07 August 2020

Language key to bridging health

A unique project to aid communication between healthcare providers and traditional language-speaking Aboriginal people is about to hit the global stage.

Lyfe Languages will be showcased to the world when it launches in the West African nation of Ghana on Sunday as part of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

An initiative of the Western Australian Register of Developmental Anomalies (WARDA) and Aboriginal medical students, the project is designed to bridge the language divide experienced by many Aboriginal and other indigenous communities by translating complex medical terminology into traditional languages.

Clinical geneticist and WARDA Head Gareth Baynam and medical student Yarlalu Thomas – both based at King Edward Memorial Hospital in Subiaco – are among those driving the project which began with a focus on rare genetic diseases but is now being broadened for wider healthcare use.

Mr Thomas, who is also WA’s 2020 Young Australian of the Year, revealed that across Australia one in 10 Aboriginal people spoke a traditional language at home but that that figure was considerably higher (58 per cent) in regional and remote areas.

“This puts these people and their families at significant disadvantage when accessing care in a healthcare system that is almost exclusively English-speaking,” Mr Thomas said.

Dr Baynam said language barriers prevented many Aboriginal people from receiving optimal healthcare.

“Effective culturally appropriate two-way communication is vital in all aspects of care,” he said.

“It’s needed to take a detailed family history, to better understand a patient’s symptoms and to explaining complex medical issues and treatment plans – that is why Lyfe Languages is such a globally important project.”

Lyfe Language’s translations are not just between English and traditional Aboriginal languages but also between a universal medical language (Human Phenome Ontology) and a computer coding system.

The online tool, which is currently accessed via the Lyfe Languages website (external site), also features voice recordings for one of the indigenous languages.

“What we’ve done is combine ancient knowledge and Indigenous voices with the newest medical technologies,” Dr Baynam said.

The translations have been compiled by Aboriginal medical and allied health students, teachers and artists who have been working with their traditional communities to determine the most appropriate terminology.

Mr Thomas says that in some instances where there has been no indigenous equivalent for the words needed for translation it has been necessary to use Aboriginal-English terms.

He revealed that work was currently underway to create a Lyfe Languages app, to enhance its utility and accessibility.

The Lyfe Languages project has been recognised internationally and is now expanding to include other indigenous languages, with Ghana first cab off the rank, having contributed translations for six of its indigenous languages.

Meanwhile the Aboriginal languages that are currently being translated for Lyfe Languages are:

  • Nyangumarta
  • Noongar
  • Badimaya
  • Eastern Arrernte
  • Kija
  • Kala Lagaw Ya and Creol
  • Manyjilyjarra.

Dr Baynam said young people participating in the project were not only partnering with their families and communities to develop a vital healthcare tool but were also helping to preserve traditional languages.

Any Aboriginal high school or university student interested in being part of the Lyfe Languages project can register their interest on the Lyfe Languages website (external site).

WARDA is a service within the WA Health system that collects information on children with birth defects. The information is used to assist in the provision of services for the children and their families.

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