You're reading


Like many people in Australia, Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann is a regular contributor to the fund to save the Tasmanian Devil. The Tasmanian Devil, which Zuckermann remarks is an “ugly animal”, is listed as endangered, along with much of the unique and beautiful wildlife that makes Australia such a distinctive and enigmatic place. Yet animal life is not the only thing that has struggled to keep up with the pressures of modern life down under.

Before European colonisers arrived, Australia used to be one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, boasting around 250 different languages

While Australia may be famous the world over for its biodiversity, for a linguistics professor like Zuckermann, the country has another allure: its languages. Before European colonisers arrived, Australia used to be one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, boasting around 250 different languages. Due in part to Australia’s long geographic isolation, many of these had developed unique grammatical structures and concepts that were unknown to languages in other parts of the world.

One of these is a language called Guugu Yimithirr, spoken in the north of Queensland, which gave the world the word "kangaroo". It’s also made remarkable by the fact that unlike languages like English, it does not make use of ego-centric positioning systems such as "left" and "right". Instead, all speakers of Guugu Yimithirr have an in-built compass in their brain that allows them to always know where is north, south, east and west. Therefore, they have no need to talk about the "left tap" or the "right tap". Instead, they just refer to the "north tap" or the "south tap".

But according to the 2016 Australian census, Guugu Yimithirr has just 775 native speakers alive today, with numbers on the decline. Of the 250 languages spoken before settlers arrived, today all but 13 of them are considered to be "highly endangered" – a fact that is often overlooked.

A protest for Aboriginal rights in Melbourne, Australia. The recognition and appreciation of indigenous languages is one of many issues affecting these communities (Credit: Getty)

“I believe that most people care more about animals that are endangered than about languages that are endangered,” Zuckerman explains. “The reason is that animals are tangible. You can touch a koala, even though in the wild you’d be crazy to do so because she can kill you with her claws. But koalas are cute. Languages, however, are not tangible. They are abstract. People understand the importance of biodiversity far more than that of linguistic diversity.”

Yet for Zuckermann, preserving linguistic diversity is hugely important. For indigenous communities in Australia and worldwide that are still grappling with the legacy of colonisation, being able to speak their ancestral language is about empowerment and reclaiming their identity. It may even carry significant consequences for their mental health.

You might also like:

Ghil’ad Zuckermann first visited Australia in 2004. He felt so overcome with love for what he describes as the most beautiful country he’d ever seen that he decided he wanted to do something to help it. As a linguistics professor from Israel, the son of a Holocaust survivor, and a specialist at the time in the analysis of the Hebrew language revival, he quickly identified an area where he could have an impact: the revival and empowerment of Aboriginal languages and cultures.

Zuckermann first established the trans-disciplinary field of enquiry called “Revivalistics”, which focuses on supporting the survival, revival and reinvigoration of endangered and extinct languages all around the world. These range from languages such as Hebrew, Welsh, Cornish and Irish, to Hawaiian, North American languages like Wampanoag and Myaamia, and many others.

The language spoken by Guugu Yimithirr people, who are pictured here, is just one of many Aboriginal tongues that are now endangered (Credit: Getty)

As an Israeli, Zuckermann grew up a native speaker of Modern Hebrew, arguably the world’s most successful example of language revival to date. Hebrew was extinct for almost 2,000 years until Zionist language revivalists began to bring it back into use in the late 19th Century. They achieved this by adapting the ancient language of the Torah so that it could be suitable for modern life. It would eventually become the mother tongue of all Jews in the new state of Israel, founded in 1948.

Zuckermann’s expertise and personal experience with Modern Hebrew greatly informs his work in Australia today, precisely because he takes a critical view of it. He argues that the language spoken natively by millions of people in Israel today and that they call Hebrew is not, and could not be, the same language of the Bible.

“The Jews did not manage to revive the language of Isaiah. It is simply impossible to revive a language as it used to be.” Instead, Zuckermann explains that Modern Hebrew, which he controversially refers to as "Israeli", is a hybrid language, drawing on the influences that Jewish migrants brought with them to Israel from their native languages, such as Yiddish, Polish, Russian and Arabic. Over the course of generations, these blended together to shape the language in its modern form. According to Zuckermann, this should not be seen as a problem. These changes are a natural and necessary part of the process of reviving a language.

Modern Hebrew is very different from the ancient language - but it has now developed a life of its own (Credit: Getty)

“I take into consideration the speaker more than the language. A speaker of Yiddish could not get rid of their Yiddish Weltanschauung or mindset, even though they hated Yiddish and wanted to speak Hebrew. But the moment a person understands the importance of the native speaker at the expense of linguistic purism and authenticity of the language, that person can be a good revivalist.”

Sleeping beauties

Much of Zuckermann’s work in Australia has centred on Barngarla, a dead language – Zuckermann prefers the term “sleeping beauty” – that was spoken in the rural areas of southern Australia between the cities of Port Augusta, Port Lincoln and Whyalla. The last native speaker, Moonie Davis, passed away in 1960. Yet when Zuckerman reached out to the Barngarla community and proposed that he help revive their language and their culture, he was amazed by their response. “We have been waiting for you for 50 years,” they told him.

Zuckermann’s starting point was a dictionary written by a Lutheran missionary called Robert Schürmann in 1844. In 2011, Zuckermann began making regular trips to Barngarla country to run language revival workshops. Together, and with Zuckermann’s help and guidance, the Barngarla community built upon the knowledge stored within Schürmann’s 1844 dictionary. They pooled together what they could remember of words they’d heard their parents and grandparents saying.

