Wouldn’t it be better, if we all spoke the same language?

By Gáppe Piera Jovnna Ulla / Ulla Aikio-Puoskari

[in Finnish]
In 1992, Michael Krauss issued a warning that came to be observed worldwide. Krauss’ message was that during the next century, 90% of the languages still spoken by mankind will disappear unless there is a decisive change working towards their survival. The majority of the world’s endangered languages are indigenous languages. Languages becoming endangered means that their transition to new generations is compromised (under threat) and in many cases even lost altogether. All Sámi languages are endangered languages, according to UNESCO classification, and the Inari and Skolt Sámi spoken in Finland are severely endangered.

The activity of language communities surprised researchers

The activity of indigenous and minority linguistic communities in protecting, revitalizing and working on developing the linguistic rights of their own languages has been enormous and has become a great surprise for many researchers. In the Sámi community, the Northern Sámi language work started already in the 1960s and 70s. The conscious revival and the protection of many other Sámi languages began in the 1980s and 90s. The most effective method of revitalizing an endangered language seems to be a language nest method adopted from Aotearoa Maoris and adapted to the Sámi community, which has resulted in the growth of new generations of children with native Sámi language skills, with the Inari Sámi, which had already become almost exclusively the language of the elderly, becoming the language of instruction throughout elementary school! The Sámi community has developed dozens of different methods to ensure the transition of languages to new generations, of which there are descriptions available within my report published in 2016.

The academic counter-reaction surprised the language communities

Developing the status of indigenous’ peoples and minorities’ languages has also given rise to an academic counter-reaction that is surprising and even strange to me. Scientists questioning the development of linguistic rights most favourably consider the improvement of the status of these languages and the revitalization as an attempt to protect something that (already without assistance) belongs to the past. Why resist the inevitable and natural linguistic modernization? Why limit the lives and mobility of people belonging to minorities by staying in a language with limited access? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone to speak one language, the main language of our countries or English language? Why connect language with ethnic identity? Are the languages not just communication tools and local agreements, where the dismantling of them does not mean a profound change in people’s lives? Some theorists still consider the protection of the linguistic rights of minorities as a factor that also weakens the unity of a nation-state and creates inequality.

Does the improvement of the status of a minority language really mean resisting development and is the preservation of an original language an effort to stick to the past, in poverty and in a pre-modern way of life, as was widely believed in the 1950s?

From the point of view of the Sámi community, the strangest thing is the view in opposition to the development of linguistic rights, according to which the preservation of the minority’s indigenous/original language and the act of choosing it, e.g. as the language of education for children, is tantamount to irresponsible parenting. According to this, those preserving their minority language will mainly become happy slaves, who may indeed guarantee linguistic and cultural continuity, but are condemned economically and socially to a lower position than other groups. Minority language is thought to remain only in an isolated state, outside the rest of the world, and best in a situation where the language-speaking population remains illiterate. This criticism is exacerbated by the claim that the preservation of minority languages prevents linguistic modernization, as well as the social and occupational mobility of speakers. Minority language is thought to merely have emotional value or meanings supporting identity. Majority language is thought to be primarily instrumental in value, enabling both economic growth, social mobility and modern life. Essential in this criticism is the act of setting minority and majority languages as mutually exclusive. In any case, the preservation of the minority language—also in the bilingual situation—is considered to be a matter of being excluded from the majority language community and its interests.

The revitalisation of the Sámi languages reinvigorates the whole community

The experiences of the Sámi community regarding the importance of their own language are completely opposite to the above described experiences. The development of language-related rights has allowed the Sámi community to modernize in their own language and has not at all meant isolation into monolingualism. The development of linguistic rights has meant expanded opportunities for the use and development of indigenous languages, as well as the re-learning and transfer of a lost language to new generations. The maintenance of bilingualism and multilingualism has thus also meant an expanded labour market and mobility opportunities in the home country and even across national borders. The modern Sámi community has created new jobs e.g. to the public and to the Sámi administration, as well as to the Sámi media, public services, education and many other areas of life. Sámi language skills have become a major contributor to employment. Increasing the use of the Sámi language has thus increased the instrumental value of the language, while also showing the great importance of language for the identity and cohesion of the whole community and its members. There is also a team of researchers who are now refusing to merely report on changes in languages and linguistic communities. A large number of researchers work closely with linguistic communities to support and assist them in their language work.

The revitalisation of Sámi language revival has become the most visible goal of Sámi language work in recent decades. The revitalisation of languages reinvigorates the whole community, breaks down the traumas that have passed from generation to the other, open doors to their own history, to their own self and the Sámi people in neighbouring countries. For my part, I know that the act of re-learning a language gives a feeling of reinvigoration and a sense of becoming complete, similar to that of healing from a serious illness. Despite being endangered, the Sámi languages are still the first learned native languages, which is valuable, as well as historically speaking marvellous!

Happy Sámi National Day! Active Indigenous Languages Year 2019!


In the picture you see Ulla Aikio-Puoskari
Ulla Aikio-Puoskari

Gáppe Piera Jovnna Ulla / Ulla Aikio-Puoskari works as Secretary for Education Policy for the Sámi Parliament of Finland and is the head of the Office for Sámi education and Instruction material, https://www.samediggi.fi/toiminta/koulutus-ja-oppimateriaali/. She is also an educational policy researcher and has published comparative reports and articles on Sámi education in Finland, Sweden and Norway. A report on the best practices in Sámi language revival and national language policy in the Nordic countries, published in 2016 in Finnish and three Sámi languages can be downloaded here: https://dokumentit.solinum.fi/samediggi/?f=Dokumenttipankki%2FSelvitykset%20ja%20raportit.

Aikio-Puoskari is the responsible editor of www.oktavuohta.com, the Sámi Education Information Center.

Translated by: Razan Abou Askar