Interview with Ghil’ad Zuckermann

Prof. Ghil‘ad Zuckermann Prof. Ghil‘ad Zuckermann with Barngarla woman Anita Taylor at the newly-established Gabmididi Manoo (Barngarla for ‘Learning Together’, the name conconcted by Zuckermann and approved by the Barngarla community) Children and Family Centre (A Council Of Australian Governments Closing The Gap Initiative), Hincks Avenue and Clutterbuck Street, Whyalla, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.

D.Phil. (Oxford), Ph.D. (Cambridge) (titular) Ghil’ad Zuckermann, is Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, Australia. A native speaker of a reclaimed tongue (Revived Hebrew) and fluent in 10 other languages, he is an expert of Revivalistics (including Revival Linguistics and Revivalomics), language contact, borrowing, lexicology and the study of language, culture and identity.

Professor Zuckermann is Distinguished Visiting Professor and Oriental Scholar at the Institute of Linguistic Studies at Shanghai International Studies University (China), Visiting Professorial Scientist at the Pilpel Genomics Lab, Department of Molecular Genetics, Weizmann Institute of Science, and Visiting Professor at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (Hebrew University of Jeruslaem).

He serves as Editorial Board member of the Journal of Language Contact.

He has published in English, Israeli (‘Ivrit’), Italian, Yiddish, Spanish, German, Russian and Chinese. His revolutionary bestseller book Israelit Safa Yafa (Israeli – A Beautiful Language) was published in 2008 by Am Oved (Tel Aviv), and his book Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew came out with Palgrave Macmillan in 2003. He is currently preparing Revivalistics: Language Reclamation and Cross Fertilization (Oxford University Press).

Jin: Would you introduce the background of language death of aboriginal languages in Australia?

Professor Zuckermann: I distinguish “language death” by two types: linguicide and glottophagy. Linguicide is language killing. To force children to attend an English-speaking school and to ban them from speaking their own tongue is a form of language killing. Glottophagy is language eating, and this depends much more on the people’s desires, which may or may not be based on erroneous assumptions about bilingualism etc.

Linguicide and glottophagy have made Australia an unlucky country. These twin forces have been in operation in Australia since the early colonial period, when efforts were made to prevent Aboriginal people from continuing to speak their language, in order to ‘civilise’ them. Anthony Forster, a nineteenth-century financier and politician, gave voice to a colonial linguicide ideology, which was typical of much of the attitude towards Australian languages (Report on a public meeting of the South Australian Missionary Society in aid of the German Mission to the Aborigines, Southern Australian, 8 September 1843, p. 2, cf. Scrimgeour1 2007: 116):

The natives would be sooner civilized if their language was extinct. The children taught would afterwards mix only with whites, where their own language would be of no use – the use of their language would preserve their prejudices and debasement, and their language was not sufficient to express the ideas of civilized life.

Even Governor of South Australia George Grey, who was relatively pro-Aboriginal, appeared to partially share this opinion and remarked in his journal that ‘the ruder languages disappear successively, and the tongue of England alone is heard around’ (Grey 1841: 200-201). What was seen as a ‘civilising’ process was actually the traumatic death of various fascinating and multifaceted Aboriginal languages.

It is not surprising therefore that out of 250 known Aboriginal languages, today only 18 (7%) are alive and kicking, i.e. spoken natively by the community children. Blatant statements of linguistic imperialism such as the ones made by Forster and Grey now seem to be less frequent, but the processes they describe are nonetheless still active, let alone if one looks at the Stolen Generations between approximately 1909 and 1969.

There are approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken worldwide. 96% of the world’s population speaks 4% of the world’s languages, leaving the vast majority of tongues vulnerable to extinction and disempowering for their speakers. Linguistic diversity reflects many things beyond accidental historical splits. Languages are essential building blocks of community identity and authority. However, with globalisation, homogenisation and Coca-colonisation there will be more and more groups added to the forlorn club of the powerless lost-heritage peoples. Language reclamation will become increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve their wellbeing.

