A Noteworthy Correlation


xkcd.com - Correlation

Today Jane Simpson over at PARADISEC‘s Endangered Languages and Cultures blog posted a recent study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics
(ABS), which claims to correlate speaking an indigenous language with improved well-being. Here’s the rundown from ABS’s own media release.

“The report found that in 2008, almost half (47%) of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (aged 15–24 years) in remote areas spoke an Indigenous language. These young people were less likely to engage in high risk alcohol consumption and illicit substance use, than those who did not speak an Indigenous language. They were also less likely to report being a victim of physical violence.” (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011)

Jane herself has this to say:

What lies behind this correlation is complex and needs a lot of thought. But at the very least it suggests that:

  1. policy-makers need to think twice before steam-rollering through English-only programs in schools where children speak an Indigenous language as their first language.
  2. they should think twice about the longterm costs of policies that drive Indigenous people out of remote communities into the fringe camps of towns, with all the consequent loss of language, connectedness, and sense of belonging, and the easy access to solace in alcohol and drugs.

I appreciate her comments precisely because she doesn’t leap immediately to the conclusion which many people are prone to – that language revitalization programs are a fix for many of society’s ills. Regardless of Jane’s commentary, though, the ABS report itself seems to commit this error. The very nature of the study, as well as the way its findings are represented, is such that we’re clearly meant to perceive language use as the important variable at play, while violence, drug use, and alcoholism are merely dependent variables (although the report doesn’t state it this explicitly).

But the direction of causation here is backwards. When the institutions in society become unstable, it becomes more difficult to fulfill all the various goals we have in mind. The costs of doing so increase, and we must often direct our energies towards more pressing, immediate needs. In short, our attention shifts to the short-term, and our ability to plan for the future – thus creating a better one – is hampered. Hans-Herman Hoppe illustrates this specifically in relation to crime, one of the factors relating to the ABS study:

“The impact of crime is twofold. On the one hand, criminal activity reduces the supply of goods of the victimized […] On the other hand, insofar as individuals perceive a risk of future victimization they will accordingly reallocate their resources. They will build walls and fences, install locks and alarm systems, design or buy weapons, and purchase protection and insurance services. The existence of crime thus implies a setback […] as far as actual victims are concerned, and it leads to expenditures – by actual and potential victims – which would be considered wasteful without the existence of crime.” (Hoppe 2007: 11)

In an environment of uncertainty where shortsightedness is forced upon individuals, ensuring the continuity of one’s mother tongue often takes a back seat to more pressingly felt needs concerning health and safety. As Ludwig von Mises points out in his classic work Human Action:

“It is customary to say that acting man has a scale of wants or values in his mind when he arranges his actions. On the basis of such a scale he satisfies what is of higher value, i.e., his more urgent wants, and leaves unsatisfied what is of lower value, i.e., what is a less urgent want.” (Mises 1998: 94)

Uncertain and unstable social situations prevent a person from fulfilling their lesser felt wants, since their energies are spent either recuperating losses or hedging against the occurrence of catastrophe. Living in a stable social environment, however, allows for the fulfillment of less strongly felt wants. When I don’t have to worry about being shot or having my things stolen, I can direct my energies towards language revitalization. Therefore it is more correct to say that improvement and stability in other more basic areas of well-being create an environment where language maintenance and revitalization is possible at all. Only then can the (very real) benefits of focusing on language begin to emerge.

But I also doubt the correlation between language and well-being is a direct one. Both factors result from either improvements or deteriorations of social institutions. It’s not as though the average heritage speaker will suddenly start speaking the language more if crime rates suddenly drop – though they certainly could.  The point is that the result depends on other, more causally relevant factors. To say that speaking one’s heritage language will decrease violence is circular, because it’s the very absence of uncertainty and violence which allows for intergenerational transmission in the first place. Just as unstable and shifting social conditions are what interrupts intergenerational transmission of language (consider the massive displacement of children into Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools in the US, for example), the social institutions built to guard against things like theft and violence can lose their means of transmission as well. Their continuity becomes threatened in an shifting social environment.

Therefore it’s not so much a matter of where I direct my energies that determines language vitality, but rather the opportunities available to me and the social structures and institutions that exist to provide for those opportunities in the first place. Improvements to language policy certainly can and have improved overall well-being for many communities, but only when the conditions are right and the option of using resources towards that end is available. A whole host of other social factors must be taken into account. If language revitalization programs arrive hand-in-hand with a renewed willingness to assert one’s rights and to preserve and transmit the essence of one’s culture, then the conditions for language revival are not only ripe, but complementary and mutually reinforcing. Holistic approaches to reestablishing cultural integrity, shedding the burdensome and oppressive policies of government which inhibit them, are crucially needed.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2011. Culture, Heritage and Leisure: Speaking Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Languages, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Wellbeing: A Focus on Children and Youth, cat. no. 4725.0. Accessible at: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4725.0Chapter220Apr%202011.

Hoppe, Hans-Herman. 2007. Democracy: The God that Failed. The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

von Mises, Ludwig. 1998. Human Action Scholar’s Edition. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute.