Jadu Kolija, the core of Kokborok culture and language

Posted by Joseph Pulinthanath on December 7, 2011

By Salesian Father Joseph Pulinthanath, Director of the film Yarwng (Roots), made in Kokborok language, in the Indian state of Tripura.


Kokborok language, like its speakers, seems to be critically poised at some crossroads of history. Strewn about the length of breadth of this hallowed land of erstwhile kings and kingdoms are numerous signs of resurgence and decadence.

Caught in the middle, between two worlds – one dead, the other powerless to be born, is a tongue, crisis-ridden yet buoyant: Kokborok, the mother-tongue of the ‘borok’ people of Tripura in Northeast India.

Vicissitudes of history have relegated the language and its speakers to the fringes of society, although it is still used by over 800 000 speakers. Today’s efforts at rejuvenation of the tribe and its language are characterized by muddled policies and half-hearted attempts.

The revival of Kokborok

Recent efforts at revitalizing Kokborok have been phenomenal. In fact, the sheer pace with which Kokborok reinvented itself in the past 20 years is amazing.

There was a time not long ago, when Kokborok was spoken in hushed tones in Agartala. This was because enmeshed in socio-political factors Kokborok got absurdly equated with lack of education, status and breeding.

But that was all a long time ago! The scenario has substantially changed today. The sotto voce asides of yesteryears have now been replaced by confident assertions. Today one frequently gets to hear Kokborok in public places and occasions even in the towns of Tripura. The increased level of confidence and ease with one’s tongue is reflected in all public spheres of life. There are numerous Kokborok festivals, Kokborok songs, films, theatre, workshops, websites, seminars and Kokborok-related activities in the state. There is even a state-sponsored ‘Kokborok Day’ celebrated annually in the state. It is, of course, another matter that with Kokborok itself seldom featuring in it, the annual event is quickly beginning to feel like a memorial function ‘about’ Kokborok.

The decline of Jadu Kolija

These laudable efforts and their achievements should encourage and not prevent the community from seriously engaging Kokborok’s own timeless ‘art’ called Jadu Kolija. Jadu Kolija literally means ‘heart of the beloved’ or ‘from the heart for the beloved’. It embraces not only love songs but all traditional form of singing/chanting.

Today, Jadu Kolija is seldom heard and indulged in. It is a pity that native speakers have bypassed this fount of wealth in their pursuit of the new brave world. This is a submission that efforts at resurgence of Kokborok, which are anyway few and far between, must not shy away from seriously engaging the ‘vital founts’ of its culture like Jadu Kolija, if they are to impact the community in a lasting manner. Sidestepping these ‘founts’ will, in the course of time, render these already feeble attempts, altogether futile or merely cosmetic at best.

I have always felt that the extraordinary richness of Kokborok language is best found in this traditional art form of the tribal community. The profound meaning of its arresting lyrics and their haunting tunes continue to enchant even today. In a manner seldom understood by non-Kokborok speakers this enigmatic music tradition held absolute sway over the entire life-cycle of the person and the community. Jadu Kolija enveloped all significant moments and events of the life-cycle. It was theatre, music and morality all rolled into one.

Still, no progress without Jadu Kolija

The thought that ‘Kokborok’ language might be ‘endangered’ is a disquieting one for me. For the past 17 years my ears have fed on the enigmatic sounds of this language. With each passing year, my ears tell me that the best of Kokborok is yet to come.

Jadu Kolija is an irresistible mixture of the rational and the emotional – the head and the heart. The stunning imageries and resonant metaphors found in Jadu Kolija can uplift not only a language but a people. The lyrics of Jadu Kolija with their untranslatable meanings, moods and innuendo can continue to be the life-giving veins of the Kokborok culture. It has the ability to ensure that the Kokborok-speaking community stays rooted on the earth and yet has its eyes fixed on the stars. Effort to restore and revitalize Kokborok without according Jadu Kolija even scant attention has a ring of absurdity about it.

To ensure the future of kokborok culture and language, ways must be devised to restore Jadu Kolija to the community. A people that have for decades been deluded by unvoiced agendas of vested interest groups should easily realize the need there is for passion to replace intellectual gimmicks. Until Kokborok speakers are seized by a passion to return to the best fount of their language, Jadu Kolija, the famed resilience of the Kokborok tribe would continue to lack depth and character. In the resurgence of Jadu Kolija lies the secret to preservation of Kokborok.

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Enough with keeping the Maya locked in their pyramids!

