Interview with Ghil’ad Zuckermann

© Judie Cross and Figure/Ground
Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann was interviewed by Judie Cross on 3 September 2017

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann (D.Phil. Oxford; PhD Cambridge, titular; MA Tel Aviv, summa cum laude) is a distinguished linguist and founder of Revivalistics, present Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the School of Humanities, Faculty of Arts, University of Adelaide, His doctoral thesis undertaken at Oxford was on Language Contact and Lexical Expansion in more than 100 languages, with a focus on Israeli. He speaks thirteen languages (including the linguistically diverse languages of Hebrew, Italian, Yiddish and Mandarin), naming his mother tongue, the result of the Hebrew revival, as “Israeli” because it is a hybrid language owing its existence to several tongues, mainly Yiddish and Hebrew, but also other languages such as Polish, Russian, and German, Arabic, French and English. He created a MOOC, Massive Open Online Course, for Language Revival at in 2016, as well as a Barngarla dictionary app, and a website for the Barngarla Australian Aboriginal language for whose revival he is instrumental: He has published dozens of refereed scholarly articles and books, and delivered hundreds of keynote speeches all over the world. Professor Zuckermann is the President of the Australian Association for Jewish Studies (AAJS) and elected member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL).

Being multilingual in so many languages is most impressive. What advice do you give to others trying to learn an additional language?
An aptitude for learning other languages involves seven essential ingredients: mathematicality, musicality, memory, emotional intelligence, lack of shame, intelligence, and motivation. When students ask me how they can improve their language learning, I recommend they focus on improving one of these qualities. For example, if the student does not remember well, there is a plethora of methods for improving one’s memory. Similarly, if the student is too shy or too anxious about losing face, there are several viable approaches, such as going to a consultant or a psychotherapist.In this early part of the twenty-first century, we are in the process of undergoing a talknological revolution: from “talk” and “techonology”, the digital mass media and big data. The Industrial Revolution of 1760-1840 turned us from seeking food to seeking things. The talknological Revolution will eventually turn us from seeking things to seeking ideas. Speech was the first major revolution for humanity more than 70,000 years ago. then writing evolved in Mesopotamia 5,200 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg’s press in 1450 CE marked the third revolution and now we are in the middle of the talknological revolution. I believe this revolution probably means a totally new approach to learning languages and language revival. For example, we will eventually be able to inject a language into people or upload it into their chip, so we will no longer need to teach others a language. Instead, people like me will be involved in developing silicon language chips. When you travel, you’ll be able to receive the relevant vaccinations, along with selected language chips.

Who has had the biggest influence on your own research and thinking over the years? How did you come to work as an academic?
There were many people who believed in me from an early age. My father was a Holocaust survivor, traumatized and scarred by war throughout his life. But I felt how much he enjoyed acquiring knowledge and how much he believed in my cognitive abilities. At the age of four, in the remote town of Eilat, currently the southern-most town in Israel, I was considered a child prodigy and had a sort of mentor, a mathematician. He said that I could have passed a high school leaving certificate in maths way back then. While at high school, my linguistics teacher asked me, at the ages of 13-16, to grade all the other students’ exam papers, which I did in a professional manner. At the age of 16, I was selected to represent Israel at the United World College of the Adriatic, an international school in Italy, and excelled in philosophy and theory of knowledge. Then, after four years of military service in Israel, I met a famous professor called Yehuda Elkana, a historian and philosopher of science, a former President and Rector of the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, and the then Head of the Interdisciplinary Programme for Outstanding Students at Tel Aviv University. He told me, when I attended an interview with him, that my eyes revealed a deep sadness, which made an impression on me. He advised me to come to Tel Aviv University and become an intellectual. He accepted me to that programme, which allowed me to study whatever I wanted.

I studied philosophy, psychology, classics, literature, law and mathematics, specializing in linguistics. I pursued Chomskian linguistics and was influenced by Chomsky; for example, regarding the substantial differences between a native and non-native speaker of a language. But I was more attracted to other types of linguistics such as Joshua Fishman’s. Fishman, whom I called Shikl, was an American linguist who focussed his research on the sociology of language, bilingual education and language planning and ethnicity. His linguistics cared more about people whilst Chomsky’s focused on Language and universal grammar. Fishman’s, along with Melbourne-based Michael Clyne’s and Joe Lo Bianco’s, concern for people went straight to my heart. When working with mathematics, earlier on, I always thought mathematics lacked heart. For me, the speakers are more important than the languages they speak.

But I don’t follow a specific framework. Revivalistics is a new trans-disciplinary framework that I have founded and I am not a blind believer in any system; I am open-minded. Of course, I do have many disciples in my field, but I always stress to them that Revivalistics is only a tool and it shouldn’t blind one’s approach.

