Language and identity in Greenland

Posted by Lenore Grenoble on November 14, 2011

By Lenore Grenoble, Professor of Slavic Linguistics, University of Chicago.

Greenland - (cc) destination arctic circle

Greenland - (cc) destination arctic circle

A survey conducted in 2009 found that Greenlanders overwhelmingly find language to be a critical part of their identity.[1] By “language” here they almost certainly mean Greenlandic, or Kalaallisut as it is called by its speakers, the indigenous language of Greenland. Greenlandic is an Inuit language with three main dialects in Greenland: North (Inuktun or Avanersuarmiutut), East (Tunumiisut) and West (Kalaallisut). West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) forms the basis of the standard and official language. It is the language of the media (radio, newspapers, and television) and is used in the schools, government, and all official administration.

Language has been a focal point for issues of identity and self-autonomy in Greenland for many years. Although still officially part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland has been making steady progress in legislation to gain control of her own laws in all matters, including language. In 1979 Act 65 granted Greenland the status of Home Rule, which gave it greater independence and, among other things, made both Danish and Greenlandic the official languages of the country. Language shift was one of the driving motivations behind Greenland’s move to Home Rule; political leaders and activists noticed language shift to Danish already in the 1960s and fought to change the tide.

These efforts continue to this day. In 2008 a referendum gave more autonomy to Greenland, instituting a series of governmental changes and reforms to begin the subsequent year. When the Self Government assumed power on 21 June 2009, Premier Kuupik Kleist highlighted the importance of language in his inaugural speech:

Today is a very special and important day, because as of today, our language, Greenlandic, has become our official language. Language cannot be separated from identity, and this is why we must work hard to ensure the use of our language in everyday life.

One of the results is steady and sustained efforts to foster the use of Greenlandic in all domains, efforts fostered by Greenland’s Language Committee (Oqaasiliortut) instituted in 1979 as an official part of the Home Rule Government.

Greenlanders themselves are deeply committed to their language and are its strongest advocates. Greenlandic is the only indigenous language spoken in the Arctic for which the number of speakers is actually increasing. Children are raised speaking Greenlandic and it thrives across all generations and in all domains. (One partial exception is in higher education, where Danish continues to be used. Developing the necessary pedagogical materials and teacher training are important goals to offsetting this linguistic imbalance.)

It is hard to find a Greenlander today without strong awareness of language. One of the challenges facing the country and the Greenlandic language is their position in a global world. The answer I have heard most often is multilingualism, with the idea that Greenlanders need to know Kalaallisut to live in Greenland, Danish since they are part of the Kingdom of Denmark and, increasingly, English to be part of a global economic, political and intellectual world. In thinking about the future, Greenlanders strive to maintain an Inuit identity as citizens of a modern world. Language is a central component of that identity.

[1] Poppel, Birger. 2009. Levevilkår i Grønland (6) – Det grønlandske sprog – en status ved

Selvstyrets indførelse. Sermitsiaq 14 July 2009.

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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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Kanak languages at school in New Caledonia: a long process

Posted by Jacques Vernaudon on September 30, 2011

By Jacques Vernaudon, senior lecturer in Oceanic linguistics, University of New Caledonia.

New Caledonia / Photo : Sekundo (cc)

New Caledonia counts around thirty vernaculars, the Kanak languages, spoken by a total of some 70,000 people, according to the 2009 census (total population: 245,580). The greater ones are spoken by a few thousand people, the smaller by under a hundred.

They all belong to the Austronesian language family, one of the largest language families in the world, including 1,000 to 1,200 languages. These languages stem from one and the same Mother language believed to have been spoken over 5,500 years ago on the southern coasts of China and Taiwan. From this migration source, the first speakers first populated the Southeast Asian islands and peninsulas before continuing their expansion all the way to Madagascar in the West, and to most of the Pacific islands in the East. Nevertheless, in spite of their common origin, the Kanak languages remain very diverse in respect to either vocabulary, sound, or grammar.

Belated recognition

Long underrated, threatened with extinction when severe depopulation followed the first encounters with the Western world in the 18th century, the Kanak languages have been formally banned from the education system from the beginning of the colonization up to 1984. Not until a movement for the political emancipation of indigenous populations emerged at the end of the 20th century did they eventually fall under gradual institutional recognition.

Now recognized as “languages of education and culture” (1999 New Caledonia organic law), they entered the public primary school programs voted in 2005 by the Congress of New Caledonia.

Yet despite available resources the implementation of these courses and their supervision still suffer numerous factors of inertness, mainly due to:
- the structural complexity of the Caledonian education system,

- ideological resistance: the teaching of Kanak being opposed to a priority to teach French “first and foremost”, sometimes even English.

- repression of the Caledonian plurilingual reality, whose loose representation may explain certain attitudes, whether at family, teaching staff or authority level.

