Multilingualism in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)

Posted by Natalia Bochkareva on May 30, 2011

By Natalia Bochkareva, Sakha (Yakutia) native, “Arctic Studies” master’s degree student at the university of Versailles – Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France.


Photo : marsy1 (cc)

Located in northeastern Siberia, the Republic of Sakha, also known as Yakutia, is the largest republic of Russia. It covers one fifth of the national territory, with a ratio of 3 million km2 for a population… of 949,800 (2009), out of the 142 million (2007) in the whole federation.

Multiethnic republic

Yakutia is one of the most multiethnic regions of the Russian federation with five different indigenous communities: Yakut, Evenki, Even, Yukagir, Chukchi and Dolgan. A land of immigration within the federation, Yakutia is also home to another 120 ethnic groups: Russian, Ukrainian, Tatar, Buryat, Belarusian, Armenian, Bashkir, Azari, etc.

Sakha’s official bilingualism is characterized by the coexistence of two national languages: Sakha (Yakut) and Russian. These two languages are state languages, while the languages of the smaller indigenous communities hold a different yet official status guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Sakha.

Indigenous languages under threat

The recognition of these indigenous languages does not mean that their permanence is ensured. They’re actually suffering steady decline, through a process of assimilation described in these words by linguist Tamara Andreeva (Identity & Language):

-        Different dialects among northern peoples. These have led some groups to adopt more common languages in order to facilitate inter-ethnic communication.

-        A sparse population in the North with many ethnic groups who speak another language living in close proximity to one another. For example, the Evenk people live in small groups surrounded by different speaking ethnic groups in a vast territory. Thus, neighboring languages have influenced their language and this in turn has disadvantaged the development of their language.

-        The dominant role of the Russian language. As the primary means of communication in Russian society, the dominant status of the Russian language influenced the languages of indigenous peoples.

To this last point, probably the most significant, may be added that Russian has become the language of power, being the language of education and that of employment. Thus many people from these communities have deliberately left their mother language behind in hope to access that power.

Also worth noting is the fact that languages of Yakutia have extremely suffered from a time when members of indigenous communities had to live in foster families and study at residential schools, remote from their original environment.

Efforts in education and research

Sakha has adopted several programs since the early 90s meant to increase the number of people who speak indigenous languages, including educational programs encouraging schools to teach these languages.

Nomadic schools for the children of the smaller communities were also created, where both children and parents are welcome in a « nomadic » setting contributing to the safeguard of traditional livelihood and languages.

Educators are trained at the North-Eastern Federal University of Yakutsk.

Also worth mentioning, on the research level, is the Institute of Humanitarian Researches – Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science – exploring the linguistic, ethnographic, and cultural diversity of the Republic of Sakha.

However, despite the educational and research programs, as well as media outreach to minority languages, the issue of the decline of indigenous languages remains the same as the number of their speakers keeps dropping one year after the other. The Republic of Sakha, with its two state languages and other four official languages, faces a crucial challenge: curbing the decline of its indigenous languages to stop the decline of its culture.

Photo : Aleksandr Ivanov (cc)


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Haitian Creole: a slow gain in acceptance

Posted by Fritz Berg Jeannot on May 27, 2011

By Fritz Berg Jeannot, educator and specialist in French literature and linguistic, educational and cultural policies for the Imaginescence research and development group at Port-au-Prince, Haiti.


Photo : Elicefeliz (cc)Mother tongue of all Haitians, Creole (over 8 millions speakers) demonstrated a serious deficiency in status right from the creation of the country in 1804: it was restricted to an informal usage while French, though only spoken by 5 to 10% of the population, became the formal language of the country.

Underrated language

For a long time, Creole was not considered a language. The terms used to refer to it were usually disparaging: « patois », « dialect », « talk »… Banned from public usage, at church, in the media and at school, it was neither written nor codified back then. Rare attempts towards writing were conducted through random and French-grammar-based forms.

