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This article addresses the importance of recognising how language can structure understandings and behaviour in public health. It will be demonstrated by reference to community responses to HIV transmission to infants in Central Tanzania, using Swahili words and concepts to understand behaviour around infant feeding and improved wellbeing of children and their mothers. These examples are drawn from the findings of a qualitative study conducted in Tanzania in which data analysis was guided by the grounded theory principle of using natural language, supplemented by Swahili concepts developed and used by respondents themselves once their importance for deeper understanding was realised. The use of language in this study opened up Tanzanian ways of thinking and revealed positive dimensions to concepts more widely expressed in negative ways, such as ideas of maximising immunity (rather than reducing risk) and building openness (rather than fighting stigma). This article shows how linguistic conceptualisations are important cultural resources, and it is a contribution to improved understandings of cultural context in order to deal more effectively with infant HIV. It may also improve understanding of Swahili language and culture for researchers, policy-makers and practitioners who are not Swahili speakers, and demonstrate the importance of a linguistic perspective for public health initiatives.

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Open Access Journal Article

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Open Access