On the 9th of January, our school, EMIS, had the privilege of attending a seminar given by Ghil’ad Zukerman, an internationally renowned Israeli Linguist. Ghil’ad, who spoke ardently of his own exploits towards the preservation of native Australian languages, also gave an expo on the amazing nature of the spoken language as an organic being. A joyful speaker, Ghil’ad perplexed us with the beauty and variety of spoken tongues around the world.
Notwithstanding, he also discussed the problems behind linguicide, and even the capitalist nature of human beings. Overall, it was a remarkably hard hitting dialogue, which we at the EMIS blog had the privilege of elongating. The EMIS Blog team, after the initial seminar, engaged Ghil’ad in a colloquy/interview, as to intently address all questions our student body might have had.
This is the conversation we had:
EMIS Team: Okay, so basically it’s just questions about how this international community will affect the way we acquire languages, maybe how the process for us, in learning languages, perhaps while having problems with our own native languages, being here at the international school. In that case I think my first question would be, how do you think it will affect our native language?
Ghil’ad: I think that firstly being at an international school creates awareness about language diversity, much more than when you study in your home country. So you embrace more aesthetic views of other languages, you understand that people might see things a little bit differently because of the language. It’s not the case that if you don’t have a word for passion in your own language you cannot be passionate, of course you can. But it’s the case of sometimes maybe a Russian person would think about a bridge differently than an Israeli person or from a German person or from another person according to the gender of the bridge, whether the bridge is feminine or masculine. This might affect the way people perceive a bridge, whether its sturdy or elegant and beautiful. So I think that studying at an international school, first it creates more awareness about the importance of language.
The other thing is that when it’s an international school in English, I’ve discovered that many people who came from an international school, they speak in a kind of academic English, of a certain kind of tongue, but it’s not exactly an American accent, not exactly a British accent, not a European accent. I often find very comfortable to speak to an international school graduate because, and especially if you’re not a native speaker of English, you still have very good English. So you’re kind of an international English speaker, but you’re not a native speaker of English.
EMIS Team: And you think maybe there’s a loss of dialect, maybe in that process, where that might be a danger that, I don’t know, we should be aware of? A danger to our native tongues.
Ghil’ad: I Hope not because I think that would be a failure of the school fi they tell you: ‘I mean look, forget about your language, just learn English.” And don’t forget the IB actually Champions the training of your native tongue, so there you have L1 and L2.You do the IB here, right?
EMIS Team: Yes, we do.
Ghil’ad: So when I did the IB in Italy, I had to do Italian, English and Israeli. Three languages, because the 6th class was Italian, but English and Israeli were like literature. And also Italian literature so I had to do three languages out of six courses and I believe every Ib student does this, right?
EMIS Team: Yes.
Ghil’ad: So I think the IB at large will be good for languages.
EMIS Team: I guess I have another question, but I just forgot so I can ask you the other one, you mentioned this during the presentation. When you try to recover a language, you call it dormant, but is there an event horizon, or a point from which a language is simply un-retractable, is simply unable to become…
Ghil’ad: Yeah, firstly, there are some languages that were lost before we wrote them down and you know, most languages in the world are not oral, sorry, they are not literate, there just oral. So most languages in the world, do not have a written script.
EMIS Team: Can you give us any examples?
Ghil’ad: You go to Papua New Guinea, you have hundreds of languages, none of them was written before the linguists arrived. Three hundred and thirty languages in Australia, according to my new counting, three hundred languages, none of them was written, before linguists arrived. So, these languages, unless some linguist or missionary or somebody came and wrote them down, you know, they were killed and that’s it. You cannot prove them because you have no information about them. It’s not like, you know, Hebrew that had the Mishna, the Old Testament. Hebrew was relatively easier because you had all these scriptures.
So one way is, okay, you don’t have enough material, you only have several words, 20 words and you don’t even know the related languages, which you can use to re-construct. Another situation is that you have the material, but the people are not interested. Of course there is no reason why you should revive a language that the people themselves are not interested in reviving. So this is another obstacle.
Look, there is another obstacle… that people are extremely puristic and perscriptionist, and don’t like it when the children speak differently from the original and this is a little bit like “Give us Authenticity or give us death.” And the result is death, so you need to be very realistic, you should not be too puristic, too perscriptionist…
EMIS Team: You mean too official in the language?
Ghil’ad: You should not get to pedantic, because if you’re too pedantic you can discourage people from speaking the native language. And this happens if the last native speakers around, the elders and they don’t like how the young people speak. In the Tiwe islands, T-I-W-E islands, just north of Darwin, there is this situation there in which the elders say, “o, you young people, you are slaughtering the language, we don’t want you to speak.” So although the young people were interested in speaking and maintaining and revitalizing, they were discouraged by this kind of hygienic, pedantic, over… like, over egging the pudding point of view.
EMIS Team: One last question. Here at the Emis we are introduced to all these new languages, some of which we didn’t even know existed and there is this kind of desperation and I say desperation, but what I mean is fanaticism to kind of grasp all these languages at the same time. Like, suddenly there is like, what… what twenty? Thirty? A lot of languages and think the person who speaks the most is like Rados who speaks like seven languages I believe.
Ghil’ad: Who? Where is he from?
EMIS Team: He’s Bosnian. But there’s kind of this desperation to kind of grasp all these languages and the ones we are learning are quite few. So is there maybe a tip you could give us to help us maybe, acquire more languages that would make it easier. A strategy maybe that could help us.
Ghil’ad: Yeah, the strategies to improve each and every component are the seven components. So firstly, musicality, and it’s possible to improve, it’s a matter of time and effort. Secondly, mathematicity is possible to improve, intelligence, it’s possible. Memory, it’s possible, mnemonics, you know, it’s possible to use aids to memorize things. Then you have sociability, it is something that is possible to improve, you have a lack of shame. If you come from a culture which shame is… the major thing instead of guilt, there are things you can do, although it’s very hard, since it’s a psychological thing. And of course the easiest thing to improve is motivation. If you’re not motivated, you need to kind of invent a motivation. For example, to have a close friend, you decide to study philosophy and then you want to learn German so you can study Nietzsche. So, you need to improve your motivations.
So, my answer to you is, take any of the seven and improve any of the seven or several of them that will make you a good foreign language learner. Of course, as a native language learner you don’t need to improve anything because it doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, you will be a good, a perfect language acquirer. And if your mother and father correct their child, it’s a waste of time, because a child knows what is correct grammatically.
EMIS Team: I think that was the last question. Thank you very much.
Peter S. Mangi