Posted by Valentina Vapnarsky on November 30, 2011

By Valentina Vapnarsky, researcher in linguistic anthropology at the CNRS, and director of the LESC Education and Research Centre on Amerindian Ethnology (CNRS/university of Paris Ouest) http://erea.cnrs.fr/

High Temple - Photo : Bernt Rostad (cc)

In times where Maya predictions on the end of the calendar cycle are being pointed up, where pre-Hispanic Maya gems are being admired in the largest international museums, it might be worth noting that the Maya are still very much alive, and live in an area reaching from their native lands to the North of the American continent.

A resilient people

The resilient and dynamic Maya people, in spite of five centuries of brutal colonization and oppression, in spite of the power and attractiveness of heedless modernity, have managed to recreate ever-new aspects of their own identity. Crisis that have run along centuries of Maya civilization are the witnesses of a deep form of resilience.

Very ancient and diverse languages

The Mayan languages, which are dated back to some 4,500 years, have diverged and evolved each in their own way along the centuries. There is no mutual understanding between most of them, although they do bear common lexical roots and phonological and grammatical features. Such linguistic diversity, adding to a large variety of dialects, is rarely observed on such a relatively limited area, concentrated over 340,000m2 of high and lowlands in the northern part of Central America.

The locations of Mayan groups in this area, however, have never been stable. The Maya have gone through significant migration movements, often due to dramatic events. The most recent followed the mass slaughters of Indian populations in Guatemala during the 1980s, the crushing repression of the Zapatista movement in 1994 in Mexico, the depletion of the lands and soils, and the violence of drug cartels.

Hundreds of thousands of Maya people bearing different origins (Mam, K’anjobal, Q’iche’, Tojolabal, Q’eqchi’, Popti, Kaqchikel…) have fled from Guatemala to Mexico; from Chiapas (Tseltal, Tzotzil, Chol…) to the Yucatan peninsula; from rural areas to the greater urban and tourist centers; from Cancún to the USA. Hence there are about 250,000 speakers of Mayan languages in USA at this point. And cities and villages where over half a dozen of these languages actually coexist.

Contrasted situations

Out of the thirty or so Mayan languages we know about at the time of the conquest, 29 are still spoken by a near total of 6 million speakers. But their vitalities seriously differ: Itza’ and Tz‘utujil are dying out with a handful of elderly speakers, while around 800,000 people speak Yucatec and over 400,000 Q’eqchior Mam – although these high figures may in fact be shadowing a clear decline.

Indeed, even languages showing an increasing number of speakers – due to demography – end up weakening. Actually, the proportion of Mayan language speakers, and more broadly indigenous language speakers, happens to be shrinking: their languages are ever less taught as mother tongues, and ever less spoken to the children.

Besides, the environments where these languages are the most vigorous are often torn between poor and isolated populations on one side, and the Maya intellectual elite on the other. The former experience Mayan monolingualism as a problem, a source of racial misconceptions, and a social anvil; the latter are growing, although having trouble offsetting the decline of their native languages despite the efforts, a decline growing sharper everyday as the young generations wanting out of poverty get snatched by the sparks of modernity.

Demande en mariage tektiteko - Photo : José Reynes

Promising yet troubled progress in Guatemala

Preserving and reinvigorate linguistic wealth implies actual recognition in the official, educational, cultural, political, and legal areas.

In Guatemala, where over half of the population bears Mayan origins, the creation of the Academia de Lenguas Mayas in the 1990s helped the Maya handle the languages themselves, and contributed to train linguists and cultural players known for the quality of their academic research and their involvement in programs of linguistic and cultural revaluation. Their endurance, however, is threatened by the profound unrest the country is currently going through.

An ambivalent situation in Mexico

A bill was approved in 2003 in Mexico implying the recognition and protection of the individual and collective linguistic rights of indigenous populations, as well as the promotion of these languages’ use and development. This framework led to different types of progress: the creation of a specific official Institute, language inventories and descriptions (led by Maya scholar F. BriceñoChel), the production of multimedia equipment for teaching and diffusion, pilot projects in training teachers and translators, etc.

The aim here is to respond to both huge and very practical needs both on the education and legal level: helping a Maya person avoid having their knowledge mistreated by formal education, gain literacy in their mother tongue, understand and be understood in justice so as to be able to guarantee their own defense.

Still, the road is long and official support much to fragmentary and ambivalent. In spite of the law, most administrations scorn and refuse to listen to whoever comes in speaking Tseltal, Tojolobal, or Chol; literally misunderstood Maya people suffer an unbalanced form of justice, and certain supposedly bilingual schools still have a sign at the entrance forbidding use of the mother tongue.

