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.

Share this post:          Twitter        Facebook        Email        Wikio

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

Share this post:          Twitter        Facebook        Email        Wikio

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

Share this post:          Twitter        Facebook        Email        Wikio

Finding a place for Occitan in the French Republic

Posted by Marie Jeanne Verny on September 15, 2011

By Marie Jeanne Verny, lecturer at the University of Paul Valéry, in Montpellier, France, and FELCO secretary (Fédération des Enseignants de la Langue et Culture d’Oc – “Federation of the educators of Oc language and culture”).

Carte linguistique de l'occitan

What is Occitan?

Occitan, also known as langue d’Oc, is spoken over eight regions of southern France (one third of the country), as well as in 12 valleys of the Italian Alps and in the Val d’Aran, Spain.
The number of speakers is usually estimated between 1 and 2 million, although many more actually understand Occitan.
The language has different variations, which do not prevent communication or the sharing of cultural creation.

French vs. Occitan

Occitan was attested in the 10th century, and rapidly became the language of literary creation and that of administration.

But the langue d’Oc soon had to face French, a langue d’Oïl in the northern part of the country: a mere symbol of royal power at first, French eventually became the official language, that of the elite, in the course of the 16th century.

Massive schooling at the end of the 19th century imposed French as a language of communication and led to cut off the transmission of the langue d’Oc within the family circle. While the language did remain the main language of daily communication for the working classes until the dawn of the 20th century, it appeared quite normal, then, including to those concerned, that social promotion implied school, French, and thus, the repression of a dialect associated to working-class origins.

This context of massive conversion to French in the Occitan population lasted throughout the entire 20th century. Some deemed this conversion to be mechanically and ideally deliberate, yet in fact it sheltered a complex phenomenon of social self-depreciation.

Early stages of a formal recognition within the education system

Since the 1950s, Occitan is beginning to receive some degree of public recognition, particularly in the education spheres.
The Deixonne law of 1951 gingerly opened the way for Occitan to enter education, and the way gradually became larger: optional introduction classes, bilingual classes on a parity basis with public education, private associative schools – known as calandretas. First steps in the training of teachers at university, a secondary school teaching qualification in Occitan, and a specific examination for school teachers have also been established since. Occitan is now studied by tens of thousands of students from nursery school to university. And the number of job offers requiring a decent command of the language currently exceeds the number of graduates!

A change in mentality

Since the end of World War II, as the transmission within families gradually faded, major changes have occurred in the representations of the language – linguistic surveys show that a small yet sizeable proportion of the population remains faithful to Occitan.

The term Patois [used as “lingo”], while still employed to refer to the language, is slowly being given up in favour of the very term Occitan, or more limited yet underogatory geographical terms (Béarnese or Provençal for instance, which are variants of the langue d’Oc).

Likewise, the gradual diffusion of a graphic system common to all the geographical varieties contributed to support and strengthen the idea that Occitan, in its diversity, could stand as a language “like any other”.

Sustaining revival

In the wake of this change of mindset, new conducts have appeared and keep developing, such as bilingual signalling systems or the use of Occitan in public events, formal or unformal.

The emergence of an original form of literature is also being observed, in which the age-old tradition of poetry finds itself carried by a wealth of published prose (Max Rouquette, Bernard Manciet, Marcelle Delpastre, etc.). The same goes for a modernising musical creation: 70s and 80s “nouvelle chanson”, recent bands such as Massilia or Fabulous Troubadors…

Even more recently, Occitan has forcefully entered the Internet with an abundance of specialized websites, blogs, and message boards where users, young ones for the most, use Occitan as a language of expression.

Nevertheless, such demonstrations of a favourable feeling, active or passive, towards the Occitan language and culture, should not hide the remaining obstacles: the standstill in family transmission, the absence of social visibility, the absence of formal recognition, and the lack of pro-active policies in favour of the language make it difficult to envision an genuine trend reversal.

There is no denying that despite significant legal provision (UNESCO convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions, EU resolution in favour of regional languages, article no. 75-1 of the French constitution, etc.), France still has a hard time measuring the effective cultural wealth of its plurilingualism and that of its creative potential. Thus are the other languages of the country thought of and pointed out, at best, as a merely emotional extra touch of soul, at worst, as an impediment to national unity and/or republican construction. Hence the emergency to adapt legislation by drafting a law, that has been promised on several occasions.

Photo : Georges Souche (

Photo : Georges Souche (

Learn more about Occitan on our website.

