Language revival: Sleeping beauties awake

12 September 2012


Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann: Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide spoke at a public lecture on revival linguisitcs.

Australia ought to learn from Aotearoa New Zealand in giving its indigenous languages official status and erecting bilingual road signs, says a world-renowned expert on language revival.

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, made the comments in at a public lecture sponsored by the School of Maori and Pacific Development at the University of Waikato on revival linguistics – a groundbreaking discipline underpinning language revitalisation.

“Language reclamation is becoming increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty and improve their well-being,” Professor Zuckermann said.

Sleeping beauties

He described many indigenous Australian languages as ‘sleeping beauties’ with no native speakers as a result of historical efforts by invaders and colonists to stop indigenous Australians from speaking their own languages.

Reviving these languages is ethically most significant but is a big task, he said.

“Language reclamation is the most extreme case of second language learning,” he said. “When you study Chinese, it's not easy, but you have millions of people to listen to. With a hibernating language, there is no one to listen to.”

Focus on the process

Revival linguistics ought to help community leaders and language revitalisers to focus on the process as much as the end goal, and accept that languages cross-fertilise and continually evolve. 

“Shift happens,” he said. “I would prefer to have a hybrid language than none at all, and I would urge language revivalists to discard the imprisoning purism prism and accept hybrid vigour.”

Maori, said Professor Zuckermann, is a relative success story. He described the Maori Language Commission as an important achievement, and noted that Te Reo Maori was an official language, along with the New Zealand Sign Language.

However, people should not be complacent, he said. Maori is still an endangered language with a very small percentage of native speakers, particularly among children who are the most important community members.

Language inspiration

But he rejected suggestions that Maori should be compulsory in schools. “The opportunity to learn Maori with clever and knowledgeable teachers should be available in every school in Aotearoa but I don’t believe in coercion, I believe in inspiration,” he said. “If you force Pakeha to study Maori rather than love it as a beautiful language, you may create a counter-productive antagonism. 

"That said, when it comes to the various Maori tribes themselves, it is for them to decide whether or not Te Reo ought to be obligatory. Native bilingualism has huge cognitive advantages and I would urge anybody anywhere in the world to ensure that their children or community members are multilingual."