Avi Ackermann

Plan II/Linguistics

Finally–a year of ‘finally’s. I’d spent my entire life looking forward to my freshman year of college, and I was not disappointed.

Finally, after over a year of teaching myself, I was able to start learning Japanese from someone who actually spoke the language and to have conversations with native speakers. Though I met several plateaus along the way, looking back, I can confidently say that my ability improved as much as I could’ve hoped. I also finally had the chance to learn some Tuvan. My teacher was a native speaker of a closely related language (Sakha), so our weekly sessions were often cooperative as we made sense of the grammar together. I don’t know much yet, but I am finally able to figure out a bit of what the Tuvan folk songs I love are saying.

Finally, I was able to take linguistics courses and find friends who are just as excited about language as I am. From my first semester, I audited graduate classes and attended on-campus conferences that exposed me to the breadth of linguistics’ theoretical and applied forms. Along the way, I helped Professor Tony Woodbury with his documentation of Zacatepec Chatino, thought hard about the ethics of cultural autonomy in my Language Endangerment class, and experienced the subtle joy of watching Arrival with a group of other linguistics majors during a meeting of the Undergraduate Linguistics Society, among many other memorable activities. Since the break started, I’ve also been involved with a project digitizing an unpublished but uniquely comprehensive handwritten field survey of the Mixtec languages for UT’s Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America.

Finally, after a life of loving reading, I had a literature class I liked. My Plan II World Lit was a highlight of an already excellent year. So much of what I read for it, especially Cassandra by Christa Wolf and the Bhagavad Gita, are now among my favorite works. Outside of class, I found myself deeply affected and healthily disturbed by Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, and in the middle of reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, I found that I could finally write fiction that was worth sharing. I’m grateful to some fellow Dedman Scholars for being my first readers.

My summer plans–visiting the Republic of Georgia with some new linguistics friends, making my way to Croatia for the Dedman Maymester, and finally spending six weeks in New York studying Yiddish at Yivo’s intensive Weinreich Summer Program–fell through, obviously, but I am lucky that this was the extent of the disruption. I’ll still be learning Yiddish (finally) online starting in two weeks. Being accepted into the program was a bright spot during my quarantine, and every day since I’ve been looking forward to reclaiming the language for myself and those it was taken from.

Finally (finally), This past year has been especially formative morally. I’m not entirely sure what I want to do with my life, but after two semesters I think I know what my priorities are. Upon becoming an officer in the Undergraduate Linguistics Society, I shifted our focus away from just having fun talking about indigenous languages to discussion about and action for the marginalized groups who speak them. We were preparing to raise money for interpretation services for monolingual Maya refugees (who usually receive none in asylum courts) when the world shut down. In the end, we donated our treasury to nonprofits assisting indigenous people of the Amazon, who are being hit especially hard by the virus and receiving very little help from their governments.

In the coming year, I’m determined to learn deeply, generate new knowledge, and repair the world in what ways I can. The Dedman family’s generosity will make that possible.