Depending on the definition, there are 6000 to 7000 different languages in the world, and a large part of them are at risk of disappearing. The usual reason for this is that the dominant language devours the minority language, says Niina Kunnas, Adjunct Professor of Finnish language.
“If it is not possible to use one's own language in all areas of life, it may be easier to switch to a dominant language which provides its users more rights and appreciation,” she says. “Languages are dying off at an accelerating rate, as the speakers of endangered languages are often elderly and take the language with them to the grave.”
One of the most recent examples of such extinction is Livonian, whose last native speaker died in 2013. There are endangered languages in all language groups around the world, but the level of pressure on the language may also vary. What is a minority language in one region, may be a dominant language in another.
“For example, Swedish is a minority language in Finland, but on the coast of Ostrobothnia it is a majority language.”
A significant area where minority languages are under pressure is Russia. According to the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger drawn up by UNESCO in 2010, there are more than 100 endangered languages in the territory of Russia. In addition to Finno-Ugric languages, the group includes Caucasian languages.
“Russia leaves the minority languages be but does not support their preservation by political decisions – on the contrary,” Kunnas says.
A major setback was the law passed in 2018 that made the teaching of the national languages of the republics with national minorities voluntary. This has led to extinction of such teaching. Only the teaching of Russian remains mandatory.
“In Udmurtia, a well-known language activist protested against the law by committing suicide by self-immolation in defence of the Udmurt language. Attempts are being made to revive minority languages, but local political decisions may pose obstacles,” Kunnas explains.
“For example, in the Republic of Karelia, Karelian does not have a recognised official status. Furthermore, the establishment of municipal language nests – day care centres where only minority language is spoken to children – is prohibited. However, there is a private language nest in Vieljärvi in connection with the Karjalan kielen kodi language activity centre.”
“Language is not just a tool of thinking and communication, but the foundation of human thinking and identity", says Niina Kunnas, Adjunct Professor of Finnish language.
The position of minority languages has improved in the Nordic countries
The general justification used for the Russian language policy is that the fostering of minority languages is a policy that discriminates against the Russian-speaking majority. According to Kunnas, in Russia you also often encounter the conception that was also strongly believed in Finland up to the 1960s.
“At the time, the Nordic countries spoke of 'semilingualism’ as a threat to children if they have a language other than the dominant language spoken at home. This was based on the incorrect assumption that a child cannot properly learn two languages at the same time.”
Since the 1990s, studies have shown that bilingualism is beneficial for, for example, the cognitive development of children. The old attitude still sometimes pops up.
"One of the doctoral candidates I am supervising is doing a study that shows that Finnish children consider the idea ‘one state, one language’ as the norm,” Kunnas says.
However, in the Nordic countries, an extensive ostracism against minority languages is already a thing of the a past.
“The situation was at its worst at the time when the general school systems were being created. Back then, children from remote areas were taken to live in halls of residence and forced to give up their own language. It has been one of the biggest traumas in recent history suffered by minority language speakers.”
As far as Finland is concerned, the topic is opened up, for example, by the non-fictional book Vastatuuleen – Saamen kansan pakkosuomalaistamisesta (2019) about the forced Finlandization of the Sámi people. The basic education of the Sami language began in Finland in the mid-1970s, and nowadays the different Sami languages have an official indigenous language status in Finland, Sweden and Norway.
“It gives people the right to receive public services and teaching in their own language. In addition, a lot of support is provided for the revitalisation of the Sami languages. Among the Sami languages, Northern Sami is doing the best, while Skolt Sami in Finland and Southern Sami in Sweden are extremely endangered.”
Lack of translators a disadvantage for Meänkieli and Kven
In addition to the Sami languages, there are a number of other minority languages in the Nordic countries, which have not been defined as indigenous languages but have a recognised status in legislation. These include Meänkieli, Finnish and Yiddish (in Sweden), Kven (in Norway), Karelian (in Finland) and Romany (in all Nordic countries).
“The legal rights of people speaking these languages are not always realised in practice, as, say, government offices do not have anyone speaking the minority language in question,” Kunnas says. “Among these languages, the situation of Kven is clearly the most endangered.” In Northern Norway, Kven may be taught in schools, and you can see it used on road signs alongside Norwegian and Sami, for example, but there are very few people who speak it.”
Efforts are being made to revive Kven, deriving from the dialects used by Northern Finns who moved to Northern Norway in the 1700s, by such means as language nests and the Kven Institute. On the other hand, another minority language that also derives from Peräpohjola dialects, Meänkieli spoken in the Tornionjoki Valley, has tens of thousands of speakers, but the increase in the esteem of the language is a new thing to its speakers as well.
“In the past, people might have called Meänkieli a shit language, but now they want to foster it. In Sweden, radio programmes are being made in Meänkieli and it has an official status as minority language throughout Sweden. However, for example, teaching cannot always be organised in Meänkieli in schools, and, therefore, parents have been campaigning for the language.”
The factor hindering the realisation of the rights of Kven and Meänkieli speakers is that there are not any authorised translators in these languages whose competence people could utilise in official contexts. “There are only a few translators in these languages and very few of them have any translation training. In Sweden, translation agencies have been marketing poor quality translations in pseudo-Meänkieli.”
In 2021, efforts will be made to improve the situation by means of translator training in Kven and Meänkieli. In addition to this, Kunnas is involved in a project that is producing the first corpus in Meänkieli, a linguistic database for electronic use.
“Large amounts of spoken material will be transcribed and coded linguistically. You can then use the corpus to search for, say, the object suffixes in the modern Meänkieli.”
Own language is the foundation of identity and thinking
The corpus project represents a means that plays an important role in the revitalisation of languages: research. “It has been shown that the more studies are made on specific languages, the better their chances of recovery,” Kunnas says. “Reviving the language requires, for example, learning materials, and they cannot be produced without research.”
The language nests mentioned above have also been found to be a functional method. “Language nests are being used around the world, and in Finland Inari Sami was largely revived with the help of a language nest.”
Another method used in the revival process implemented a few years ago was a master-apprentice model: each adult language student was assigned a native speaker of Inari Sami, in whose everyday life the student took part.
“Thus, they learned the language carrying out everyday activities. The master-apprentice model proved to be very effective, and it will certainly be used elsewhere in the future.”
But why is it so important to foster and revive minority languages? Isn't language just a tool that can be replaced with a new one if the former one no longer functions?
This is a misconception, says Kunnas. “Language is not just a tool of thinking and communication, but the foundation of human thinking and identity. Many minority language speakers feel that they cannot express themselves well in the dominant language. And when a bilingual person ages, it often happens that the language learned as a second language is forgotten and only the mother tongue remains.”
In such a situation, the family and friends and nursing staff knowing the language are the guarantees of mental well-being. But the use of minority languages can also be a matter of life and death.
“We have recently wondered whether immigrants have received sufficient corona data and instructions in their own language. We awakened to the matter quite late, but now information is made available in Arabic and Somali, for example.”
Text: Jarno Mällinen, photos Mikko Törmänen
Last updated: 12.8.2020