Empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders through language

Indigenous communities are often overlooked in public communication, leaving them ill-informed and vulnerable. In culturally and linguistically diverse Australia, engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities comes down to two essential points: the ability to listen and adapt.

Text by Rhian Ferguson Tea Dietterich


Image: © stanciuc/istockphoto.com

Minorities in many countries are often forgotten in public communication campaigns due to their cultural differences. This is the unfortunate truth for many hard-to-reach populations, yet it doesn’t have to be. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) peoples make up 3.3% of the total Australian population. They are holders of unique languages and knowledge systems. To improve communication delivery and understanding among these communities, there are proven engagement strategies, along with quality Indigenous interpreting services. But before we dive in, let us consider why traditional communication approaches fall short for hard-to-reach communities.

The bottom line is that communicating is complicated. Words can mean different things to different people, which is why a sender’s intentions are not guaranteed to resonate in the same way for a target audience. Couple this with cultural diversity and existing societal biases and things can get tricky.

Cultural norms generally determine how hard-to-reach communities find and digest public messages. Public messages often fail to take into account differing audience values and perspectives. This explains why certain audiences may react differently to messages than expected, or disengage entirely. Cultural awareness is the key tool to guide how messages are formed and delivered to improve reach within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Now that we have established the shortcomings in traditional messaging strategies, we must ask ourselves: What are the foundations for creating an effective communication strategy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences? 

Choosing the right channel

Understanding the local information system helps to determine the preferred communication channels for a certain community. This is important because information delivered via the wrong channel is virtually ineffectual. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community information and channel preferences often vary according to education, place of residency (urban, regional or remote), access to technologies, and socioeconomic status. For example, educated people living in metropolitan areas statistically prefer to receive important information via digital channels. Those living in regional and remote areas possess lower English proficiency and have limited access to mainstream media, and therefore statistically prefer to receive information face-to-face, as well as through local audio and verbal communications.

A study conducted by the Australian Government Department of Finance revealed the communication preferences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences for awareness-raising health information: 49% of respondents preferred receiving health information via letters, with a higher preference evident among older respondents (56%) aged between 35-54 years old. The next most preferred channel was television, with 42% of respondents reporting they preferred to receive information via this channel, especially younger respondents aged 15-24 years old (46%). Respondents also listed leaflets/pamphlets (32%) and face-to-face communications via a community representative or service (33%) as preferred communication channels. 

An important point to make note of is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities usually share a mistrust of the government due to past negative experiences of segregation and marginalization. These issues, along with cultural and traditional differences, can be barriers to effective communication. Acknowledging this engenders trust and familiarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities needed to ensure important messages are heard, accepted, and understood. Providing accurate and tailored messages has also proven to influence marginalized groups’ health behaviors and outcomes among Native Americans in the Midwestern United States.

Back in 2002, Aboriginal Interpreting WA (previously Kimberley Interpreting Service) echoed this point in its newsletter. Findings revealed that Indigenous patients are more likely than other patients to leave the hospital against medical advice due to inadequate information transfer. As Dr. Joan Cunningham from Menzies School of Health Research explains, “Informed decision-making by patients requires adequate understanding of available options, and for some Indigenous patients this may be limited by communication difficulties.”

Translating when relevant

Along with choosing the right content type and strategy, communicating clearly and effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities requires simple, succinct messages. In the context of health messaging, Tea Dietterich, who in 2002 worked as the Manager of the Kimberly Interpreting Service, notes, “It is not acceptable that people’s health is suffering because of a lack of understanding of medical terminology when the solution is right there: use an interpreter.” Evidence shows that patients with low English proficiency (LEP), who experience language discordant clinical encounters, have poorer quality of care and health outcomes. This is where Indigenous interpreters can reduce adverse health outcomes by enabling access to government services.

This means that we should focus on translating only the relevant information for maximum reach. The key is to know what message you want the audience to hear and how to form that message in the clearest manner possible. Consider two or three key points you want to get across in your translation and apply them to the three W rule:

What are you trying to communicate? Prepare your message in the simplest form to have complete clarity in what you want the audience to understand.

Who is the audience? The way you formulate your messages changes depending on the audience. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, you should always keep in mind their identity, values, and needs. 