Share this post:          Twitter        Facebook        Email        Wikio

Vanuatu: a fragile diversity

Posted by Alexandre François on June 14, 2011

Dr Alexandre François, LACITO-CNRS, Australian National University

Alexandre François and †Maten Womal, one of the last speakers of the Olrat Language.

Alexandre François and †Maten Womal, one of the last speakers of the Olrat Language.

Last week, Alexandre François presented an overview of multilingual practices in Vanuatu, the country with the world’s highest linguistic diversity. He described how the traditional lifestyle of Vanuatu, with its decentralized organization and the absence of pressure towards uniformity, enabled languages with no more than a few hundred speakers to thrive and keep being handed down over the centuries.
Today he explains how linguistic diversity, despite being still very present in modern Vanuatu, is becoming ever more vulnerable.

Historical upheavals

The archipelago of Vanuatu went through a period of disruption towards the end of the 19th century.
The first contacts with European sailors triggered dramatic epidemics.
In addition, almost at the same time, the islands of Melanesia were losing their population because of Blackbirding – that is, the massive recruitment of workforce for the plantations of Queensland and Fiji. Missionaries at the time reported how, within only a few years time, they witnessed the demographic collapse of numerous villages that were once thriving.

In the northern area of Vanuatu I’m working on (the Banks and Torres islands), the linguistic density is still amazing today, with ten little islands counting as many as 16 different languages. However, the oral tradition as well as historical documents reveal that the same area, around 1860, was home to 35 distinct languages! This says a lot about the collapse of linguistic diversity within only a few decades…

The last witnesses

Even though the current times are less troubled, we are still observing indirect consequences of that demographic crisis. At the turn of the 20th century, many families from the highlands left their depopulated hamlets and resigned themselves to move down to the coastal villages, where the new Christian churches had been installed. Blending into the population of larger villages, these families were inevitably bound to replace their own language with that of the majority. Children born after this period, in the 1930s and 40s, were the last to ever hear the ancestral languages spoken by their parents; these individuals, now in their 70s or 80s, are the last speakers of languages which are almost extinct.

In the course of my research I always did everything I could to encounter these last witnesses of an ancient diversity, and record their languages while it was still possible. This is how I worked on Araki – the language from which the name Sorosoro was borrowed – but also on Volow, Lemerig, Olrat, Mwesen, Lovono, Tanema… The speakers of each one of these languages can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This reminds us that the linguistic diversity of our planet is a fragile flower.

The importance of transmission

Fortunately, the languages of Vanuatu aren’t all threatened to the same extent. For many of them, predictions on the mid-term are even optimistic, for multilingualism is in fact still very alive in the rural areas of the archipelago. The key lies in the transmission across generations: a language can last even if it is only spoken by two hundred people, providing the parents speak it to their children.

Most of the languages in Vanuatu are currently in this situation. The continuity of their transmission to the younger generations protects them, at least for now, from the risks of extinction. Yet their low demography remains their soft spot: an increase in migrations to cities, or a sudden cultural modernization, could be enough to trigger similar upheavals to those of the past century.

How linguists can help

Linguists do not hold all the keys to guarantee the survival of a language: this mainly depends on the speakers’ will to hand down their knowledge to the following generations. However, we can do our part to have these languages live on – in two different ways.

First, the task of language description and documentation, which takes the form of grammars, dictionaries or academic articles, is essential to preserve the human linguistic heritage. This is also true for those languages whose fate is already sealed: even though we cannot get them back afloat, at least we can rescue their treasures while it is still time. Take Araki, which was spoken by around fifteen people in 1997, by only five or six nowadays: there is little hope it can ever come back to being the thriving language of a whole community. But at least the grammar, dictionary and collection of stories I have produced will contribute to safeguard the memory of this unique language. The last speakers and their families are grateful for all this work – be it merely of a symbolic nature.

Perspectives are different with languages that are still healthy. The work of linguists can serve the community, in turn, by strengthening patterns of intergenerational transmission. This effort may take various forms, for instance by contributing to the introduction of vernaculars in the education system. I’ve just returned from a stay in Vanuatu last month, where I encouraged teachers of primary schools to include in their curriculum not only French and English – as is the case today – but also the mother tongues of their students. Interestingly, the government of Vanuatu is precisely shifting its new language policy into the same direction. To play my own part in this great project, I visited schools and gave classes to children aged 5 to 13; I showed them the literacy books I had just produced so as to teach the orthography of the vernaculars. I saw their eyes gleam with awe when they realized that their language, too, could be written.

Reading an Alphabet primer. © A. François

Reading an Alphabet primer. © A. François

For further insight:

Alexandre François’ personal website:

Share this post:          Twitter        Facebook        Email        Wikio