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Russia: Losing Words, Losing Knowledge

  • Julie Corwin

http://gdb.rferl.org/EFFB3931-45C4-480E-BBA2-5C2E0CABFB8C_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/EFFB3931-45C4-480E-BBA2-5C2E0CABFB8C_mw800_mh600.jpg Students in Grozny learning the Chechen language The 9th of August will mark the beginning of the second decade of the UN's observation of the World's Indigenous Peoples -- an international day created to register concern for the rights and welfare of indigenous peoples.

One of these rights is to speak in one's native tongue. However, some linguists believe that the number of world languages could halve over the course of this century. Scholars estimate that more than 9,000 languages died in the past two centuries as the result of wars, epidemics, acts of genocide, and the process of assimilation, "Rossiya" reported on 11 November 2004. Of the almost 7,000 languages living today, half of them can be found in only eight countries of the world; one of these countries is Russia, according to "Rossiya."

Dying Languages

Russia has more than 160 nationalities and 101 languages, according to the 2002 census and the recently released edition of "Ethnologue," a reference work cataloging all of the world's languages. While federal and local policies to promote indigenous languages flourished in the first 10 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the population of indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation, and consequently, speakers of its languages have kept declining. What's more, that trend is expected to continue. While it is hard to generalize about a country as large as Russia, the majority of the languages of the numerically small peoples share at least three common problems. First and foremost, their best speakers are in many cases elderly. The younger generation often speaks Russian better than the language of their ethnic group. Two, there is typically little prestige or economic incentive associated with mastering the indigenous languages. Three, federal and/or local programs designed to promote indigenous language use and instructions are often badly funded or nonexistent.

From 2003-04, only 47.5 percent of the children of the indigenous people of northern Siberia and the far east were actually studying their native language in schools, according to the social-science journal "Sotsis -- sotsiologizheskie issledovaniya" of 24 May 2005. In the southern Siberian republic of Buryatia, just 40 percent of local primary schools offer instruction in Buryatian; all teaching at upper levels are in the Russian language. In the republic of Khakassia in 2002, 35 percent of students in the republican capital of Abakan were studying Khakassian, according to a paper delivered by Tamara Borgoiakova (sic) of Khakassia State University during an international conference in 2002. But offering indigenous languages in schools doesn't necessarily guarantee that students will use them outside of class. Of the percentage of students studying Khakassian in Abakan schools, only 2 percent reported using the language with their parents, 22 percent with their grandparents, and no one reported using it with their friends.
The greatest threat to indigenous languages is that their most fluent speakers are often elderly.


There are any number of explanations for the failure of young people to embrace their ancestors' language. One is lack of prestige. The most fluent speakers of indigenous languages are often concentrated in the villages and rural areas, thus giving the language an association of "backwardness" among urbanites. Perhaps more significant are the greater economic opportunities associated with the dominant language, Russian. However, even the custodians of the Russian language have concerns that the use of their language is declining, particularly in the CIS countries. At a conference in Moscow last June, Deputy Education and Science Minister Andrei Svinarenko attributed the declining interest in studying Russian to Russia's political and economic situation. And if Russian is declining in popularity, we can only imagine how low the status of Khakassian or Buryatian has fallen.

Of course, Buryatian -- with more than 300,000 speakers -- is in much better shape than dozens of other indigenous languages in Russia. Among the 11 languages identified by "Ethnologue" as "endangered" is Southern Yukaghir, a language spoken in northeastern Siberia. In 1859, there were more than 2,000 Yukaghirs, but over the next six decades the population declined rapidly due to epidemics and assimilation. And like so many other indigenous peoples of northern Siberia and Russia's far east, collectivization resulted in cultural discontinuity and further population declines.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the Soviet government sent all Yukaghir children to boarding schools, where they were schooled in Russian. Today, speakers of Southern Yukaghir number only 30 to 150, all of whom are older adults, according to "Ethnologue." According to "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 24 December 2002, Russian ethnologists used to joke darkly that for every Yukaghir, there are three academic volumes about their people. The situation is even more dire for the Tundra Ents language of north-central Siberia. Only two or three of its speakers are still alive.

The Tuvan Model

Of course, the poor physical health and dismal living conditions of many indigenous peoples tends to trump all other challenges facing a language's survival. The Tuva Republic has received high marks for its language program, but Tuva is one of the poorest regions in Russia. Tuvin is the language of instruction in 80 percent of elementary and high schools, according to Borgoiakova. In the majority of Tuva homes, Tuvin is the only language spoken. The strong position of the Tuvin language in the republic represents, according to Borgoiakova, "the most successful model of implementation of language law in Siberia." Of all of the numerically small peoples of northern Siberia and Russia's far east, the Tuvins-Todzhentsev had the highest increase in their mortality rate for the period from 1999-2003, according to "Sotsis." Their death rate rose by 150 percent.

In the face of such alarming statistics, concern about language use may seem esoteric. After all, many if not most members of indigenous populations in Russia can speak Russian, enabling them to function in their daily lives and participate in the local and national economy. But language may represent something more than just a means of communication and a window into a culture.

Some linguists are connecting linguistic diversity with efforts to preserve and understand the environment. Speaking at an international conference in 2002, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas of Denmark's Rotskilde University reported that Finnish biologists recently "discovered" that salmon can use extremely small rivulets leading to a local river as spawning ground, something scientists previously thought was impossible. But the indigenous group the Saami have always known this and that the traditional Saami names of several of those rivulets often include the Saami word for "salmon-spawning bed." According to Skutnabb-Kangas, this kind of ecological knowledge is preserved in indigenous languages.

See also:

Efforts Under Way To Prevent Extinction Of Shor Language

Q&A With Crimea's Mustafa Dzhemilev -- 'How Can We Right The Injustices Inflicted On Our People?'

Berlin Conference Focuses On Plight Of Deported Nationalities Of Former Soviet Union
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