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Russia: Indigenous Languages Under Threat

The Selkup language and lifestyle are heading for extinction (ITAR-TASS) UNESCO's International Mother Language Day, which promotes linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, is celebrated on February 21. Northern Russia is home to 41 different ethnic groups, each with its own language. But many of those are in danger of disappearing -- some have fewer than 10 speakers of the language left today.

MOSCOW, February 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Vera Tuzakova sings a traditional song about her tribe, the Selkups, who live in Siberia's Tomsk Oblast. It's a sad song, she says, about how Selkup villages -- Laskina, Mumusheva, and others -- are disappearing, leaving just the birds' nests in the trees.

Tuzakova singing a traditional Selkup song (40 seconds):
Real Audio Windows Media

Today there are just 3,500 Selkups left. Of those, only the older generation, like Tuzakova, still speak the Selkup language.

"Our language is disappearing," Tuzakova says. "Northern Selkups still speak their language, but southern Selkups like me, because we lived closer to the Russian population, well, we were sort of reeducated. We lost more of our culture. Everyone wanted to change us."

Lifestyles, Languages Lost

The vast expanse of the Russian Federation, from the Kola to the Chukotka peninsulas, is home to more than 40 indigenous peoples. The land they have traditionally inhabited makes up more than half of Russia's entire territory.

Among the tribes are the Saami, the Khanty, the Nganasan, the Koryak, and the Tuvinian-Todzhins. But the populations of many of these tribes are dwindling as they give up their traditional nomadic lifestyles to settle in towns and cities, and their languages are gradually being lost.

Fayina Lekhanova comes from the Evenk tribe of some 36,000 people across 12 regions of Siberia. She is a teacher of her native language, Evenk, and is a volunteer with the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON). She says the Evenk are luckier than others, because their language is taught in schools.

Woman reading a poem, first in Evenk, then in Russian (50 seconds):
Real Audio Windows Media

Even so, fewer than 20 percent of Evenks now speak their own language -- mostly from the older generations. Other tribes are on the verge of losing their languages altogether.

"There are tribes like the Kereks and the Aleuts. The Kereks have almost totally died out. There only eight of them left," Lekhanova says. "Not long ago, some scientists found a group of Kereks traveling across the tundra and the taiga. But at least they were speaking their own language. There are about 150 Aleuts left and many of them don't speak their mother tongue. These languages are dying out. In a few years they simply won't exist at all."

Hope Hinges On Education

Lekhanova says her only hope for the dozens of indigenous languages on the brink of disappearing is that they will become part of the curriculum in local schools.

This Koryak child might hold the key to saving his traditional language (ITAR-TASS)

"It seems to me that a teacher who teaches in his own language can help children," Lekhanova says. "And those children can then go home and teach their parents their own language, which they themselves have forgotten. And that's why we need to give the greatest support to these teachers."

During the Soviet period, a far-reaching program was introduced to educate the children of indigenous tribes at Russian schools. Many of the children were sent to boarding schools. They didn't see their families for months at a time, and as a result, they quickly lost their mother language and became fluent in Russian instead.

Soviet Assimilation

Rodion Sulyandzige is the director of the Moscow-based Center for the Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North. He comes from the Udege tribe in Primorsky Krai, but he admits that because of the drive to educate children from ethnic minorities in Russian, he knows just a few words of his own language.

"I think it was progressive, because children have to be educated. It's only now that we're beginning to think that something wasn't quite right," Sulyandzige says. "There was no direct contact between the children and their parents, so a whole culture, a whole language, was lost. If children don't speak to their parents in their mother tongue… well, we're only now starting to realize the consequences."

A Koryak girl singing in her native language (40 seconds):
Real Audio Windows Media

Unless measures are taken to preserve the languages of Russia's indigenous people, Sulyandzige says, songs like these in some of the world's oldest languages could be lost within a decade.

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