Account from a field linguist in Amazonia

Posted by Elsa Gomez-Imbert on October 29, 2011

By Elsa Gomez-Imbert, research associate, French Institute for Andean Studies.

Urarinas - Amazonia

An abiding experience

Working in the field in northwestern Amazonia has been the most striking experience of my life. From the summer of 1973 to the spring of 1998, I made several stays in communities who speak languages of the eastern branch of the Tukano family: Bará, Barasana, Edúuria, Karapana, Makuna, Tatuyo, Tuyuka.

These groups are located in the region of Vaupés, Colombia, near the Brazilian boarder. They live on the banks of a river whose dark tea colored waters flow along stretches of thin white sand: the Piraparaná. There, traditional housing, with common homes (malocas) sheltering several nuclear families, generalized multilingualism, the rituals, and material culture, remain preserved and handed down from one generation to the other.

These visits have been real life lessons in the relations to others and nature, they’ve made me change the way I see the world. Unfortunately my expeditions had to stop when the guerilla started to invade the region.

A lesson for multilingualism

I began by engaging the study of the Tatuyo language, and then the Barasana language. I was able to reach from one language to the other without resorting to Spanish thanks to these peoples’ unusual marriage system and the multilingualism it generates.

In the Tukano groups, as it happens, the “ethnic group” is defined by common male ancestors. Everyone must demonstrate their filiation through the daily and exclusive use of their father language. And they have to marry someone with a different paternal lineage, thus belonging to a different linguistic group. This is what we call “linguistic exogamy”. As a result, husband and wife communicate in different languages, and children learn at least two languages right from the cradle – a mother tongue, and a father tongue.

Thus monolingualism is essentially non-existent in these societies. Sharing their daily life, I was immerged in the most fascinating sociolinguistic context.

The generalized practice of multilingualism helped me understand certain characteristics such as tones, which would have been impossible otherwise.

Pleasures of a field linguist

Field linguists describe the languages they encounter, which yields to many satisfactions. It is one thing to learn through textbooks that certain languages bear features “exotic” to those who do not speak them; discovering them in the field feels like you have created them.

Detecting a tonal distinction that changes meaning, having to choose a form of conjugation according to how you learned about an event, or indicating certain qualities of an object (round, long, hollow, full) with grammatical markers are an excellent kind of mental gym.

Describing languages is a way to introduce them to the scientific world and contribute to their transmission. Revealing, years later, the originality of these languages to their very own enthusiastic speakers is a reward that widely makes up for the inconvenience of mosquitoes and chiggers.

Anthropology as a key to understanding and exchange

Nowadays most of the languages of Amazonia are threatened with extinction:

- because of a limited number of speakers: a few hundred, possibly a few dozen, and even, in a number of cases, only a handful of people;

- by the prestige of national languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, and even French in French Guiana.

Preserving these languages and the knowledge of the Amazonian environment they express is a concern we must inspire to budding linguists.

I would particularly recommend they read Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose books tagged along my first expeditions and granted me interesting exchange with my Tatuyo and Karapana hosts. They were delighted to hear, for instance, about the variations of certain mythic themes that are part of their knowledge, which Lévi-Strauss introduced in The Raw and the Cooked, my bedside reading at the time.

Another of his books, The Jealous Potter, had been the occasion of an absorbing epistolary exchange with the great thinker. In my field records I had come upon a myth in Tatuyo language that was built exactly according to the model expounded by Lévi-Strauss on the construction of myths on the origins of pottery. I was struck by the accuracy of his intuition.


Gomez-Imbert Elsa (1990). « Façon des poteries (mythe tatuyo sur l’origine de la poterie) ». Amerindia 15, pp. 193-227. Paris : AEA (available for download at

__. (1991). « Force des langues vernaculaires en situation d’exogamie linguistique : le cas du Vaupés colombien (Nord-ouest amazonien) ». In Charmes J., éd., Plurilinguisme et développement. Cahiers des Sciences Humaines 27.3-4, pp. 535-559. Paris : Ed. ORSTOM, available for download at

––. (2011). « La famille tukano ». Dictionnaire des langues du monde. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, pp. 1454-1460.

––. (2011). « Le tatuyo ». Dictionnaire des langues du monde. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, pp. 1554-1561.

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Siberia: the question of mother tongue

Posted by Emilie Maj on October 20, 2011

By Emilie Maj, researcher at the Musée du Quai Branly and University of Tallinn associate.
Yakut girls at the Yhyakh festival. Yakutia. Siberia. © Emilie Maj 2011

Yakut girls at the Yhyakh festival. Yakutia. Siberia. © Emilie Maj 2011

A large majority of Siberian languages are in an alarming situation, in spite of an apparently favorable Russian legislation: all the languages of the Russian Federation are officially recognized with equal rights, and all of them supposedly receive State support.