They also held discussions about how to devise appropriate words that could apply to modern life. Should Barngarla follow English’s precedent and refer to the computer using the metaphor of ‘computing’ something? Or should they instead look to Mandarin Chinese, whose word 电脑 (diànnǎo) literally means “electric brain”?

The result is modern-day Barngarla, a language that has been revived in a form that is as close as possible to the Barngarla that was spoken before its last native speaker died out. Yet inevitably, as with the case of Modern Hebrew, it will never fully be the same. Too much time has passed, and there has been too much influence from the colonial language, in this case English, for today’s Barngarla to be a carbon copy. It too is a hybrid language, yet one that the Barngarla community can feel proud to speak once more. For Zuckermann, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, quite the opposite: “Hybridity results in new linguistic diversity.”


“Linguicide” – the killing of language – sits amongst the 10 forms of genocide that are recognised by the United Nations. The Barngarla language did not die out in 1960 solely due to natural causes. Like many Aboriginal languages, in the early to mid-20th Century it was actively destroyed and subjected to the cruel and imperialistic policies of the Australian government at the time, who removed children from their mothers and sent them to boarding schools thousands of miles away. There, they learned English and quickly forgot their mother tongue. If they ever returned to their ancestral homelands, they found themselves unable to communicate with their own families, as they no longer shared a common language.

The resuscitation of Aboriginal languages could coincide with a greater appreciation of these communities' art and culture (Credit: Alamy)

Lavinia Richards is one of the "stolen generation". She remembers the trauma of being forcibly separated from her mother by the Australian authorities and forced to speak a foreign language – English. When the Barngarla community released a CD of stories and songs of Barngarla people affected by the "stolen generation" in June 2018, she included on it a poem that she wrote about a flower she saw that reminded her of her mother, a reminder of a life that was denied to her because she was born speaking the wrong language.

For Zuckermann, there are three reasons why people should support language revival. The first is the simple ethical matter of righting the wrongs of colonial linguistic supremacy. Zuckermann states that the very fact that the Australian government at the time actively tried to destroy Australia’s unique linguistic diversity, driven perhaps by the racist notions of politicians such as Anthony Forster, who in 1843 declared “the natives would be sooner civilised if their language was extinct”, is convincing enough for him.

However, Zuckermann’s second reason is utilitarian. Language revival is about far more than just communication. He argues that it is about “culture, cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty, spirituality, well-being, and the soul”.

When you lose your language, you lose your soul - Ghil’ad Zuckermann

“When you lose your language, you lose your soul. When you revive your language, you don’t only revive its sounds, its words, its morphemes and its phonemes. You revive the whole shebang.”

Over his many years of working in language revival, Zuckermann has become increasingly convinced of a clear trend. He believes that amongst Aboriginal communities that have reclaimed their ancestral language, he has observed greatly improved physical and mental health. He sees a sharp drop in incidences of suicide, alcoholism, addiction and diabetes – problems that unfortunately are rife amongst Aboriginal people across Australia.

These are only anecdotal observations but in 2017, he began a five-year study to see whether he could find hard evidence to support the theory. Should he be proven right, he believes that this should give the Australian government enough cause to support language revival programmes across the country through healthcare funding from tax payers’ money.

One study from Canada found that communities who have retained their indigenous language tend to have lower suicide rates (Credit: Alamy)

A preliminary investigation in 2007 from the University of Oxford, University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria in Canada seems to support Zuckermann’s claims. By analysing Canadian census data, the researchers discovered that youth suicide rates “effectively dropped to zero in the few communities where at least half of the members reported a conversational level of their ‘Native’ language”.

“I really believe that billions of dollars in Australia have been wasted on stupid, medically approved programmes. I can prove qualitatively and quantitatively that language revival results in better health," Zuckermann says.

“You kill the language of an Aboriginal community, you cause depression. You cause depression, you cause people to lose their will to take care of their body.”

The third and final reason Zuckermann cites for supporting language revival is aesthetic. In other words, the co-existence of so many distinct and unique languages is beautiful. Australia’s multilingualism is like the human reflection of the biodiversity for which the country is so well known. Yet Zuckermann is aware that of all of his arguments, this is the one that may meet its toughest reception amongst the wider public.

For Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla, a native Hawaiian and associate professor at the University of British Columbia, speaking her ancestral language and promoting its use amongst her fellow Hawaiians is about something simple, yet fundamental. It’s about pride. “But not in an egotistical way,” she is quick to clarify. “It’s a humbling pride. It’s about accessing documents, newspapers or stories from the 1800s and understanding them on a different level to just reading them through an English translation.”

Knowledge of the indigenous language can increase the appreciate of other forms of cultural expression, like song and dance (Credit: Getty)

Galla describes the Hawaiian language as the foundation of everything distinguishing about Hawaiian culture. She believes that even the famous Hula dance, which has risen to the status of something of a global phenomenon, is impossible to truly perform without understanding Hawaiian, the lyric and the motion behind the lyric. Without an appreciation for those things, you are “just learning choreography”, according to Galla. “You can’t dance Hula without Hawaiian. You can dance, but it’s not Hula.”

Looking to the future, Zuckermann has grand plans. After his decisions to found Revivalistics and to work with the Barngarla community, he says that his next step is to spread the message far and wide.

Since running his first online open-access course on language revival in 2014, he has so far had more than 11,000 participants in 188 countries, including in Afghanistan, Syria, and countries where genocide and linguicide are common.

“I want to reach people who are not academic. People who are language activists, but who do not go to university and do not have money to do things. People who would like to revive their language.”


Alex Rawlings is a polyglot and writer, who in 2012 was named Britain’s Most Multilingual Student after being tested for fluency in 11 languages. His most recent book is From Amourette to Żal: Bizarre and Beautiful Words from Around Europe. 

Join 900,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday. 

Around the bbc