Creole was thus judged unfit to serve significant social functions, and not one Haitian citizen seeking recognition saw the need of a higher status for this language. Under such conditions, Creole unilinguals themselves ended up wishing for their children to learn French.

Creole in education

The idea of using Creole as a tool for education reaches back nearly two centuries, when in 1816, a first project of integration arose, although no follow-up is recorded. Then the idea reemerged in the 1930s and was defended as necessary and feasible, before being resumed by UNESCO in the 1950s.

Meanwhile (1930-1960), several researchers devoted study to the language, aiming to provide it with an orthography and to explore its forms and structures. This research contributed to create a science of creole, and to develop text books permitting Creole to be served as a training language.

Long ignored by the state, proposals of education in Creole began to inspire the interest of private groups who launched related education programs. These pilot experiments eventually reached the Ministry of National Education, which implemented the « Bernard reform » at the beginning of the 1980s, named after one of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s ministers. However, this formal introduction of Creole was negatively perceived by a part of the popular class, who saw it as yet another attempt by Haitian authorities to confine their children to a disparaged place.

Be that as it may, over the years Creole managed to gain ever-more currency in education programs, classrooms, schoolyards and the media, particularly the radio beginning in1986.



Wavering and ambiguous legal recognition

Haitian lawmakers had ignored Creole for 160 years, but following decades of silence, the 1964 Constitution introduced article 35: the official language status of French was confirmed, but the use of Creole was finally permitted in the legal sphere, yet only in certain « cases » and under certain « conditions », remaining rather vague. Thus all sorts of interpretations were allowed, including forgetting, too.

However, this article does stand as the tipping point of the language’s evolution in status, followed by the 1983 Constitution which raised it to the rank of co-national language, and in 1987 as co-official language, along with French.

Yet Creole will have to wait for other legal texts for its official legal recognition to evolve any further, above all regarding concrete measures of application of the laws which concern it. While is no shortage of laws in Haiti, alas, only their enforcement often fails to come through…

The role of writers in the recognition of Creole

Beginning the 1830s writers were confronted by the need for a language able to express the Haitian imagination. From the 19th century into the first half of the 20th century, advocates of such an ideal began to « Haitianize » French in the wording of their work, integrating numerous terms, phrases and lines in Creole.

Then during the 1950s a veritable form of Creole literature, with regular publications emerged: collection of poems (Diacoute, 1953; Rosaire couronne sonnets, 1964; Konbèlann, 1976), plays, etc.

Translations of world literature narratives as well as philosophical and political works also emerged: Antigone in Creole, 1953; Œdipe the King, 1953; Pèlen tèt, 1979; Prens la, 2009; Ti Prens la, 2010.

Relegated to the second tier for over a century, Haitian Creole thus benefited from the interest of writers, researchers, religious figures and educators. While, initiatives and positions contributed to the evolution of popular perception of the language, they never got rid of the early negative preconceptions.

The sociopolitical upheaval of the 1980s also favored its expansion, yet while its existence is far from threatened, Haitian Creole now suffers from competition with multiple international languages such as French, and in particular, English and Spanish.


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The revitalization of Navajo in the USA

Posted by Lucia Dumont on May 20, 2011

By Lucia Dumont, PhD in American civilization at the university of Cergy-Pontoise, research associate at the ‘Textes et Francophonie’ research center.


Cover of a bilingual book retracing an episode of the Long Walk by Evangeline Parsons Yazzie

Cover of a bilingual book retracing an episode of the Long Walk by Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, professor of Navajo language and culture and coauthor of the first Navajo learning methodology, officially approved by the departments of education of Arizona and New Mexico.

The Navajo form a community of 269,202 souls, the majority of which, 180,762 souls, live in a reservation spreading across three states of the American Southwest, namely Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The remoteness and poor access of this territory as large as Belgium protected the Navajo from outside influences for centuries.