But after suffering Soviet policy, in fact, they are now faced with Russian-centered standardization. Why? Because the evolution of the economy towards global market makes rural-urban migration and social recomposition difficult.

How many Siberian languages in Russia?

The Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Science accounts for forty-two Siberian languages gathered into three great families: the Altaic, Uralic, and Paleo-Asiatic languages.
Five of them are State languages: Altai, Komi, Tuvan, Buriat, and Yakut (also known as Sakha).
Thirty-six of these languages are presented as those of the “minority indigenous peoples”.
The remaining languages have no particular status: they are considered as dialects derived from the others.

Many endangered languages

For each of these languages, the number of speakers ranges from a few dozens to hundreds of thousands.

Among the least widespread, UNESCO deems the following as “critically endangered”:

- Nenets: ca. 2,000 official speakers
- Nganasan: ca. 1,000
- Mansi: ca. 3,000
- Ket: ca. 500
- Nanai: ca. 5,800
- Gilyak: ca. 1,000

UNESCO also declares the following as being “on the brink of extinction”:

- Selkup: over 500 speakers
- Eastern Mansi: ca. 500
- Tofa: ca. 300
- Ulch: ca. 1,100
- Udege: ca. 500
- Oroqen: ca. 150
- Neghidal: ca. 150
- Jukagir: ca. 100
- Itelmen: ca. 500
- Gilyak: ca. 500

It is worth noting that official figures do not necessarily reflect reality. The actual number of Jukagir speakers, for instance, is more likely counted on the fingers of one hand. Altogether, approximately thirty of these languages are threatened with extinction on the shorter or longer term.

Which mother tongue?

The question of mother tongue is a delicate issue: in Siberia, the indigenous populations sometimes use more Russian than they use their own mother language, learned during childhood and forgotten in school, where Russian predominates. In some cases, acculturation even leads to oblivion of the indigenous language, despite it being a native tongue.

At the end of the day, between those to whom the indigenous language hasn’t been handed down and those who have forgotten it, the number of speakers is gradually falling. Thus out of 22,500 members of the Khanty population, only 67% consider Khanty to be their mother tongue. The figure even drops to 37% among the Mansi population…

Siberian languages in school

Nowadays around one out of four languages of Siberia is taught in primary school. But the amount of teaching time remains insufficient, and the teaching itself is delivered in Russian. What’s more, even when a child does study the language of their community in the early grades, whether they might continue to do so in secondary school is very uncertain.

Certain administrative entities such as the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic have created “national schools”, where instruction is delivered in Sakha language up to the governmental exam that students must take at seventeen. But this structure remains the privilege of the elite: there is only a limited number of them, and parents complain not to be able to register their children there because of a lack of space.

Multi-leveled multilingualism

The most endangered languages are generally those of communities living in Republics that have a national language other than Russian. These “small languages” are then faced with two hegemonies: that of Russian, and that of the official local second language.

To overcome the deficiencies of the Russian legislation, some of these Republics, such as Sakha (Yakutia) and Buryatia, display political support to these minority languages – granting them an official language status in regions where the people who still speak them are very concentrated.

Yet an observer might ask if the success of this policy is actually effective. Visiting the Even-Bytantai region, in northern Sakha Republic, gives a prime example of a typical situation in the country: the region is qualified “national” because it is formed of a majority of Even. But the Even were in fact assimilated to the Sakha during the Soviet period, and they no longer speak their own language.

Which leads to quite grotesque situations: the young Natacha, for instance, from a mixed Even/Sakha family, speaks Sakha at home like all the other people in her village. In school she studies Russia, of course. She also studies Even, an “official” minority language, although she doesn’t use it in everyday life because no one else in the area speaks it. Yet she does not study Sakha, her mother tongue, the country’s second official language, the language she’ll be using the most as an adult.

This tangible example shows that the question of indigenous languages is a sensitive issue whose resolution emerged on a case-by-case basis. Time is short, unfortunately, and it is not certain that the authorities will find efficient solutions in time to handle such complexity.

