Finno-Ugric Language Activism in Real-life Cases

Team of SANA 2019

Introduction from the project team

When the United Nations proclaimed 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, we — the team of SANA 2019 — decided that it would be relevant to collect and share best practices pertaining to the preservation and revitalization of Finno-Ugric languages. Grassroot initiatives which we present in this publication, have been conceived and implemented by people from different walks of life: educators, mass media professionals, artists, IT specialists and local community enthusiasts. What explains their success? How have they organized their work? What are takeaways that others can use? These are questions that we tried to answer.

The materials published herein are intended to build awareness of best grassroot practices applied by Finno-Ugric language activists. The collection of cases is a Finno-Ugric contribution to the International Year of Indigenous Languages and an instrument to support language activism worldwide and among Finno-Ugric peoples in particular. Research shows that, though quite difficult to implement, local initiatives have a positive impact on the preservation and revitalization of languages. We sincerely hope that this project will give optimism and inspiration to those who search for ways to revitalize, maintain and develop native tongues. The reported Finno-Ugric practices are stories of success which rest upon organizers’ internal motivation, positive mindset and high energy, as well as capability not only to advocate an idea, but also to engage others by communicating how this work can add to the sustainable development of languages.

This project is distinguished by its case-study methodology, meaning that it reviews real-life examples of language revival and preservation and reflects on used methods, including novel ones. All articles are personalized, as any initiative owns its success to good will and hard work of an individual or a team. The publication can be of interest to both experts and the general public.

Global pessimism v. local optimism

The global community is seriously concerned. Most indigenous languages are listed in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. The UN proclaims the International Year of Indigenous Languages to attract public attention to the extinction of languages. The former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon continuously reminds that every two weeks one language dies. The UN Human Rights Council calls upon countries to protect language rights and to take urgent measures to preserve languages.

The challenge is accepted: all countries unanimously confirm their commitment to preserve linguistic diversity, share best practices, and review their language policies in terms of strategies, concepts and methodologies. The stake is put on education, mainly schools.

How effective are these measures? Is it possible that the educational system will save languages?

The World Congresses of the Finno-Ugric Peoples have given a definite answer: the role of educational system is pivotal. However, it must be understood that most schools teach and treat indigenous languages as foreign, not as native ones. Director of the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences Andrey Kubrik has stated in an interview to Kommersant: «If all efforts are vested into school, they are spent in vain. A school class is not the right place to revive an endangered language.»

This is why grassroot initiatives are of paramount importance. Due to them, local communities strengthen their faith in native languages as competitive, relevant and applicable to nowadays.

The team of SANA 2019 believes that neither school, nor NGOs shall be held solely responsible; a successful revival of an endangered language can only be achieved through a coordinated work of policy-makers, educators and civil society. This position has been formulated and transferred into a set of specific recommendations by participants of Language Activism Forum, organized by SANA 2019. The recommendations have outlined how to promote language activism and how to ensure its linkages with the agenda of formal educational institutions, cultural establishments, state bodies and other stakeholders. The preservation of indigenous languages would be impossible without the optimism on the local level — in indigenous peoples’ traditional lands. And it is thanks to a positive mindset of grassroot language activists that the optimism is still there.

Why are indigenous languages important?

A conversation about the need to save indigenous languages can never avoid a question Why should we? Maybe, languages shall simply run their course, passing through stages of inception, growth and decline. Or, maybe, indigenous languages shall be limited in their application to traditional trades and routine household activities. For instance, Nenets reindeer herders would struggle to transfer their knowledge to the young generation without a specific native-tongue vocabulary. Or, maybe, as some scientists suggest, indigenous languages shall serve traditional livelihoods like Latin serves medicine and other natural sciences.

If asked this question, indigenous peoples will answer that the extinction of their languages will lead to an unrecoverable loss of the traditional knowledge, culture and identity. Suffice to mention that the majority of indigenous languages are spoken on 70% of world’s most biodiverse areas.

The value of indigenous languages does not need to be proven: each language is unique and essential to the world culture. Moreover, they contain knowledge that can bring mankind closer to an understanding of how to save the planet from negative impacts, such as a global climate change.

Instead of conclusion, or how to help language activists

In his statement on the global movement of indigenous peoples, Dean of the University of Colorado Law School and former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples James Anaya pointed out four features that had helped indigenous peoples to achieve recognition at the UN level: pragmatism, persistence, sustainability, and optimism.

Pragmatism enabled indigenous peoples to enter those few doors that had not been closed to them and to speak up about their issues and claim their rights as full-fledged members of the global community.

Persistence allowed reaching objectives, notwithstanding the system tailored to protect the interests of the majority.

Sustainability has ensured the survival of indigenous peoples and their languages until the present day, despite of colonization, assimilation and alienation.

And, finally, optimism has always kept indigenous peoples on the track in difficult times.

These four qualities remain a must. In a moment of weakness, language activism may seem a solitary battle against the whole world doomed to be lost, offering nothing, but a prolonged agony. In such moments, a remedy is supportive like-minded people, no matter if from the same vicinity, another village or region, or some faraway land.

In the view of this, our team has created the Civil Society Network for Preservation and Revitalization of Indigenous Languages that gets together enthusiasts, willing to share practices that have led to a language revival or, at least, have given hope that it can be possible.

SANA 2019 is a project of real-life cases and creative and strong-willed people who care about indigenous languages and peoples.

Team of SANA 2019