«Chances to save local languages are very illusive»
[In different regions of Russia] the situation with indigenous languages is very different. How can we compare Udmurt, spoken by hundreds of thousands of people, and Sámi dialects, spoken by from several hundred to a couple dozen people? The Udmurt language is the state language, but some Sámi dialects are generally not recognized by anyone. On the other hand, there are significant examples in Finland: Inari Sámi and Skolt Sámi managed to revive their languages and start using them in everyday communication. The technology of «language nests», when children in kindergarten and then at school learn and communicate with adults in their native language, helped them. By the way, the same technology is used in Vedlozero, Karelia, in the House of the Karelian Language
. This is a unique story for Russia, on which many activists from other regions look with admiring envy.
The biggest problem of saving languages is a time gap between a young person leaving his language environment (for example, moving from a village to a city to study) and when (and if) he returns to his native village many years later, having remembered his identity. It turns out very often that it is late or there is nowhere to return. Every time we conduct our trainings and seminars, people draw these stories, and they are very tragic.
In general, though it is unpleasant to admit it, chances to save local languages are very illusive. Nevertheless, there is a positive trend too: young people are beginning to use modern technologies in order to develop indigenous languages. They create web-sites, virtual keyboards, or Wikipedia sections in their native languages.
Much depends on the state's position as well. Karelian language in Finland has the status of a local language, and the state does provide some support. But the situation is changeable. For example, until this year Sámi had had their own language center receiving state subsidies. But a year ago, the Finnish government cut the funding, and the center closed. We all hope that the new government will change the situation.
In Russia, supporting their own «local» language is often considered to be a threat. This is just a part of the identity and does not mean that native speakers will be a threat to the dominant culture. But sometimes you are allowed to dance and wear a suit, but developing your language is called extra. However, my personal activity has never met any obstacles. We do create something, we do make art.
The history of the Karelian language in Finland is tragic. The hundreds of thousands residents of Ladoga Karelia who were evacuated to Finland after the Winter War [the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939—1940] were perceived here not as immigrants, but as refugees. Therefore, the status of the language was like that: people were simply shy to speak it, it was not taught in schools, not passed down from generation to generation and gradually died as a language of everyday communication. There are still people who speak Karelian as their native language, including children, but these are rare exceptions. Most people in Finland, I believe, are unaware of the very existence of the Karelian language, or consider it to be no more than a dialect of Finnish.