Revivalistics – including Revival Linguistics and Revivalomics – is a new interdisciplinary field of enquiry studying comparatively and systematically the universal constraints and global mechanisms on the one hand (see Zuckermann 20092), and particularistic peculiarities and cultural relativist idiosyncrasies on the other, apparent in linguistic revitalization attempts across various sociological backgrounds, all over the globe (Zuckermann & Walsh 20113).

Revivalistics combines scientific studies of native language acquisition and foreign language learning: language reclamation is the most extreme case of foreign language learning. Revivalistics is far more than Revival Linguistics. It studies language revival from various angles such as law, mental health, sociology, technology, talknology and the New Media, politics, education, colonisation, missionary studies, art and architecture.


Two of the Barngarla participants in a recent Barngarla reclamation workshop conducted by Prof. Zuckermann, 12-14 May 2013, Whyalla, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia

Jin: How often do you conduct the workshops? And who attend the courses?

Professor Zuckermann: At this stage: several days once a month. This is in addition to the normal University workload. Approximately 30 people attend each workshop. There are currently 3 different locations, so we have almost 100 Barngarla people directly involved in the reclamation. The total number of Barngarla Aboriginal people is approximately 1,000. I hope to train as many Barngarla people as possible to teach Barngarla themselves at childcares, primary schools, secondary schools and other institutions in Eyre Peninsula, which means that many more Barngarla, and other Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people will be exposed to Barngarla, which in my view ought to be the official language of Eyre Peninsula.

Jin: What is the meaning of reclaiming a dead language? Why should we invest time and money in reviving languages?

Professor Zuckermann: I would like to share my opinions from three perspectives: Ethical reasons, aesthetic reasons and utilitarian benefits.

1. Ethical reasons

Australia’s languages have not just been dying of their own accord, as many Australians and non-Australians believe. Many of the languages were destroyed by settlers of this land. We owe it to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to support the maintenance and revival of their cultural heritage, in this instance through language revival. To quote Nelson Mandela: ‘if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’. Every person has the right to speak their mother tongue, to express themselves in the language of their ancestors, not just in the language of convenience that English has become.

Language death means not only the loss of cultural autonomy, but also of spiritual and intellectual sovereignty. Cultural knowledge perishes, and therefore the direct connection to ancestors through language, often resulting in feelings of anger or isolation. Through the prejudices of colonists, so much pride and cultural autonomy was lost along with heritage that can never be reclaimed. Through supporting language revival we can right some small part of the wrong against the original inhabitants of this country and support the wishes of their ancestors with the help of linguistic knowledge. We can appreciate the importance of Indigenous languages and recognise their importance to Indigenous people and to Australia.

Despite being aware of the people-land-language trinity, I propose that ontologically, the loss of language is more severe than the loss of land. When the land is lost, it is still there, albeit mined or abused by others. When a language is lost, even though the ownership (rather than usership) still exists, the language is not there anymore, let alone the loss of cultural autonomy, spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, ideas, values and experiences.

2. Aesthetic reasons

Australia was once linguistically diverse, but this diversity has been vanishing rapidly. Most of Australia’s approximately 250 original languages are falling asleep, or have already become ‘sleeping beauties’. The linguist Ken Hale, who worked with many endangered languages and saw the effect of loss of language, compared losing language to bombing the Louvre.

When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It’s like dropping a bomb on a museum, the Louvre.

(Ken Hale, The Economist, 3 November 2001)

A museum is a repository of human artistic culture. Languages are even more important since they store the cultural practices and beliefs of an entire people. In Australia, information relating to food sources, surviving in nature and dreamtime often passes away when language perishes.

Different languages have different ways of expressing ideas and this can indicate which concepts are important to a certain culture. A lot of fascinating words should not be lost as they are important to the cultures they are from and beautiful to outsiders. Through language maintenance and reclamation we can keep important cultural practices and concepts alive.

