“Finally, we see something is being done!”

Minority Language Days in Eastern Siberia

Yakutsk, SiberiaThe city of Yakutsk in eastern Siberia has been described as the coldest city on earth. One week in February, when the temperatures were plummeting to -50C, the University of Yakutsk held a “language day” for each of the seven languages spoken in the Republic of Yakutia.* Two of these languages are Even and Chukchi.

During the Even Language Day, university teachers and students watched a video that had been recorded in an Even village by SIL staff. In the video, an elderly Even lady was singing. Until then, those at the university had thought that traditional Even singing was dead and gone. Their excitement was contagious—now there was evidence that their traditional Even singing was still alive!  The audience expressed their appreciation for SIL's language promotion work.

On Chukchi Language Day one speaker after another mentioned social problems that the Chukchi people are facing: the children are going away to boarding school and are forgetting their mother tongue, then speaking Russian with family members when they come back over the summer; people are losing their nomadic way of life, their interest in and skills for reindeer herding; not enough students are studying the language, and not enough literature is being published.

One Chukchi woman, Ania, who is working in collaboration with SIL, was raised as a Russian-speaker and only got excited about her language in her forties. She now speaks the language fluently and uses it in phone conversations with her mother and friends back in her native village and when she visits on holiday. However, when she speaks to some of her relatives in Chukchi, even some from the older generation, they reply in Russian. Even though some of the younger generation wants to revive the language, it may be that older mother tongue speakers, like Ania's relatives, have different attitudes about speaking Chukchi.

As the very last presentation of Chukchi Language Day began, the atmosphere in the audience immediately brightened. Ania presented an interactive Chukchi alphabet and word game, which she had created in consultation with SIL staff. This language learning tool can be used on computers as well as on smart phones. After dwelling on problems all day, everybody was so happy to see that someone was making an effort to improve their situation. “Finally, we see that something is being done!” people remarked.

* The Republic of Yakutia—also known as the Sakha Republic—is about the size of India (approximately 3 million sq km). However, for every one person living in Yakutia there are 1,290 people in India. Most of the inhabitants of Yakutia are Yakut or Russian, but there are several indigenous groups living there too, carving out a livelihood on the frozen tundra. Generations of these people have lived here for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. With the migration and arrival of the Yakuts and then the Russians, ethnolinguistic communities such as the Evens and Chukchis are in danger of losing their cultural identity.