The Navajo language belongs to the Athabaskan family. It is the most widely spoken indigenous language to USA in terms of the number of its speakers: 178,014, according to a 2000 census.

Causes of decline

Several major events have threatened the Navajo culture and language along the decades, starting with their deportation from their ancestral lands all the way to Bosque Redondo between 1863 and 1868, an episode known as the Long Walk.

On the economic level, the social pressure and extreme poverty suffered by the inhabitants have eased linguistic transfer towards English, « the language of bread ».

On a cultural level, the schooling of children in boarding schools far away from their family, where they were forbidden to speak their language, has been a traumatizing experience. The intrusion of a materialist lifestyle, as well as the pressure of certain organizations such as « English-Only », who advocate for an English-based monolingual society and describe Amerindian languages as an impediment to the integration of indigenous peoples within the majority society, have also largely contributed to the relinquishment of Navajo. As a result, a growing feeling of shame towards their own language drew parents to cease handing it down to their children.

At the end of the 60s, however, 92,8% of the population still spoke Navajo. Which is when awareness of the gradual decline of Navajo used as lingua franca began to emerge.

Successes of bilingual schooling

The first community school was open in 1967 by the Navajo, for the Navajo, with Navajo as language of instruction. Its mission was to instruct the children and parents first in their mother tongue with a gradual shift towards English to give them all the chances of thriving in both worlds.

The first higher education institution responsible for training future bilingual educators, the Navajo Community College, opened as soon as 1968. Then immersion schools were created in 1983 by volunteering educators and parents, in an environment that matches the children’s cultural identity. All courses are held in Navajo during the first year, then English is introduced gradually, and both languages are evenly shared by the end of elementary school.

Lastly, in 1984, the Navajo tribal council formally adopted a linguistic policy centered on bilingual education.

These schools encouraged the diligence of pupils, and statistics show that those who were instructed in their ancestral language end up with better results than the others, who followed courses exclusively in English. In some cases, these results are even ahead of Anglo-American children’s in the three fundamental subjects: reading, writing and arithmetic.

Navajo / English bilinguals are currently sought as certified interpreters by the courts of Arizona and New Mexico. They stand as the political, economic, intellectual and artistic elite of the Navajo Nation, as they’re easily able to make their way through both worlds.

Difficulties related to social issues

Despite all the efforts in motion and successes encountered, the number of Navajo speakers keeps dropping. And it is observed that the number of children who speak Navajo in kindergarten has been declining for 30 years: 80% in 1980, and today no more than 15%.

Different elements come into account, educational (lack of qualified teachers, high staff turnover), political/financial (dependency on federal funding), and demographic (elders passing away, and with them the language and traditions). But beyond these difficulties, the Navajos face a much broader problem: the most educated of the young generation leaving the reservation in absence of economic development.

And indeed, according to the 2000 census figures, 47,2% of the Navajo families on the US enclave live under the poverty threshold, an endemic form of poverty generating many acts of despair (addiction, violence, suicide). The unemployment rate ranges from 42,9% to 58% in certain areas and favors the migration of the younger generation towards the cities, where an increasing number of Navajo meet success in high rated universities!

The sense of pride in speaking Navajo, referred to as a language « victory » (it contributed to the US army overcoming a crucial battle in the Pacific, thanks in part to the famous Navajo Code Talkers), cultural events such as the celebration of language and that of culture, spelling contests, the election of miss Navajo, who must be bilingual, bicultural and educated… all of this contributes to the revival of some sense of ethnic pride. Though will the Navajo be able to restrain the predicted decline and ensure the resilience of the Navajo language in a society encouraging the exclusiveness of English?


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Recognising the bilingualism of migrants’ children: an asset for integration

Posted by Anna Stevanato on May 14, 2011

By Anna Stevanato, founder of the association D’UNE LANGUE A L’AUTRE.


Une Grande Ecole: Pourquoi pas moi?