Working in this field in Australia presents unique challenges. Owing to its colonial and convict-administration history, Australia is a bureaucracy undergoing Americanised professionalization.  At universities, as well as in the wider society, Australia can be described as a professionalised bureaucracy. Its universities are increasingly corporate. This negatively impacts on my work as a revivalist working with reclaiming the Australian Indigenous Barngarla language. Australian Aboriginal people largely lead a socialist way of life, which is almost impossible to reconcile with technocratic regulations.

How did you decide on Australia as the place you would be based in and Barngarla as the language you would first work on reviving?

I was invited to Mandelbaum House, University of Sydney in 2001 to conduct a controversial public lecture on the genesis of the Israeli language, which eventually led to my book Israelit Safa Yafa (Israeli – A Beautiful Language). I was hosted by a paradox, I mean “a pair o’ docs”: Rabbi Dr Orna Triguboff and Rabbi Dr Avrum Ehrlich, both Sydney-siders whom I had met at the University of Oxford in 1996-7 when I began my doctoral studies there. I was inspired by the beauty of Sydney. At that time, I was Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore, on a Sabbatical from the University of Cambridge, where I moved after completing my doctoral thesis at Oxford in 2000. I knew I did not want to stay on in England. In Sydney, I met many interesting people and, on my return to Singapore and later Cambridge, decided to apply for posts in Australia in 2004. I was successful in obtaining an academic post in Melbourne. Feeling very grateful for this opportunity to work in Australia, I decided to first detect the main problems facing Australians and then to see how I could be of assistance in these areas, where there was a need.

The first Australian problem I noticed was the bureaucracy, which I already mentioned to you, but I realised I could contribute nothing to this and simply had to swallow the bitter pill. The second Australian problem I noticed was the plight of the Aboriginal peoples. Had I been a dentist, I would have worked pro bono as many Australian Indigenous people do not have teeth. Had I been a psychologist, I would have worked pro bono in getting Aboriginal people out of smoking, but I am a linguist.

So, back in 2004 I began researching Australian Aboriginal languages and realised that out of 330 Aboriginal languages only 13, that is 4%, were alive and kicking, that is spoken by all the children. I also recognised that only some of the dreaming, sleeping beautiful languages were revivable; that is, the ones such as Barngarla, that had written dictionaries and grammars, usually concocted by Christian missionaries.

I decided to apply a transdisciplinary approach to language revival and to establish what I call “Revivalistics”, a distinct field of enquiry. Revivalistics looks at language reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration from multiple angles and perspectives such as law, mental health, sociology, anthropology, music, pedagogy, architecture, art, and linguistics. Revivalistics goes beyond Linguistics. I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane and then I accepted the Endangered Languages Chair at the University of Adelaide, so endangered that it is the only such chair in Australia. It’s ironic how many endangered languages there are, while there is only one chair for this vital field. Since one language becomes a sleeping beauty approximately once a fortnight, my work involves travelling all over the world, giving keynote addresses in countries where languages have not just become extinct but, as is the case with Barngarla, been killed, having been subject to linguicide: when children are stolen from their parents or forbidden to use their mother tongue, this means the language has been killed and its people experience intergenerational trauma.

Alongside my interest in the global field of Revivalistics, I wished to be involved in a specific micro-reclamation project. So, on taking up my chair at Adelaide, I surveyed which Aboriginal groups had a desire to reclaim their dreaming sleeping beauty languages, which had not done it so far and which revival would be very complicated. I found that Barngarla fitted all these criteria as it was complex, being once spoken in a large area, with communities far from each other. For example, the distance between Port Augusta and Galinyala, that is Port Lincoln, is 345 kms.

Obiter dictum, the location of Barngarla is interesting: at least 52,000 years ago Australian Aboriginal people arrived in the north of Australia and then travelled clockwise and anti-clockwise, meeting in Barngarla land approximately 47,000 years ago.

This geographic distance complexity appealed to me because I wanted to contribute as much as possible to an area where it is very hard. Many people can teach a language, but not everyone is suited for the trans-disciplinary field of enquiry that is language reclamation. This area requires a comprehensive, Gestaltic approach. I intend to publish a relevant article on Language Revival in every discipline, working together with field specialists, such as lawyers, psychiatrists and architects.  ‘Architecture and Revival’, for example, raises questions about where we should revive an Aboriginal Australian language: in the bush or in a Western building or in a hybrid space, a fusion?

I work with the Barngarla communities once a month rather than every week and we are still searching for a suitably qualified Barngarla person who would study Revivalistics and linguistics to take over the lead from me. As a revivalist, you not only need to approach the endeavour from several perspectives, but also be several people all in one; that is, a linguist, a social worker, a consultant, an accountant, a manager and an emergency contact.

Language revival undertaking is an extremely challenging and complex struggle that feels like a roller coaster ride, but I remind myself that the reward is the journey and I am in this for the long haul. My work has one important redeeming feature: despite the difficulties, the Barngarla people I approached in 2012 are very motivated to revive their dreaming, sleeping beauty language. Most Aboriginal Australians see their languages as the mouth of the land; it is a trinity of land, tongue and people. The land may tell them what their language is and the language may tell them what their Dreaming is.