Why are you communicating? Understanding why you are communicating a message can help in defining what the relevant information is, how best to communicate it, and how to make it memorable. 

Cultural appropriateness

Systematic discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continues to resonate in Australia today. Decades of control and exclusion have deprived Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of the right to participate in society as equal citizens. Such experiences are linked to debilitating mental and physical health impacts and growing distrust of governments and authoritative bodies. Since 2012, the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) has been making moves to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as equal citizens within Australia by developing the Indigenous interpreting industry to meet the current need for highly skilled Indigenous interpreters.

Breaking down these walls calls for a level of respect and cultural sensitivity in cross-cultural communication. In the context of COVID-19, for example, rules about social distancing or visiting family are hard to communicate to a collectivist culture, and thus can be misinterpreted or ignored. BMC Health Services Research found that an enabling health care system that places interpreters at the forefront of information delivery was essential for culturally safe care. [8] Within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, establishing strong connections and building rapport are extremely important in opening a two-way dialogue between message senders and receivers. There is great value in taking the time to tailor messages to those communities because messages that consider cultural context inspire trust in the recipients. Tea Dietterich comments, “It’s not about knowledge transfer anymore – it’s about knowledge sharing.” Exchanging information between communities and learning from past experiences are critical to constructing culturally sensitive messages that meet the demands and expectations of hard-to-reach communities.

It should be noted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities can be extremely diverse. For example, each community has their own protocols, and what is important for some communities may not be important for others. Keeping these different communication needs in mind is paramount to promoting full understanding and meaning of information.

Addressing communication recipients and Elders

Respectful and inclusive terminology assists in defining positive relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Using accurate and culturally sensitive addressees demonstrates respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and, in turn, suggests that messages are more likely to register. Using the term “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders” in full is best practice when addressing Australia’s collective Indigenous people. To refer to groups separately, use the terms “Aboriginal Australians”, “Torres Strait Islanders”, or “Indigenous Australians” respectfully. Appropriate geographical identifiers or demonyms also exist, such as “Murri” for referring to Aboriginal Australians of Queensland and northwestern New South Wales or “Koori” for referring to Aboriginal Australians of southern New South Wales and Victoria. If using such identifiers, though, it is important to never make assumptions about identity and to always apply the correct context.

Using simplified English

There are more than 250 Indigenous languages, including around 800 dialects, in Australia. This means English may be a second or even third language for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This can give rise to substantial communication challenges.

Using plain and simple English is an almost foolproof strategy to tackling such challenges. Succinct and clear language makes messages easier to understand for people with low English literacy. The use of linguistic expressions like jargon, acronyms, or technical terms should be avoided, as it can be a means for confusion or even irreversible health outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light how important access to healthcare information is, especially for vulnerable communities such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who experience higher rates of non-communicable diseases and a distinct lack of access to health services. So far, one-size-fits-all communication strategies for dealing with COVID-19 have led to disinformation and exacerbated health inequities around the world.

Have we made any progress?

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Australian government has developed resources and materials targeted towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to better inform them about COVID-19 vaccinations.  

Since 2018, 2M Language Services has been the provider of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages for Australian Government agencies, healthcare systems, and the private sector. We are aware of the associated challenges, yet we constantly strive to do our part to service Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders languages and low-resources languages such as Pacific Islands languages and rare Southeast Asian and African languages.

We have assisted countless public sector agencies and private corporations in communicating effectively with those hard-to-reach audiences. Covering more than 350 languages and leveraging the latest language technologies, we aim to make information accessible to everyone regardless of language and cultural background.

Following a pilot project beginning in 2018 (first in the nation) and ongoing advocacy and support from Aboriginal Interpreting WA, WA’s Kimberley, and soon Pilbara, now has interpreters working in each hospital from Monday to Friday.

We recognize that increasing access to Indigenous language services is a collective effort. To quote our colleague Deanne Lightfoot, CEO of Aboriginal Interpreting WA, “Progress has been made, but the battles don’t stop.”

Image: 2M Team with Walmajarii Interpreter Annette Kogolo


2M Language Services proudly provides Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interpreting and translation services with the overriding goal of enabling access to essential services, such as health, justice, and social services.