Sources available in French

CONSEIL DE L’EUROPE 2007, Comite Consultatif de la Convention-Cadre Pour La Protection Des Minorités Nationales, Strasbourg, 2 mai 2007, ACFC/OP/II(2006)004, Deuxième Avis sur la Fédération de Russie adopté le 11 mai 2006, (last visit on 19.09.2011)

ISOHOOKANA-ASUNMAA Tytti (rapporteur) 1998, Assemblée parlementaire du Conseil de l’Europe, Doc. 8126 du 2 juin 1998, Cultures minoritaires ouraliques en danger, Rapport de la Commission de la culture et de l’éducation, (last visit on 19.09.2011)

LAVRILLIER Alexandra (to be published), Parlons toungouse, L’Harmattan

MAJ Emilie et LEBERRE-SEMENOV Marine 2010, Parlons sakha. Langue et culture iakoutes. L’Harmattan

Maj Emilie 2009. Interpréter le dialogue interculturel entre Russes et peuples autochtones de la République Sakha (Iakoutie), in K. HADDAD, M. ECKMANN, A. MANÇO (éds), Antagonismes communautaires et dialogues interculturels, Paris, L’Harmattan, coll. « Compétences interculturelles », 2009, L’Harmattan, Paris, pp. 63-83

PERROT Jean 2006, Regards sur les langues ouraliennes. Etudes structurales, approches contrastives, regards de linguistes, L’Harmattan (Bibliothèque finno-ougrienne)

TERSIS Nicole, THERRIEN Michèle 2001, Langues eskaléoutes : Sibérie, Alaska, Canada, Groenland, CNRS Paris

WEINSTEIN Charles 2010, Parlons tchouktche : une langue de Sibérie, L’Harmattan

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Teaching Maori in New Zealand : progress & issues

Posted by Richard Hill on October 13, 2011

Richard Hill
Dr Richard Hill, University of Waikato,
Hamilton, New Zealand.

New Zealand, or Aotearoa, as named by the Māori people over 1000 years ago, is a multicultural country of 4.4 million people (Statistics New Zealand, 2011).

Māori, the indigenous people and largest minority group, consist of 15 % of the population.

Like the indigenous people of many countries of the world, Māori have suffered from the effects of colonisation, particularly in regard to their language. In 1930, 97 % of Māori spoke their language fluently. By 1970, this number had dropped to 27 %, as a consequence of decades of indoctrination, negative educational policies and changing population movement.

Wanganui High School Maori Language Class, New Zealand - Photo : Robert Thomson (cc)

Wanganui High School Maori Language Class, New Zealand - Photo : Robert Thomson (cc)

Introducing Maori in the education system

Buoyed by a growing US civil rights movement of the 1970s and an increasing awareness of the advantages of bilingual education, Māori began to experiment with bilingual education in the late 1970s. In 1982, the first kohanga reo (early childhood language nest) was opened, which then led to a proliferation of Māori-medium providers around New Zealand, including Kura Kaupapa Māori (high immersion elementary schools) and wharekura (secondary schools). In 2011, according to the New Zealand Ministry of Education, 14 % of Māori students (i.e. 24,805 students), are involved in some form of Māori-medium education.

Maori in school, English outside

Despite the huge accomplishments of the past 30 years at bringing the Māori language back to new generations of Māori children, the regeneration of the Māori language has only partially succeeded. Schools are producing fluent Māori speakers but outside school Māori language use is not widespread.

This issue of intergenerational language transmission is the key area that requires attention if the Māori language is to survive in the future. Attending to this will mean that a generation of Māori parents who did not learn Māori as children, will need to first learn it and then work to nurture it in their homes and beyond.

Deciding on the place of English

The place of the English language in high immersion Māori-medium programmes is another issue that schools have continued to struggle with. Its inclusion in the curriculum is even more important since it was recently made a compulsory subject for Māori-medium schools to implement.

In the early years, schools believed that maintaining a 100 % Māori language immersion was necessary to revitalise the language, and that English instruction could be left to secondary schools, or beyond, to fulfil.

However, in the last 10-15 years, attitudes have changed towards a belief that high skill levels are required in both of the students’ languages. How and when to implement English programmes are the issues currently being negotiated. Compared with bilingual programmes in international contexts, the quantity of English language instruction in kura kaupapa and other high immersion programmes is very low, with many schools providing between 120 and 720 hours English instruction between grades 4 and 8.

Schools also tend to employ independent English teachers to instruct the subject rather than utilise the classroom teachers, in the belief that in doing so they are maintaining a ‘pure’ Māori immersion environment elsewhere in the school. While these arrangements offer advantages, employing a separate English language teacher is expensive, and because the English teachers teach solely literacy-related content, the students are not exposed to English language registers from other curriculum areas. The arrangement also means that students are not encouraged to transfer their language skills from one language to the other because their teachers do not usually speak Māori.

