New AdelaideX MOOC explores how to revive endangered languages

From 28 July a new AdelaideX MOOC, Language Revival, will explore the critical question of how we can save and revive endangered languages around the world. Drawing on the expertise of the University of Adelaide’s Linguistics Department and featuring contributions from South Australia’s Kaurna people and others who have successfully revived languages, this course will offer powerful testimony to language’s essential role in people’s lives and in their communities. Here, Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, course instructor and Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, explains why reviving languages is such an important task for all cultures experiencing this problem.

Writer Russell Hoban (1925-2011) described language as an ‘archaeological vehicle, full of the remnants of dead and living pasts, lost and buried civilizations and technologies.’

Linguicide (language killing) and glottophagy (language eating) have been in operation in Australia since the early colonial period. For example, Anthony Forster, a 19th-century financier and politician, said in 1843: “The natives would be sooner civilized if their language was extinct.” And in the same era the Governor of South Australia, George Grey, who was relatively pro-Aboriginal, remarked in his journal in 1841 that ‘the ruder languages disappear successively, and the tongue of England alone is heard around’.

Given this history, it is not surprising that today, out of 330 known Aboriginal languages in Australia only 13 (or 4%) are alive and kicking — that is, they are spoken natively, as a mother tongue, by children in communities. Blatant statements of linguistic imperialism such as the ones made by Forster now seem to be made less frequently, but the processes they describe are nonetheless still active, let alone if one considers the Stolen Generations between approximately 1909 and 1969.

There are around 7000 languages spoken worldwide. But 96% of the world’s population speaks only 4% of the world’s languages. Linguistic diversity reflects many things beyond accidental historical splits. Languages are essential building blocks of community identity and authority. However, with globalization, homogenization and Coca-colonization there will be more and more groups all over the world 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 and mental health.

‘Revivalistics’ is a new trans-disciplinary field of enquiry, currently being established at the University of Adelaide, and explored in our AdelaideX MOOC Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages. It studies the universal constraints on the one hand, and the culturally-specific peculiarities on the other hand, occurring in attempts at linguistic reclamation, revitalization and reinvigoration, across various sociological backgrounds and all over the globe, from the Promised Land (Revived Hebrew) to Australia, known as the “Lucky Country”.

Revivalistics combines scientific studies of native language acquisition and foreign language learning. After all, the reclamation of a sleeping beauty tongue is the most extreme case of foreign language learning. Revivalistics is far more than Revival Linguistics. It studies language revival from various other angles such as law, mental health, education, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, geography, politics, history, biology, evolution, genetics, genomics, colonization studies, missionary studies, media, technology, talknology, archaeology, meteorology, theatre, dance, music, and even architecture.

Establishing Revivalistics in Australia is turning Indigenous Australians into experts of language revival, who will be able to assist many others in linguistic need.

To find out more about this course, and to enrol, visit the edX website: Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages.

To connect with Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, visit his Facebook page:

Read more about Ghil’ad’s perspective on how language revival can impact on social and mental health issues.

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