Small languages kinda flourishing

This post began in the auditorium of Diehtosiida, the new, beautiful and ultra well-equipped building in Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino, Norway, which houses Sámi allaskuvla, the Sámi University College, as well as other Sámi institutions, including Gáldu, the Resource Centre for Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As we entered the auditorium for the first Indigenous Placenames Conference, we encountered a rack of Bosch handsets and headsets for simultaneous interpreting, and this was offered in Sámi, Russian and English. And they weren’t for show – most introductions and some papers were given in (Northern) Sámi. Sámi people who spoke near-native English could, and did, give their papers in Sámi. Interpreters are at hand because of the Sámi University College – but because Diehtosiida houses other institutions, this probably increases the uptake on using interpreters, which in turn reduces the pressure to switch to a more dominant language, and widens the domains of use of Sámi.

Way to go! Where would we find that in Australia? Ah, but the price of the people and the equipment! Not even on offer at Trinity St David, the otherwise well-equipped and strongly Welsh branch of the University of Wales where the Foundation for Endangered Languages has just held its annual conference. Around 20,000 (?euros – Irish pounds thanks Peter!) for 3 days of simultaneous interpreting at a conference in Galway, said an Irish linguist. That’s the financial pressure that forces speakers of small languages to give their papers in a lingua franca. But… at the FEL conference I learned from a representative of the Mentrau Iaith (Welsh Language Initiatives) that schools and community meetings can rent the equipment cheaply, and that often a bilingual parent or community member does the interpreting. They do it because they want to be able to use the minority language freely, not because they couldn’t conduct the meeting in English. So it isn’t best practice interpreting – but it is a choice between this and nothing – and nothing inevitably means using the dominant language.

Two important ideas came up at the FEL conference: the tipping point when bilingual speakers move to the majority language, and the conflict between authenticity and creativity.

A proposal for the tipping point was given by Kenneth MacKinnon who (I adopt David Nash’s formulation) suggests that if there are more than 71% (√(1/2)) of people who speak language X in a community, then a random pair of people have a better than 50% chance that they have language X in common, and so have a reason to use it. This proposal converged with empirical findings discussed by Conchúr Ó Giollagáin, who has been working on the Comprehensive Linguistic Study on the Use of Irish in the Gaeltacht* [.pdf]. Change in speaker numbers in Irish Gaelic speaking areas showed that the decline in numbers from 100% in an area to around 67% was slow, and then there was a sharp decline

“The analysis carried out for this study (see Chapter 3 of the main report) suggests that the proportion of active, integrated Irish speakers needs to be maintained above 67% for the use of Irish in a community to be sustainable. The statistical evidence clearly indicates that Irish-speaking communites yield to the pressures of language shift when the proportion of active speakers in a community falls below this threshold.”

It remains to be seen whether these findings are generalisable to less industrialised communities, to communities where the languages are more equally balanced in terms of domains of use, and to communities where everyone knows each other, but it looks like an important finding.

The second point is the tension between an authentic past and a creative future. We saw this dynamic tension between tradition and creativity in Guovdageaidnu. There was tradition – the organisers Kaisa Rautio Helander and Ola-Hendrik Magga took the chance to highlight Sámi history, culture and society, and its relation to the dominant Norwegian society. I was moved by the story of the resistance to the Alta dam in the 1970s which, while they lost the battle, led to the substantial improvement in Sámi right, and I was also moved by the yoiks of Áillohaš (Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, who was one of the first to bring Sámi song and poetry to world attention.

Sámi delegates and organisers at the Indigneous Placenames conference flashed around in brightly coloured gákti, glittering silver brooches, red anklets, red hats, pompoms bobbing on moccasins. Sessions were opened with yoik (song-type) about land, places, people, reindeer. Reindeer were everywhere, skin name-tags, ornamented bones on belts, sliced, biidos soup (delicious), dried meat snacks, yoik about reindeer (“A hard year for reindeer”), and above all in relation to names and country. But there was plenty of evidence that Sámi traditions aren’t static.