So enough with keeping the Maya locked in their pyramids. Let’s learn how to hear their voices in their own languages – living languages which, in their daily or ritual usage,convey and recreate timeless cultural traditions, sophisticated languages in which a poignant form of verbal and literary art is always renewing itself, rich and complex languages which, thanks to the involvement of their speakers, have contributed to the analysis of crucial phenomena in the understanding of linguistic processes and diversity.

See our videos in Kaqchikel and in Tektiteko

To learn Mayan languages:
INALCO (France) – Mayan languages and cultures degree

INALI: InstitutoNacional de LenguasIndígenas (Mexico)

Academia de Lenguas Mayas de Guatemala

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On the endangered Kanak languages

Posted by Fabrice Wacalie on November 19, 2011

Fabrice Wacalie, PhD in Oceanic linguistics, has been working on the preservation of Kanak languages of the New Caledonian far South since 2007.

New Caledonia

In Melanesia, traditionally, linguistic diversity is the rule, while monolingualism is the exception. New Caledonia is home to no less than twenty-eight Kanak languages, eleven dialects, and one Creole, adding up to a mere total of 75,411 speakers. Yet most of the Kanak languages are endangered nowadays.

Factors of the erosion

In the mid-19th century, during the last decade prior to colonization, the number of Kanak language speakers dropped – partly because of the tribal wars raging at the time, but also because of the epidemics that followed first encounters with the colonists.

Then significant population movements were generatedas the colonial administration established its capital in Nouméa, shattering traditional Kanak linguistic areas (except that of NââKwényï, which was relatively isolated). When the colonists settled in the city, the clans who lived there were despoiled of their land and pushed away. Some clans went south, others north. Thus the current languages originate in the blend of several others.

The spread of Christianity in the language of the colonists brought the abandonment process of Kanak languages even further. Missionaries banned their usage within the missions. Learners were punished if they spoke in Kanak language, to the extent that a certain number of”traumatized” grandparents still forbid themselves from speaking their own language today. This created a rupture in the dynamic of intergenerational transmission.

The case of Yaté, in the South.

“When the children hear me speak the language, they laugh and say: Wawa (grandma), your English is good!” reports mamieWaiju resignedly, who speaks NââNumèè and lives in the far South of New Caledonia.

And indeed children and youngsters no longer speak Kanak languages in this part of the country because their parents give priority to French. They consider French more important for succeeding in school. Actually, there are none but one Kanak language class in Yaté, plus a few other institutional and associative initiatives that involve Kanak languages in extra-curricular activities.

Seniors and some parents still speak these languages on a daily basis. In custom ceremonies, however, French is gradually taking over.

Players of preservation in the Drubea-Kapume area.

Mining operator “Vale Nouvelle-Calédonie”, a mining company that extracts nickel and cobalt, has granted significant financial resources to a Kanak language development program in southern New Caledonia (NââNumèè, NââDrubéa, and NââKwênyii, spoken on the Isle of Pines):

I work for this program, which consists in elaborating educational tools aiming to support the teaching of these languages in schools and homes.

Between 2008 and 2010 we carried out up to 300 interviews with over 100 resource-people including speakers, school teachers, researchers, illustrators, experts, etc. The data collected was used in crafting educational games to hand down to the children the language of their elders. Five posters themed around plants and animals were created in south Kanak language. Five memory games, five picture books, and a species game were also designed. These were handed out in schools and homes for free.

Partnerships with other cultural players have also been set in motion: the publication of a traditional tale in NââNumèè language, for instance, which is in project with the Kanak Culture Development Agency, should see the light in the fall of 2012.

The Kanak Language Academy (ALK) is also part of the process; they have been contributing to the codification and standardization of these languages since 2008. A close collaboration between the Vale program and the ALK helps us create educational tools that are consistent with the institution’s standards.

An agreement has also signed with Saint-Joseph de Vaojunior high in 2009 to support the teaching ofNââKwényï in this school located on the Isle of Pines. The funds invested were used to pay the two teachers who delivered courses in Kwényï language.

Finally, a series of lectures and discussions was organized in 2009 when Tokyo University-based Japanese linguist TadahikoShintani, the only expert onNââDrubéa, visited New Caledonia.

With that in mind, and beyond efforts by institutions or local players, the survival of these languages, a whole part of Human heritage, now depends on the speakers’ actual will to keep speaking them.

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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, http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/minorities/3_FCNMdocs/PDF_2nd_Com_RussianFederation_fr.pdf (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, http://assembly.coe.int/Documents/WorkingDocs/doc98/fdoc8126.htm (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 http://www.stats.govt.nz/tools_and_services/tools/population_clock.aspx

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