 2021 paper discussing the connection between indigenous language use and community-based well-being among four indigenous communities in Mexico concluded that there is “firm evidence directly linking Indigenous language use and well-being”. Similarly, Grenoble highlights that language revitalisation is associated with improved psychological well-being and lower rates of suicide and substance abuse. In a 2012 study, researchers found “a positive relationship … between the sustainability of Indigenous land, language and culture and an Indigenous person’s subjective emotional wellbeing”. That being said, the limitations of previous research need to be taken into account. As Walsh notes, language revitalisation “in some cases may decrease Indigenous well-being rather than improve it” (for instance, due to the “pain of remembrance of what might have been” as well as the “difficulty in re-acquiring one’s ancestral language”). Another interesting facet Walsh highlights is that non-indigenous peoples’ learning of indigenous languages is thought to be associated with “a reduction in racism”. Indigenous language utilisation and one’s well-being are thus connected and call for further investigation in an array of settings, including education, healthcare, and employment.
1979 saw Greenlandic take the place of Danish as the official language of instruction (see also Home Rule Act) in Greenland. According to the Centre for Language Research at Ilisimatusarfik (the University of Greenland), the local language has been taught “as if it were a foreign language, even to native speakers”. As Demant-Poort & Elstad highlight, “a large proportion of the Greenlandic population is neither employed nor active” in the education field. According to Demant-Poort, since the country has only four high schools, those pursuing education at that level may be required to leave their hometown. In addition, many Greenlanders who live in Denmark are not taught in Greenlandic despite the fact that close to 17000 individuals born in Greenland live in Denmark. These realities raise the question of distance education’s potential, a topic Øgaard studies at Ilisimatusarfik. In his article, he asserts that research on the country’s distance education is necessary and that distance education “is expected to show more potential in the Greenlandic educational system” in the years to come.
Saami is the main language at the Sámi allaskuvla (Sámi University of Applied Sciences) in the Norwegian North. The UiT Arctic University of Norway and Nord University have a Centre for Sami Studies and Saami Research Group, respectively. Today, Saami teacher education is available at the master’s level in Norway. In the early 1990s, a Swedish research project investigating primary school education recommended that the languages of instruction include Saami, and today both Saami and Swedish are the languages of instruction at Saami schools (ages 7 – 13). Language courses are delivered in Saami at the upper-secondary level and Umeå University is home to Várdduo (Centre for Sámi Research). There is one vocational school in Inari, northern Finland – Sámi oahpahusguovddáš (The Educational Centre of the Sámi Region) – that teaches in the Sámi language while the universities of Lapland, Oulu, and Helsinki offer Sámi language and culture courses. However, it is important to keep in mind that even among Saami languages there exist hierarchies. A case in point is the lack of instructors who can teach North (30,000 speakers), Lule (800) or South (500) Saami, the last two of which are less popular among teacher education students.
While many parents think that education in an additional language will interfere with their children’s command of the majority language, studies suggest that “the opposite is true”. Scotland’s Gaelic Medium Education provides teaching in Gaelic at primary and secondary schools, and universities including the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the University of the Highlands and Islands offer Gaelic courses. As Sterzuk and Fayant observed in relation to the Canadian context:
[c]reating space for Indigenous language development in postsecondary settings … can be a challenging process and one that requires long-term investment but it is necessary if universities are to play a meaningful role in reconciliation.
At the same time, a chapter in Education, equity and inclusion: teaching and learning for a sustainable North (2023) by Beaton, Helander, and Keskitalo looks at language revitalisation in Saami and Scottish educational contexts. It notes that “the study has identified a need to focus, not only on formal education but also on language socialisation opportunities in the home and community”. Education today has grown beyond the confines of universities and many language resources are available on the internet. Take for instance LearnGaelic.net and Duolingo which offer free learning resources (at the time of writing, Duolingo Scottish Gaelic has close to half a million active learners).
The issue of limited contact with the indigenous language of diasporic communities in educational settings extends past Greenland; many Saami and Scots migrate to urban areas for various reasons, including work prospects. Like the Saami, Greenlandic Inuit speak “roughly four” dialects (wherein west Greenlandic is the official language) and the Scots have Gaelic, Scots, and Doric with varying degrees of stigma attached to them. Doric, for instance, is derided as ‘unsophisticated’ and ‘socially awkward’ and many feel ashamed when speaking it. Greenland’s potential distance-education trajectory and the 2023 study comparing Saami and Scots language revitalisation raise the question of how indigenous languages as experienced outside the walls of traditional academia (e.g. virtually or in community settings) may influence well-being.
The Greenlandic healthcare system’s official language is Danish, a language in which many patients lack proficiency. In Tasiilaq, a remote settlement on the eastern coast with the highest suicide rate in Greenland, “a psychology team would come in from [the capital] Nuuk every 3-4 months, rush through cases and leave after spending 2-3 days” of psychological healthcare, predominantly in the Danish language. One of the missions of the Greenlandic Centre for Health Research at Ilisimatusarfik is “enhanc[ing] cooperation between researchers from other countries and health professionals in Greenland”, an endeavour that is reflected in the university’s partnerships with the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, the Canadian Institute for Circumpolar Health in Yellowknife, the Arctic University of Norway and the University of the Arctic (including three institutions in Greenland, forty-one in Norway, Sweden and Finland together, and nine in Scotland).