Kanak languages at pre-school

In 2010, out of the ca. 9,500 pupils attending pre-school on the archipelago, 2,000 (21%) received instruction of/in Kanak language and culture (LCK). This instruction is delivered at the rate of 5 hours per week, within school time, and effective in 14 languages, depending where the school is located.

The LCK classes are open upon parental request to all pupils regardless of their origins. Profiles of the children registered in the LCK classes vary: some, smaller in number, are native monolinguals of the taught Kanak language; others are raised in bilingual settings where the taught Kanak (or related) language is part of their daily life alongside French; and others, predominant in the urban context, only speak French (or a local variant).

So far educational authorities have yet to approve having this instruction extended beyond pre-school.

Obstacles to clear

Three parameters define the supply in LCK education:

- family demand (sociological surveys reveal it is relatively significant),

- willingness on the part of provincial political and educational authorities (New Caledonia is divided into three provinces, each with its own executive),

- the availabilities of qualified speaker-educators.

To address this last issue, a specific examination for primary school teachers, including tests in Kanak language, was created in March 2006. But the influx of successful candidates is unfortunately too weak (approximately two a year), the most selective subjects remaining math and French. Alternative devices (recruiting of external speaker-contributors, in-service training oftenured speaker-educators, etc.) have been created since to fill in the gaps.

First outcomes

Assessments carried out so far return the verdict of a positive impact on the local languages, bearing no negative effect on the command of French, and with possible positive cross-over effects towards French (Click here for further information).

Such results can only be obtained under certain conditions: the teaching of Kanak languages ought to be led in full coordination with that of French. Awareness must be raised among families and educational teams so they can approve bilingual systems. The training and support of educators, finally, is essential.

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How to teach a mother tongue… when it no longer is a mother tongue?

Posted by Colette Grinevald et Bénédicte Pivot on December 18, 2010

By Colette Grinevald and Bénédicte Pivot, linguists at the University of Lyon 2 Dynamique du Language (DDL – language dynamics) laboratory.

When an ethnic language is not a mother tongue but an endangered language bearing strong symbolic identity value for its community, how does it fit in formal education?

For all existing ethnic groups, the UNESCO recognizes linguistic rights in favor of the development of bilingual education programmes. These programmes are based on scientific discourses that have proven school-based education and the cognitive development of children to stem better results when instruction was provided in their mother tongue (see Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’ articles).

While intentions are worthy, however, previous discussions have shown how difficult these programmes were to put together, including when there was still a fair number of speakers left.

So what happens when adding to the lack of speakers, the ethnic language is no longer a mother tongue, in the sense of the vernacular language used in the earliest stages of childhood education, but remains their language in the eyes and heart of its community, thus willing to have it revitalized through formal education?

The Rama are Amerindians of the southern Caribe coast of Nicaragua. Out of the near 3,000 people forming the Rama community, only around thirty still speak their ethnic language. The language spoken within the community nowadays is a variant of English-based Creole, which was introduced by the dominant Creole population. Spanish, the official language of Nicaragua, is nothing to them but a second language mastered by only very few.

But in the context of the national and Amerindian indigenous identity claim movement during the 80s, and while this language, Rama, which themselves referred to as a « primitive » tiger language, was disappearing, leaders of the community requested its revitalization. A process of revaluation followed, supported from the start by a team of external linguists.

25 years later, the Rama’s attitude towards their ethnic language has changed: it has become a precious « asset » they are proud of, one they refer to as their « treasure language ». It is « their language », our language, one they own and that makes them identifiable individuals, distinct from other ethnic groups, and most of all, different from the Creoles.

Today they contribute to developing the online Rama encyclopaedic dictionary (, actually « capitalizing » their linguistic knowledge one word after the other. Being able to learn from it has brought satisfaction to them, answering that « yes, they know the language, as they speak one one word… »

This language is also a way for them to claim sovereignty over their own territory (recognized by law since 2009), with toponyms they have now relearned in Rama.

Thus has changed the status of Rama; it has become a « treasure language » bearing strong symbolic identity and demonstration value, a language that has no purpose of ever being spoken fluently again, a language that isn’t and probably never will be a mother tongue again, like Zapara in Ecuador. But the demand remains strong in the community to have this treasure language revitalized within a formal education programme for school children.

Yet the only institutional response nowadays, based on international linguistic rights, is carried out through bilingual education programmes unable to make a distinction between an ethnic language and a mother tongue. A confusion pointing out the current lack of reflection upon the particular status of these endangered languages of strong symbolic value, which become objects of revitalization programmes with no aim for revernacularization. Their transmittal raises the question of a relevant didactic approach, yet to be invented at this point.

If this challenge isn’t faced, there will remain a great confusion in the minds of revitalization local players and an education system claiming to be multicultural and bilingual (or multilingual) but doesn’t acknowledge the special status of treasure language.

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