Back in 2006 you wrote (p. 58):

Israeli Hebrew presents the linguist with a unique laboratory in which to examine a wider set of theoretical problems concerning language genesis and evolution, social issues such as language and politics, and also practical matters such as whether or not it is possible to revive a no-longer-spoken language

 whereas you are now facilitating the revival of an Australian Aboriginal language, Barngarla[1], which, unlike Biblical Hebrew, was not written.

In language revival, what unique challenges does a language whose history is oral and pictorial, present?
In language revival, regardless of oral or written tradition, there are universals such as that the phonology, the sound system, reflects the mother tongue(s) of the revivalists. For example, by-and-large: neo-Hawaiian speakers sound like Americans, reclaimed Barngarla speakers sound like Aboriginal Australian English speakers; Israelis sound like Yiddish speakers.

It is of course easier to revive a language if there is a written tradition: the reclamation of Hebrew used a plethora of written texts ranging from the Torah to the Mishnah. But Barngarla had been killed by 1960 and only had one dictionary written by Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann, a German Lutheran Christian priest in 1844.

In the process of reviving a language, first I look at the most user-friendly way of writing it. As with the remaining 13 of 330 languages, we decided to use the Latin alphabet, the roman script, for reviving Barngarla, but problems arose when trying to choose the most accessible and least misleading way of spelling a word such as ‘nunyara’ (meaning ‘surviving’), which is now written as ‘noonyara’ for the sake of clarifying its pronunciation to the English speaker.

Sometimes the oral/visual tradition is combined with the written one. I enjoy using apps and other talknological devices for righting the wrongs of the past. Technology, used for invasion (ships), colonization (weapons) and stolen generations (governmental black cars kidnapping Aboriginal children from their mothers), is employed (in the form of an app) to assist the Barngarla to reconnect with their cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty, and spirituality.

So, recently the Barngarla community, myself and IT friends produced a Barngarla Dictionary App. The app has been embraced by both the Barngarla and the general public. We only recorded Barngarla people to pronounce all the words. Importantly, the app features two types of searches: an alphabetical one and a traditional search using images.

The app also demonstrates another type of righting the wrong of the past: a dictionary written in 1844, in order to assist a religious missionary to show the “heathens” the Christian light (and thus to weaken their own spirituality), is used 170 years later to assist the Barngarla to reconnect with their very heritage.

According to comments you have made, your book, Israelit Safa Yafa (Israeli – A Beautiful Language), published in 2008, rewarded you with more detractors than supporters.
Can you speculate on why this may have been the case?
I analyse languages, especially reclaimed ones, differently from the traditional family tree model. According to the traditional family tree model, a language always has one parent. In my view, reclaimed languages are multi-parental, deriving from several languages at the same time. In comparison to purists, many of whom were critical of my book, I embrace hybridity because through it we create a new diversity. Indeed, I enjoy the intellectual discussion that follows on from raising such controversial issues. (There were 50 reviews of my book although, as it happens, some reviewers never even read it.)  I appreciate how threatening my approach can be for some while I simultaneously recognise the comfort my book has brought to many others, such as Israeli speakers who have been unjustifiably belittled for not speaking their mother tongue correctly. I believe that a native speaker never makes mistakes.

In addition to working on your current (2017-2021) five-year research project grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) for Barngarla, you probably have future research plans.
If so, is it too early to outline some of these here?
I hope to establish an endowed national centre of language revival and turn Australia into a role model and the world leader in language reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration. Without one’s heritage language it is hard to achieve intellectual sovereignty, cultural autonomy, spirituality, wellbeing and mental health. As I told you earlier, many Aboriginal people see language, land and people as one trinity entity. But if I had to choose, language is far more important than land.

[1] There are roughly 1000 Barngarla and about 150 Barngarla people participate and this percentage of active participants is quite promising. Barngarla is a Thura-Yura  language belonging to the Pama–Nyungan family of languages that is the most widespread language in Australia amongst Indigenous Australians. The name ‘Pama–Nyungan’ is derived from the names of the two most widely separated groups, the Pama languages of the northeast and the Nyungan languages of the southwest. The words pama and nyunga mean ‘man’ in their respective languages. The other language families indigenous to the continent of Australia are occasionally referred to as non-Pama–Nyungan languages (i.e. there is no known system that groups them whereas most Torres Strait Islander languages are separate), though this is not a taxonomic term. The Pama–Nyungan family accounts for most of the geographic spread, most of the Aboriginal population, and the greatest number of languages. The Pama–Nyungan family was identified and named by Kenneth Hale. These languages are related in terms of the roots of words, some grammar. Writing, according to linguists, is secondary to the spoken native tongue. Saussure for example said a language is primarily speaking although this is not the case for Chinese. People are not born to write; they are born to speak.

Suggested citation:

Cross, Judie (2017). “Interview with Ghil’ad Zuckermann,”, September 2017.


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