On a similar note, a 2021 study concluded that there needs to be an increase in Saami-speaking healthcare professionals in Norway. At the same time, some Saami in neighbouring Sweden felt the need to receive Norwegian healthcare due to mental healthcare disparities in Sápmi, and the Sámi Norwegian National Advisory Unit on Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the Saami Council cite the potential of “equal, linguistically and culturally adapted healthcare” and cross-border cooperation to prevent suicide. Healthcare services in Enontekiö, Inari, Sodankylä and Utsjoki in northern Finland are available in Saami.
While the National Health Service (NHS) in Scotland has multiple languages and formats available, there are substantially more resources in languages like Chinese compared to Gaelic. As Chair of NHS Highland and native Gaelic-speaker A. G. Boyd Robertson mentions when discussing language-related goals, “the operations and services of NHS Highland being offered in Gaelic will be of an equal standard and quality as those that we provide in English”. As he explains:
[w]e will ensure that opportunities for patients, the public and our staff to use Gaelic are increased, in support of the National Gaelic Language Plan currently being approved, and the continuing aims that Gaelic is used more often, by more people and in a wider range of situations.
Chief Executive Dudek at NHS Highland adds that they are “look[ing] to … encourage and develop the early-career options for Gaelic speakers interested in health and social care”. Together We Care - Cùram Còmhla, their newly-approved 5-year strategy, outlines the organisation’s ambition to make sure that physical and psychological health will be “on an equal footing and reduce stigma” through improved accessibility and letting staff talk about psychological well-being.
On the whole, all regions’ healthcare landscapes show a lack of indigenous language infrastructure, and the case of Tasiilaq in eastern Greenland highlights the importance of accessible healthcare in isolated settlements and diasporic communities. At the same time, it is clear that various organisations in Greenland, Sápmi, and Scotland are starting to address these shortcomings.
According to Demant-Poort & Elstad, given that the majority of classes at primary and lower secondary schools are taught in the Greenlandic language, particularly in smaller areas, students have reduced contact with Danish and English. Conversely, most high school classes are offered in Danish “because most of the teachers are Danish”. Danish remains important in Inatsisartut (the Parliament of Greenland), governmental and municipal administrations, “all institutions of higher learning” and in healthcare despite the reality that approximately half of the country’s population speaks little to no Danish. Meanwhile, the newly established Employment Contracts’ Act in Greenland stipulates that employees can request information in Greenlandic or Danish.
A Norwegian institution, Nord University assures prospective applicants that a bachelor’s in Lule Saami may lead to employment in and outside the country, informing that speakers are highly sought-after among industries such as academia and management. Their international orientation in the form of student exchanges at Umeå University and the University of Saskatchewan echoes indigenous communities’ interest in connecting with their international counterparts. Last year, the Giellagas Institute at the University of Oulu in Finland was recruiting a Professor of Saami Language. The call mentions that there are already “two university lecturers … three university teachers [and] temporary university teachers” in the Inari, North and Skolt Saami languages, which shows that expertise in indigenous languages is appreciated in academia. However, unless there are many academic and other employment opportunities for speakers of indigenous languages, the issue of (un)employability persists. As Thingnes notes, “minority languages have a hard time surviving in academia, more so if their use puts researchers at risk of losing out on participation in international academic communities”.
Today, only 1% of the Scottish population can speak Gaelic. As McLeod puts it, “a substantial proportion of the Gaelic-speaking population … will have English-monoglot children and grandchildren and are unlikely to favour policies that would close off significant employment opportunities to their own relatives”. As mentioned earlier, NHS Highland intends to broaden the employment prospects of those who speak Gaelic and are interested in “health or social care”; careers fairs, however, are presently held entirely in English.
The current emphasis on the Danish language in high schools and governmental, administrative, and academic positions in Greenland may disqualify or discourage residents who are more comfortable speaking and working in the local indigenous language. While there are limited academic positions for speakers of indigenous languages in Sápmi, what reemerges as the determining elements are the said languages’ hierarchical positions in relation to other local indigenous languages. There is also the realistic and less romantic view of indigenous language use in work settings put forth by McLeod – that is, that many youth do not speak the local indigenous language and therefore policies favouring indigenous language speakers will be unpopular even among their relatives who speak it. These are all important in that unemployment is associated with reduced well-being such as “increased hostility, depression, [and] anxiety”.
The presence of indigenous languages in an individual’s daily life is a neglected dimension when it comes to understanding psychological well-being. Not only are education, healthcare, and employment central to one’s everyday experience, they are interconnected; for instance, limited education often leads to limited employment opportunities, and unemployment is associated with reduced psychological well-being.
The distance education movement in Greenland may house important lessons on how the Greenlandic, Saami, and Scottish diaspora can receive adequate indigenous language education and healthcare (e.g. telemedicine). Organisations like the University of the Arctic facilitate international dialogue on healthcare by providing institutions and scholars with opportunities to support and learn from each other. The topic of cross-border cooperation in Sápmi has implications for diasporic Greenlandic Inuit and Scots communities, and NHS Highland’s detailed strategy on introducing Gaelic to the local healthcare scene provides a template for other interested communities.
Overall, there appears to be room for improvement in educational, healthcare and employment sectors in all three regions. In Greenland, Danish remains the dominant language in high school and many employment sectors despite the reality that many Greenlanders have limited proficiency in the language. Currently there are limited indigenous language work opportunities in Sápmi. Only a small percentage of Scots can speak the national indigenous language and may find adopting the language revitalisation initiatives of the Inuit and Saami beneficial. Future research could explore the ways in which extended periods away from one’s hometown to receive high school education may negatively influence a student’s psychological well-being. Moreover, Walsh’s reference to “a reduction in racism” may be worth exploring in Greenlandic, Saami, and Scottish contexts in the forms of increased language-learning opportunities for non-indigenous students.