3. Utilitarian benefits

Language revival benefits the speakers involved through improvement of wellbeing, mental health and cognitive abilities. It reduces delinquency and increases cultural tourism. Language revival has a positive effect on the mental and physical wellbeing of people involved. Participants develop a better appreciation of and sense of connection with their cultural heritage and tradition. Reacquiring their ancestors’ tongue can be an emotional experience and provide people with a strong sense of pride and identity. As the Aboriginal politician Aden Ridgeway said, ‘language is power; let us have ours!’ (Ridgeway 20094). Small changes can impact people in big ways. A participant at a Barngarla Aboriginal language reclamation workshop in May 2012 (Port Lincoln, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia) wrote that she found learning the language ‘liberating’, that it gave her a ‘sense of identity’ and that ‘it’s almost like it gives you a purpose in life’. Another participant said: ‘our ancestors are happy’.

There are various cognitive advantages to multilingualism. Several studies have found that bilingual children have better non-linguistic cognitive abilities compared with monolingual children (see, e.g., Kovacs and Mehler 20095) and improved attention and auditory processing (see, e.g., Krizman et al. 20126).


Barngarla participants in a recent Barngarla reclamation workshop conducted by Prof. Zuckermann, 13-14 June 2013, Port Augusta SA.

It has been shown that people involved in Indigenous language reclamation see an improvement in non-language subjects, linked to educational empowerment and improved self-confidence. Educational success directly translates to improved employability and decreased delinquency. Approximately $50,000 per language per year was provided in 2010-11 by ILS (Indigenous Language Support) to 78 projects involving 200 languages. The cost of incarceration is $100,000 per person per year and the cost of adolescent mental health $1,395 per patient per day.

Cultural tourism already represents an important part of Australia’s economy with many tourists wishing to learn about Indigenous cultures during their stay. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures represent part of Australia’s image overseas and greatly contribute to the tourist dollar. We need to help preserve and revive these languages, and protect cultural knowledge in order to maintain this point of attraction. This tourism not only benefits the economy, but can also provide work and opportunities for Indigenous people.

For more information, you can watch a video of my speech titled Revival Linguistics: language reclamation, cultural empowerment, intellectual property and Aboriginal well being, delivered at AIATSIS Special Seminar, 2012.This one-hour lecture analyses above-mentioned three perspectives, and propose the establishment of Revival Linguistics, a new discipline.

Jin: What do the native Barngarla people think of the revival?

Professor Zuckermann:

One participant commenting on the April 2012 Barngarla reclamation language workshop wrote that learning the language was ‘liberating’, and gave a ‘sense of identity’ and ‘a purpose in life’. Another participant wrote: ‘Our ancestors are happy’. Similarly, Barngarla men Stephen Atkinson and Harry Dare in an interview for the SBS ‘Living Black’ Series 18, Episode 9 (‘Linguicide’, available online) about the Barngarla revival, expressed feelings of empowerment following a Barngarla reclamation workshop).

In fact, such feedback made me hypothesize that language reclamation might generate significant mental health benefits: improved individual and community wellbeing, increased sense of identity and purpose, empowered self-pride.


  1. Scrimgeour, Anne 2007. Colonizers as Civilizers: Aboriginal schools and the mission to ‘civilise’ in South Australia, 1839-1845. PhD thesis. Charles Darwin University, Darwin.
  2. Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad 2009. ‘Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns’. Journal of Language Contact Varia 2: 40-67.
  3. Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad & Walsh, Michael 2011.’Stop, Revive, Survive!: Lessons from the Hebrew Revival Applicable to the Reclamation, Maintenance and Empowerment of Aboriginal Languages and Cultures’. Australian Journal of Linguistics 31: 111-127.
  4. Ridgeway, Aden, 2009. ‘Language is power; let us have ours’, Sydney Morning Herald (accessed 30 October 2012).
  5. Kovács, Ágnes Melinda and Mehler, Jacques 2009, ‘Flexible Learning of Multiple Speech Structures in Bilingual Infants’. Science. Vol. 325 no. 5940 pp. 611-612.
  6. Krizman, Jen, Marian, Viorica, Shook, Anthony, Skoe E and Kraus, Nina 2012, ‘Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol 109 no. 20 pp. 7877-7881.


Xiaohua graduated with BA degree in English language & literature, and is now undertaking a Master linguistic programme at the University of Luxembourg. She also works as a freelance interpreter and translator in China and Luxembourg. Her current research interest lies in minority languages in multilingual and multicultural contexts, including social media discourse.