Avi Ackermann

Plan II/Linguistics

I finished my sophomore year confused by how quickly two semesters had passed while I was still waiting for the first to begin. Eager to finish and undo a year of isolation, I came to New York for the summer of 2021. I’m in Brooklyn now, living here with friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends for two months, relishing my time in one of the best cities in the world.

This time last year, after hastily adjusting my expectations for a summer I was supposed to spend everywhere but inside my house, I threw myself into YIVO’s Uriel Weinreich Summer Program in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture. Even though my planned six weeks in New York became six weeks in front of my laptop, my experience “at” YIVO was one of the most formative events of my life. Yiddish culture is now such an important source of meaning for me that it’s hard to imagine what I’d thought about it before I’d begun to take it seriously. YIVO was also the most intense and productive language-learning experience I’ve ever had–a year ago, I only knew a couple words, but last week, my Yiddish was good enough for a friendly argument with the owner of a Williamsburg bagel shop.

I wish I had more to say about the fall semester. Spending so much time in nonexistent classrooms made the days bleed together, and what I can recall most is the confusion I felt. Still, there was plenty to be happy about. I was lucky enough to take Intro to Mayan Hieroglyphs and audit a graduate-level course on linguistic field methods. I was also asked to be a teaching assistant for Intro to Linguistics. Being on the other side of the class taught me (and hopefully my students) a lot, especially sympathy for homework-graders.

The Spring semester was a huge improvement. I took Syntax, a class I’d been looking forward to since high school. Sufism and Islamic Mysticism was a constant source of beauty, and among the best courses I’ve taken at UT. Auditing a seminar-style class on Indigenous peoples of Siberia was my first chance to seriously study a topic I’ve been fascinated by for years. Outside of class, I worked as a research assistant on a project investigating the morphology of Quechua spoken by Spanish bilinguals. If our abstract is accepted, we’ll be presenting a paper at a conference this winter.

Across both semesters, the most important thing I attempted was unquestionably my work in Uyghur activism. Last summer, I became a founding member of the Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom, an international group organizing against the ongoing genocide of the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in China. With JMUF, I helped write op-eds, organize fundraisers and campaigns, and plan cultural events. As a TA for Intro to Linguistics, I also gave a lecture on government repression of the Uyghur language in Xinjiang. In preparing my presentation, I realized how little I actually knew about Uyghurs themselves. After that, I began to spend most of my free time reading about Uyghur history and culture, as well as the modern policies designed to erase them both. During the Spring semester, I also began to work with Rayhan Asat, a prominent Uyghur-American activist whose brother, along with nearly all other Uyghur public intellectuals, has been imprisoned since 2016. One speech I wrote with her led to a genocide determination by the Lithuanian parliament, and another was delivered last week to the US Secretary of State.

Building on the Turkic fundamentals I learned with Tuvan, I also started studying the Uyghur language on my own, becoming serious about it after I was viscerally affected by contemporary Uyghur poetry. For JMUF, I organized an event to introduce Uyghur language and culture to people who might not otherwise know anything about it. As I write this, I’m about halfway through an intensive Uyghur language course at the University of Wisconsin’s Central Eurasian Studies Summer Institute, where I’m studying as a FLAS fellow. I’m still a little shocked by how quickly this topic has consumed my life and often wonder where it will take me.

At the end of last year’s reflection, I said that even if I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, I knew what my priorities were. Today, honestly, I know neither. A year spent inside has disenchanted many ideas I used to find vital, but it also gave me the chance to make unexpected personal commitments to an important cause. Whatever happens, I can’t wait for the fall semester, when I can finally return to real classes and the community which the Dedman family’s generosity created.