  • the Bachelor of reindeer husbandry offered by Sámi allaskuvla,
  • satirical shows performed by native speakers in the language; we watched Sara Margarethe Oskal’s one-woman show in Sámi featuring various sketches including “Reindeer babe” and what to do about spouses – here’s a genealogy book with 22 potential husbands – most are your cousins but that’s all right, it’s a good family. Sara uses projected subtitles in English to capture a wider audience. Again, a good move for smaller languages.
  • young Sámi rappers (Duolva Duottar ‘Dirty Tundra’ had a wildly exuberant young audience at the culture night we went to).
  • Yes, people wear gákti – but each year the fashion in gákti changes.
  • Yes, people use lavvo (tepee-like tents), but there’s a Sámi family, with a business, Venor, manufacturing them from canvas and selling them all over the north.
  • Yes, people sing traditional yoik and they make new ones, about snowmobiles, drinkers, ATVs.

Another important factor in maintaining the space for interactions in small languages is access to good language learning resources for outsiders. Sámi allaskuvla teaches outsiders to learn Sámi, thereby allowing them to take part in Guovdageaidnu life, and decreasing the pressure for their Sámi interocutors to switch to Norwegian. (It works – by chance we met a Swedish woman who’d learned some Sámi in order to work in a big Guovdageaidnu handcraft shop).

Our FEL visits to a primary and a secondary Welsh medium school were also heartening – we were shown around by the kind of children who would gladden the heart of any Minister for Education.

  • Almost all the signs in the schools were in Welsh only.
  • The libraries are small but do have well-produced books in Welsh (often translations of books originally written in English)
  • Overall the Welsh-medium schools get better academic results than the English-medium schools.
  • Of the 103 sixth-form students in 2009, 99 went on to university – and only 19 or so took Welsh as a matriculation subject.

This is all good news for supporters of mother-tongue medium instruction in schools.

Two pieces of less good news: putting immersion learners with first language speakers of Welsh is producing mixed results (not so enriching for the L1 speakers), and a number of schools suffer from this. Almost certainly linked with this is that the schools find they do not need to spend much effort on teaching the children English; the children learn it from their families, friends and the television. I think this requires more thought for extrapolating to the Australian context. As far as I can see,what happens in many remote communities is that if the children stop talking a traditional language, they switch to a Kriol variety, not to what they hear on the TV or in the school. So in Australian Indigenous communities, more effort must be spent on explicit teaching of standard English.

Second, and possibly connected, is that, while the children learn through Welsh, and pass exams in Welsh, and do very well academically, Welsh is becoming more linked to schools and to traditions. Some kids get fed up with speaking Welsh in the school corridors because passing teachers correct their Welsh. Then Welsh is seen as a correct way of talking, rather than as something you can have fun with, experiment with, play with, make jokes in. So, in the playgrounds, cool kids are fooling around in English.

This association of the minority language with authority and the formal was noted in a different context by Cassie Smith-Christmas, whose FEL paper ‘Language Practices and the Home Domain: Gaelic and Language Choice over Three Generations’ discussed her observations of a Scots family who are trying to maintain Scots Gaelic. Her analysis of their conversations suggest that the language directed to the children in Scots Gaelic contains a lot of commands and questions, and, from what she showed us, the children often respond in English.

The Welsh are alive to this problem, and their language initiatives people, Gari Lewis and Jeni Smallwood (Pobl Ifanc:Ymbweru er mwyn Gweithredu / Young People: Empowering for Action), gave an interesting paper on how they are trying to find ways to heighten the appeal of Welsh, other than eistedfodds and the glorious past. One way was offering small grants to school children for Welsh language initiatives at their school – apparently a Welsh rapper has done well out of this.

The expansion of the Indigenous language into new domains was also stressed in the Placenames conference by Carl Christian (Puju) Olsen from Greenland. Inuit in Greenland has had a long tradition of being used in new domains from the days when Inuit went to Denmark for trade education and higher education, came back to Greenland and started talking about their new trades in Inuit. He emphasised that this was essential for language health: “Our language is not limited to our culture alone – it can express what is not in our culture.” If the language is not used for what people need to talk about, then it does not match reality.

The concern about the bad effects of purism came up more widely at the FEL conference. Kenneth MacKinnon said he doesn’t want to preserve Scots Gaelic, he wants to see it flourish. And I think he’s right. Ditch the preservation metaphor. Preserved languages, like preserved fruit, don’t grow new plants or flowers. Traditions, music, ideas are deeply moving and meaningful to some people, their loss makes us melancholy. This provides the impetus for those people to help speakers of minority languages keep practising them. But they are not the be-all. There must be a space for creativity, informality, banter for the language to keep going. It was exciting to see both the recognition of this in papers, and the start of initiatives to overcome it.