Une Grande Ecole: Pourquoi pas moi?” (PQPM) is an assistance program for middle and high school students from low-income backgrounds and living in difficult areas. It is aimed at increasing their chances of pursuing an ambitious higher education

So what’s the connection to languages and bilingualism? Most of the students (82% of 72 students) enrolled in this program happen to speak or understand a language other than French.

The association D’une Langue A L’Autre (DULALA), whose objective is to recognize and promote all sorts of family bilingualism, takes part in the PQPM program with interventions for teenagers in the linguistic field.

Enduring prejudices

The first experiences have shown that prejudices are still very much alive within communities speaking non-European family languages.

To the question “What language do you associate with French when talking about bilingualism?”, 75% of students answered English, 5% said Spanish, 5% said Portuguese and only 15% mentioned other languages (Turkish, Japanese, Hebrew, Lingala, Bengali, Creole).

The idea that only majority European languages are worthy of being mentioned regarding bilingualism is deeply rooted:

“Miss, is someone bilingual when speaking other languages that French and English?” asks J., 8th grade student.

“Bilingualism is an asset if you speak English or Spanish… other wise, what’s the point?” claims B., 10th grader.

“My father is plurilingual, he speaks 4 languages: French, English, Tamil and Urdu” says B. “Yes, but they are sub-languages” retorts C., 8th grade student.

Thoughts on the practice of bilingualism itself may also be negative: “Two languages at the same time in someone’s head are too much. One should learn one language at a time”.

“A teacher told us that we use approximately 6,000 words. Is this amount divided in half when we’re bilingual? Or by 3 when we’re trilingual?”, 10th grader F. wonders.

Une Grande Ecole: Pourquoi pas moi ?

Giving a taste for languages, whatever they are

Through playful interventions, DULALA has started to transform the opinion of these students on the diversity of languages and deconstruct their negative relation towards their own languages. To these teenagers who rarely consider themselves as bilingual or think of it as a handicap, the association explains that not only is it not an obstacle towards integration to speak languages other than French and English, it is in fact an asset, a linguistic and cultural richness. Working on self-esteem plays a dynamic role in a successful education.

Certain students thereby express their taste for learning:

“This workshop made me want to learn Arabic” says 8th grader A. whose original language is Algerian.

“Tonight, I’m going to speak Bambara with my mother, it’ll be fun!” decided O., 10th grade student.

“I found out that I was a passive bilingual!” says 10th grader P.

“I’ve also found out that one could be bilingual without knowing how to read of write”, discovered L., also in the 10th grade.

Everybody’s freedom of choice

“I only speak Turkish with my parents. Here, I can’t”, claims J, student in the 10th grade.

Indeed, sharing a word or sentences in one’s own mother tongue is far from being common: some of them do it proudly with a visible enthusiasm, whereas others are more discreet and intimidated, and some would rather speak a foreign language learned in school than their own mother tongue.

Ethnic, family of linguistic reasons can push someone to not want to be clearly identified as  a representative of a certain language or country. This choice should be respected and the student involved should have the opportunity to show interest, speak and share this language if he or she wants to.

A language is far from  neutral. It doesn’t only carry sounds; it takes us back to our deepest origins.

For an in-depth look into the subjects and questions regarding  the importance of recognising bilingualism of migrants’ children, the association D’UNE LANGUE A L’AUTRE invites you to a conference/debate on Monday, May 16th from 6.30 to 8.30 pm at the COMPTOIR GENERAL, 80 quai des Jemmapes, metro station “République” in Paris.


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A bilingual Guarani/Portuguese school experience, Brazil

Posted by Andréa Eichenberg on May 2, 2011

By Andréa Eichenberger, anthropologist-photographer, PhD in anthropology co-advised between the Université Paris Diderot, France, and the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarin, Brazil, working on the construction of an indigenous self-image in the Guarani village of Yynn Morotĩ Wherá.


