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Storytelling for Mental Wellbeing and Language Maintenance

Updated: May 9

By Chia-Ying (Annie) Yang, University of Edinburgh.



According to the Endangered Languages Project, 3,466 languages—nearly half of all languages—are endangered. These endangered languages link individuals to their family members and to the cultures and histories of their communities (see Grenoble and Whaley, 2006). When people’s language rights are violated, all these links are broken, causing distress and suffering. In this post, I discuss how sharing stories about our connection to a marginalised language can have positive benefits for mental wellbeing.


My own language, Daighi, is a marginalised language that was oppressed in recent history, leading to intergenerational language shift. Although I am not fluent in Daighi, it is a language that is close to my heart: it is my tool to connect with my beloved grandparents, and my link to who I am. Even so, it was not until I came across the concept of language maintenance and shift during my postgraduate studies that I realised that my language is endangered. Such realisation has fuelled my research passion in the field of language maintenance ever since. It did not take me long to realise that negative social attitudes towards Daighi had reduced safe spaces to learn and use the language, leading to intergenerational language shift (Yang, 2020, 2023).


In my own teaching in Edinburgh (Scotland), during a lecture entitled Language Maintenance and Shift, my students were in tears when talking about how the space to use their own languages was taken away from them in their schools and sometimes in their homes. This reflects the traumatising experience that “forced imposition of a colonial (national) language and assimilation to a majority culture, resulted in many people feeling a loss of self-worth and pride” (Grenoble, 2021:14; see also Heinrich, 2021). This experience led me to think about storytelling as a way to investigate the experience of language shift.


Storytelling for mental health is a recent concept. In Edinburgh, it has been practised widely in public spaces such as the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Royal Mile. However, this approach has not been adopted as an approach to language maintenance, where it is much-needed to address the negative experience of speakers of marginalised, minoritized and endangered languages.


I thus initiated a project entitled Storytelling for Mental Wellbeing and Language Maintenance, funded by the Learning and Teaching Innovation Fund at the University of Edinburgh, to explore how storytelling can be used as a tool to maintain languages, and to address mental wellbeing. To advocate for language rights, the aim of this project is to create a breathing space for speakers to use their mother language, to tell a story about what the language means to them, and to promote the wellbeing of speakers of minoritized languages.

 

The Project

The project focuses on two groups of participants. Firstly, on speakers of minoritized, marginalised and endangered languages and secondly on speakers of chosen target languages. The aim is to create a space where participants actively reflect on the meaning of the focal language to them, craft a story about it, and share that story. The project ran as follows:


1. Workshop 1 (2.5 hours)

In this workshop, we explained the aim of the project, introduced the Principal Investigator (Chia-Ying Yang) and the Professional Storytelling for Mental Wellbeing Instructor (Lily Asch). Before the core workshop activity, we also asked participants to introduce themselves as they would be working together to develop their stories. The core activities of this first workshop were to help participants reflect on experiences using the language they want to focus on through visualisation, and explained the storytelling genre and the different stages of stories. Participants were also asked to share what they came up with at the end.


2. Workshop 2 (2.5 hours)

In Workshop 2, participants were invited to work in pairs, and to tell their stories using different approaches, such as gesturing. The different approaches gave participants a chance to explore and experience telling stories in alternative ways in addition to verbal language. Participants were given another opportunity to develop their stories further and share it at the end of the session.


3. Rehearsal (1.5 hours)

The rehearsal session was in place to give participants another opportunity to refine their stories, share and receive feedback from one another. In this workshop, we did some physical movement to activate our mind and body, and pronunciation exercises to warm up our vocal cords. Participants were then given some time to work on their stories and share them.


4. Event day (2 hours) – 21 February 2024, UN International Mother Language Day

We opened the event to participants’ family and friends, as well as everyone from the University of Edinburgh, and anyone interested in the event. We invited our storytellers to be at the front of the room, sharing one story after another, while holding 30 seconds to 1 minute silence between each story. After all the stories were told, we opened a discussion space for Q&A, for interaction between the audience and the storytellers.

 



Feedback From the Audience

During the Q&A session, participants, both online and in-person, engaged in discussion with the storytellers. Some audience members also shared their personal experiences as a reflection after hearing the stories. At the end of the event, the audience was invited to fill out a survey for feedback. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, such as “very inspiring, everyone embracing their own cultural linguistic identity, and sharing that with beautiful stories was truly empowering”. Many also shared their realisation of the importance of language maintenance and identity: “interesting to reflect on how important to personal identity and confidence language, especially mother tongue is” and empowering: “Regaining your voice, after being suppressed and discriminated, is absolutely crucial to maintain their invaluable self”. In addition to the positive feedback, many also expressed interest in joining this initiative.

 

Next Steps

On the research side, I am currently running interviews with the participants of the project. The findings will be shared as a journal article to be published later this year. At the same time, I am building an online webspace to share what we have developed through the project, aiming to document the stories in different languages, keep developing the community we built, and share our activities and outcomes with the wider public. This project sets a starting point of this initiative, with more events to come at least annually on the UN International Mother Language Day.


References

Grenoble, L. A., & Whaley, L. J. (2006). Saving languages: an introduction to language revitalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grenoble, L. A. (2021). Why revitalise? In J. Olko, J. Sallabank (Eds.) Revitalizing endangered languages: a practical guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heinrich, P. (2021). Endangered languages and well-being. In J. Olko, J. Sallabank (Eds.) Revitalizing endangered languages: a practical guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yang, C.-Y. (2020). Language maintenance through primary school education: The case of Daighi. [Doctoral Thesis, The University of Edinburgh]. https://hdl.handle.net/1842/37567. Accessed20 Sept 2022

Yang, C.Y. (2023) The role of English in language maintenance in Taiwan – a threat or a resource? English Teaching and Learning, Routledge. DOI: 10.1007/s42321-023-00149-6


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