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Andrej Kibrik: УEvery two weeks one language disappears in the world.Ф

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Andrej Kibrik: УEvery two weeks one language disappears in the world.Ф

24.11.2021

Vladimir Emelianenko

Photo: Andrej Kibrik

The Linguistics Forum 2021: Language Policy and Language Preservation was held at the Institute of Linguistic Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. How to preserve Russia's linguistic diversity amid the global decline in the number of languages? Director of the Institute of Linguistic Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences and linguist Andrej Kibrik has an answer.

- Andrey, what is the forum's main target?

– This was the third forum dedicated to the language policy or to be more exact, to the preservation and development of the linguistic diversity policy. To be even more exact it was targeted to the Concept of Language Policy being developed in Russia. The first forum, Indigenous Languages of Russia and the World, was held in 2019 and was related to the UN Year of Indigenous Languages. The 2020 forum, Language and Artificial Intelligence (AI), already came up with the task for AI to assist in learning languages.

The topic of he 2021 forum is the language preservation. Every two weeks one language disappears in the world. So we work on a program to preserve and revive the languages of Russia's indigenous peoples. And it is important to us that Vladimir Tolstoy, Advisor to the President of Russia, sent us words of support, "Preserving languages is vital for the country, for preserving the unity and integrity of Russia”. He wanted to be with us, but his participation was required at another event - the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Dostoevsky. I could not stand aside and found a quote by Dostoevsky: "Only by mastering our native language perfectly will we be able to master a foreign language.Ф That's the answer to the question of why we need linguistic diversity.

Ц Epidemics and wars once contributed to the disappearance of languages from the world map, but today languages are being overtaken by a new phenomenon that UNESCO called the language shift. What is it about?

Ц This is when preference is given not to the native language, but to a language that is socially more important, more in demand as a means of communication. It is English in the world and Russian when it comes to Russia. People gradually stop speaking their native languages. That is why, while strengthening the status of the Russian language, the Institute of Linguistic Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences insists on developing a program for the preservation and development of the current languages of the peoples of Russia.

There are the country's 277 languages and dialects (193 languages and 84 dialects), but only about 150-155 remain current. In fact, the number is smaller, only 100 languages are studied. Out of them, 29 are studied in schools on a regular basis, 60 - 69 are optional (Sunday schools and such), at students' discretion. To understand whether many or few languages are important, let's look through the prism of linguistics. In Russia linguistic density includes 155 current languages per 112,000 km of the inhabited territory; the USA has 230 languages per 41,000 km; India - 741 languages per 47,000 km; Indonesia - 549 languages per 31,000 km.

Ц You just bring down the notion that Russia is one of the most multinational countries.

Ц Russia is less multi-ethnic than the United States or, even more so, India, China, or Indonesia. But languages are dying out rapidly in these countries too - up to 50 languages in twenty years. In our country, the process of language disappearance is slower, which gives a chance to preserve at least 100 - 155 current languages out of 193 that are experiencing a crisis of irrelevance. The participants of our conference were rethinking the priorities of language policy.

Ц Virtually all scholars said that the policy of language nests was a chance to revive and consolidate dying languages. What kind of policy is this?

Ц The policy of language nests is a result of the new priorities when the national republics have the right to establish their own state languages according to the adopted amendments to the Constitution. The second part of Article 68 emphasizes: "The republics have the right to establish their own state languages. They shall be used along with the state language in the bodies of state power, bodies of local self-government, and state institutions of the republics". That is, native languages are equal in status to Russian in the republics. This is a constitutional guarantee for the preservation of native languages. How to implement it in practice? It is necessary to develop a multi-stage program for learning native languages. It is already partially in place. Its laboratory centers gradually include not only and not so many schools, but also experimental language nests - communities where native language speakers who usually have no pedagogical education and linguistic training teach children their native language. They are mostly elderly people who have lived all their lives in small towns and villages and have remained faithful to their native languages. They are also speakers of a spoken native language that rarely has writing.

Ц How can native languages be developed with these language nests?

Ц In order to develop native languages reasonably - both spoken and written - the Institute of Linguistic Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences proposes several stages of their study. First, the languages of national republics are studied at school on a compulsory basis. Second, small languages (up to 10,000 speakers) are studied in language nests. Third, living languages (up to 5,000 speakers) and endangered languages (up to 1,000 speakers) are also studied in small nests. The conference showed that the principle of language nests works well in Karelia, Buryatia, and the Caucasus.

The problem is that local ministries of education sense the competition from the creators of language nests, so they require native language speakers to do something impossible yet: have teaching diplomas. From the officials' point of view, this gives them some kind of right to work especially with preschool children. But what kind of diplomas are we talking about? If languages are preserved, it is done as a rule by the elderly people. Sometimes they know only spoken language. They are usually from villages and remote settlements, and are engaged in rural work. So it is not that they did not care about pedagogical education - they did not care about education at all. Now they pass on their language to their children. Such a restrictive and prohibitive approach is not only ineffective but also harmful to the preservation of languages.

Ц In the forum, many linguists talked about the fact that people were embarrassed to speak their native language. Why does this happen?

Ц One of the reasons for reluctance of speaking native language is a cultural one. There is no need, no demand. The second reason that is no less important is that majority of the title population shows up a disdainful attitude towards speaking in native languages. It is a major problem in many countries where monolingualism has been or is being cultivated. It exists and remains in Great Britain, China, France, the United States, and India. Russia is no exception. I think the world has historically come to the point where it is necessary to make adjustments to the new mentality of the 21st century person. It is natural and respectful not only to speak the native language. For Russians, English, Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic-speaking it not only a good tone but also economically expedient to speak two or three other languages. For example, it would be reasonable for Russians to know English and languages of their nearest neighbours - Chechens, Tatars, or Mordovians in addition to their native language. This is a step toward bilingualism - not only knowledge of two or more languages, but also the knowledge of different cultures.

Ц How do you get a person interested in speaking different languages?

Ц There is only one way out, and I think it is versatile - to raise the prestige of learning native languages. Just as it is prestigious to study English or Russian, so it should be appropriate to speak your native language in the family, with your peers. When there are books and films in the native language, people are not ashamed to speak it at home and in the street - everything will gradually come in order. As it already happens, for example, with the Tatar language or the languages with million-plus speakers - Chuvash and a whole range of Caucasian languages. However, as the conference showed, these steps are being taken slowly and reluctantly so far.

Ц There's probably no need for it, isn't there?

Ц Rather, there are no conditions - economic, cultural, or domestic - that would entail linguistic practices, and consequently a linguistic environment. The very diversity should be restored that would help to revive languages.

There is still no economic feasibility and no educational conditions for learning a second or third language in the region. The Linguistic Forum - 2021: Language Policy and Language Preservation Conference identified the problem issues while answering the questions of how to strengthen language nests, how to train specialists, publish textbooks, and improve language teaching methods. All of this taken together will create content to the Concept of State Language Policy, which is based on the principles of preserving linguistic diversity.


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