At a time when many researchers are promoting instructional techniques that promote language skills transfer, Māori-medium schools have yet to experiment with these methods. It will only occur if perceptions change about the relationship between the students’ two languages. At that point, students will stand a better chance of becoming highly bilingual and biliterate.


Statistics New Zealand. (2011). Estimated Resident Population. from

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Being a linguist: from documentation to commitment

Posted by Colette Grinevald et James Costa on October 7, 2011

By Colette Grinevald, linguist, DDL laboratory (Language Dynamics), University of Lyon 2, and James Costa, Research associate, French Institute for Education, Ecole Nationale Supérieure, Lyon, France.

Teaching rama - © Colette Grinevald

Miss Nora teaching rama - © Colette Grinevald

Emergence of a research discipline

The phenomenon of language extinction has been known for numerous decades, but an active form of awareness rose in the 1970s in various countries such as France, UK, and USA.

Not until the dawn of the 1990s, however, did the theme of endangered languages truly emerge. The period was marked with the 500th anniversary of the Discovery of America (1492-1992), celebrated by some, criticized by others. It was then that the work of several researchers encountered the demands of field activists in indigenous communities of the Americas. This encounter created a shockwave among linguists, and showed to be the actual kick-off of a new field of research.

From then on, a network of linguists from America, Australia, and Europe was put in motion – linguists who shared a long experience in the field upon various contexts of language endangerment. They began to coordinate their projects, organize conferences everywhere across the planet, and produce a number of individual or collective publications.

Children learning Rama - © Claudia Gordillo

Children learning Rama - © Claudia Gordillo

The part played by linguists

Linguists involved in this new span of research soon considered it was in the interest of their own profession, as well as their responsibility as citizens of the world, to sound the alarm on the severe precariousness of most of the world’s languages.

Beyond the research activities they have been trained for, rises the question of their role in respect to the demands of populations: while their academic work consists in describing and documenting these languages – which remain relatively or completely unknown so far, and usually also un-written –, what the populations ask for has more to do with the revitalization and revaluation of their endangered languages.

Faced with the issue, a common attitude, dominant in an ideological context in favor of monolingualism, consists in doing nothing, and considering processes of language extinction as a natural outcome of processes that were always at work.

Another attitude admits that linguistic phenomena aren’t natural, quite the contrary: they are cultural, deeply ideological, and often involve unbalanced power relationships.

Thus developed, in the course of the past twenty years, a discourse aiming to display arguments in favor of maintaining as much linguistic diversity as possible, as a constituent of the human specie.

Young women playing in Rama - © Colette Grinevald

Young women playing in Rama- © Colette Grinevald

Summing up the issues at stake

In 2000 British linguist David Crystal published a prime example of a case statement on endangered languages. According to Crystal, linguistic diversity must be secured for the following reasons:

  • We need diversity

This argument is based on themes developed in anthropology since the beginning of the 20th century, particularly in France with Claude Lévi-Strauss. The idea behind this argument is that diversity (be it biological, cultural, etc.) is the foundation of life on Earth. We, therefore, refers to humanity as a whole.

  • Language expresses identity

This statement is based on the traditional people/language associations implied by Nation State ideology, claiming that one cannot be Spanish, French, Welsh or Rama without speaking Spanish, French, Welsh or Rama. Together with the extinction of a language, therefore, national or cultural communities also give up a significant part of themselves.

  • Language reflects the history of populations

On one side, the scientific study of a language’s vocabulary often plays a part in retracing the geographic origin of the population who speaks it. On the other, a population’s language allows its oral literature and specific concepts to be handed down before being lost though possible translations or transmission to a third language.

  • Languages contribute to the global knowledge of humanity

Each language embeds a key-fraction of humanity’s global knowledge, the loss of which might affect the construction as a whole.

  • Languages are interesting for themselves

This argument, peculiar to linguists especially, consists in asserting that languages themselves are human and social constructions that are worthy of interest, and that their study is a way to comprehend human potential. From a linguist’s standpoint, letting most of the world’s languages disappear would be accepting the loss of the discipline’s essential working material. In that sense, according to some, languages are jeopardized masterpieces just as are certain historic monuments.

In conclusion

Endangered language issues, alongside language issues in general, are profoundly ideological issues – power issues. Engaging in favor of one perspective or another, beyond their scientific work on these languages, linguists are necessarily drawn to address the ideologies underlying their acts and their very conception of language and speech.

NB: For further insight, refer to the collective work Linguistique de terrain sur les langues en danger[Field Linguistics on Endangered Languages] directed by Colette Grinevald and Michel Bert – ‘Faits de langues’ collection (Ophrys).

Order online here.

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