Marco Karai Moreira, teaching Guarani at the village school. © Andréa Eichenberger

Marco Karai Moreira, teaching Guarani at the village school. © Andréa Eichenberger

Who speaks Guarani in Brazil?

The Guarani form Brazil’s largest contingent of indigenous population, with around 30,000 souls shared over seven Brazilian states.

The trend today draws towards Guarani-Portuguese bilingualism, especially among the young: Guarani is spoken daily in the villages, whereas Portuguese is mostly used upon contact with non-indigenous people.

Some of the speakers are still monolingual, however. Most of the elders, in particular, speak little or none of the society’s dominant language. Monolingualism also stands as a demonstration of resistance towards the assimilation of other cultures’ values.

How do indigenous languages officially fit in the country?

The officialization of indigenous languages remains the punctual initiative of a minority, but Portuguese is gradually losing its exclusivity as an official language these days.

Some Brazilian cities have taken a few steps forward in that direction, such as the municipality of Tacuru, in Mato Grosso do Sul, where Guarani has been officialized as second language, or the municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira in the state of Amazonas, which counts three official languages in addition to Portuguese: Nheengatu, Tukano, and Baniwa.

What’s more, thanks to the struggle of indigenous populations and the associations that supported them, the recent Federal Constitution, in 1988, recognized difference as a right of these populations.

In the realm of education, among others, it guarantees the right to a specific, cross-cultural and bilingual form of schooling. And this is how school eventually entered indigenous villages after having been considered stigmatizing for so long because it failed integration within the national education system.

The Guarani of the village of Yynn Morotĩ Wherá

In 2006 and 2007 I was granted the opportunity to work in the indigenous school of the village of Yynn Morotĩ Wherá (« Shimmer of Cristal Waters »), state of Santa Catarina, southern Brazil.

My Guarani contacts there believed that children need to understand the « white world » in order to defend some of their fundamental rights, for instance the right to land: the school was established in the community on request of its leaders so the local children could gain knowledge of the djuruá (the white). Portuguese was only supposed to be a means for negotiation, and its presence was to be supervised so it wouldn’t end up replacing Guarani. This has not been too difficult to enforce so far, and most of the children still begin school without knowing Portuguese.

The other objective of this school is the command of reading and writing in Guarani language, which is in fact present through the whole course of education, whether taught for itself or as language of teaching for other subjects.

One of the consequences is that what used to be usually taught orally is now starting to be written down. In 2008 and 2009, the first two bilingual Guarani-Portuguese volumes of a collection titled « Contributions to the revitalization of the Guarani culture » were published, the first on myths and legends, and the second on rituals and beliefs. Some myths were even reworked under different lights: text, drawing, staging, film, photography. School then becomes a place of promotion of cultural revitalization.

A perfect schooling system?

At the end of the day though, one can still wonder if this new school, supposedly so open and nourished with good intentions, bears only positive aspects. It intends to apply learning processes that are appropriate to the populations in question, introduce the use of their languages, and hand down their knowledge and traditional know-hows. Very well. But when the actual state implements a bilingual school system, one can also wonder if it isn’t a concealed way of marginalizing indigenous languages and eventually imposing the presence of Portuguese, so as to reinforce some degree of national linguistic unity.

Incidentally worth noting, some of the researchers (anthropologists, educators, linguists, historians, etc.) who played a part in training the Guarani teachers, and who were widely in favor of the culture’s revitalization, were constantly asking themselves: « is what we’re doing really the right thing to do? »

The Guarani, for instance, resisted learning Portuguese for a long time, but this native form of monolingualism is now gradually shifting towards Guarani/Portuguese bilingualism.

One of the classes of the Guarani school in 2007, with work on the village families displayed around the schoolyard. © Andréa Eichenberger

One of the classes of the Guarani school in 2007, with work on the village families displayed around the schoolyard. © Andréa Eichenberger


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