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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Reading of Minority Language Speakers

Mark Diatchkov
Professor, Doctor of Philology
Russian State Library,
Moscow, Russia


Recent data on education and reading in minority languages in several regions of the Russian Federation have been presented. The use of minority languages in education and reading is of vital significance for intellectual development of younger generations. Concrete situations in the Vepsian National Region of Karelia and other republics within the Russian Federation, as well as different types of bilingualism have been discussed. A role of libraries in education of minority-origin students has been stressed. A comparison with situations in Germany and South Africa has been made.


A role of minority languages

A leading role of minority languages, i.e. languages which are spoken by ethnic minorities or languages which fulfil subsidiary social communicative functions within a certain multiethnic society, in restoring, preserving, and enhancing ethnic cultures have been widely recognized in modern societies. In fact, one may consider two types of minority languages, and hence two types of bilingualism: minority languages which are primary functional languages of their speakers, which the majority language of the given country is secondary functional to them (the situation in South Africa, for example); and those which are secondary functional because their speakers use the majority language of the country as their functional one (the situation with indigenous ethnic minorities in Germany). In the Russian Federation we have both types of minority languages. There are also two different types of classes: those in which a minority language is a (or the) medium of instruction, and those in which it is a subject of instruction, and those in which it is a subject of instruction. In Russia both types of classes are functioning. The problem of using ethnic languages of the first type in education and in libraries, especially public ones, goes far beyond the task of preserving ethnical culture and identity. Educators have unambiguously proved at pre-school and primary educational levels knowledge is accumulated in a much more profound way if the mother tongue is used as the vehicle of information. Liberators, librarians and scholars are of a unanimous opinion that "perception of an artistic work depends upon the choice of the language, the original one or that of translation". (1)

Situation in Russia

As is known, social attitude to native language in multiethnic Russia, both before and after the 1917 Revolution, varied within a very wide range. In the Russian Empire it differed from promotional or at least neutral towards, say, Germany in Lifland and kurland (the Baltic region) practically up to the 1st World War; towards Swedish and Finnish in the Great Princedom of Finland, to prohibitive towards Polish (especially after the 1830 uprisal) and Ukrainian. (2) The period from 1917 up to now can be called a period of fluctuations in linguistic policy. To the most significant ones belong changes in alphabets from Russian or Arabic scripts to Latin and then again to Russian. In terms of written literature one can say that, in fact, thrice within 45-50 years books and other documents became almost unreadable for growing and elderly generations. In several regions of the country it was even worse. For example, in Karelia there were five changes:

The Vepsian language in Karelia and two Russian regions of Leningrad and Vologda with less than 12 thousand speakers, which belongs to the second type, i.e. is a secondary functional one for most of its speakers, had the same (if not worse) fate. It was officially neglected before 1917, alphabetized in the 1920-ies, abandoned in the 1930-ies and, finally, is being revived, standardises and enhanced nowadays. After the 1991 events and the adoption on a new "Act on Languages of the Peoples of the Russian Federation" which for the first time in the history of Russia legally stated that "the languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation are historical and cultural heritage to be protected by the State", a new paradygm of the linguistic policy in the country has been introduced. In the 1992/93 academic year of 55 non-Russian indigenous languages of the Russian Federation, 39 are taught at schools as a subject of instruction from the first to the eleventh classes (Abazin, Adyghe, Agul, Avar, Altaic, Balkari, Bashkir, Buryat, Chenchenian, Cukcha, Chuvash, Dargwa, Dolgan, Eskimo, Evenian, Evenkian, Ingushi, Itelmeni, Kabardinian- Circassian, Kalmyk, Karachai, Khakassian, Komi, Komi-Permian, Koryak, Kumyk, Laki, Lezghin, Mari, Mordovian, Nanai, Nogai, Ossetic, Tatar, Tati, Touvinian, Udmurtian, Yakutian, Yukagiri), 9 - from the first to the ninth classes (Karelian, Mansi, Nenets, Nivkh, Tabasarani, Tofalarian, Khanti, Tsakhuri, Vepsian) and seven - from the first to the fourth classes (Itelmeni, Neghidali, Ruthuli, Saami, Selkup, Udeghe, Shori). Besides, some of the these languages are used in a number of schools as a medium of instruction from the first to the fourth classes i.e. at the primary level (Avar, Adyghe, Altaic, Balkari, Chenchenian, Chuvash, Dargwa, Evenian, Ingushi, Kabardinian-Circassian, Kumyk, Laki, Lezghin, Mari, Mordovian, Ossetic, Tabasarani, Tatar, Khakassian, Yakutian) and from the first to the eleventh classes (Bashkir, Tatar, Chuvash and Yakutian). (3) The cited figures seem to be formidable and impressive. However, in practice it is not so smooth as on the paper. Let us take an example of Vepsian, which, according to the data given above, is taught as a subject of instruction from the first to the ninth classes. In the Vepsian National Volost (Region) of the Republic of Karelia there are three secondary (eleven-class) schools. The ethnic distribution of the population in the Volost in 1994 was as follows: Vepsians 41.6%, other nationalities (mostly Russians) - 58.4%. Intensive explanatory work in which participated scholars, educators, librarians, journalists has resulted in full attendance of Vepsian lessons in the primary classes (first-fourth), irrespective of ethnic origin of the pupils and the fact that these lessons are officially optional. The lessons are sufficiently supported with literature: text-books, vocabularies, books for out-of-class reading. Certain difficulties are experienced with the teaching staff: either a teacher does not have a good possession of the Vepsian language, or she does not possess necessary teaching experience. The fist graduates of University of Karelia and Petrozavodsk Pedagogical University have begun to work at schools only this academic year. The way out was found, to a certain extent, by attracting patronage on the part of elderly speakers of the language who attend lessons and work together with the teacher in class and alone out of class. By the way, such practice is also used in other minority language regions, for example in the region of Nordfriesland in Germany. The patrons-curators take and active part together with the teaching staff in organising annual Vepsian language and cultural competitions which are held every summer at one of the schools. Real troubles begin on the secondary level. First and foremost, the complete lack of text-books and books for reading is to be mentioned. While a Russian-Vepsian and Vepsian-Russian Dictionary of 14 thousand words (the circulation of 2 thousand copies) and a book "Vepsian Folk Tales" (the circulation of 5 thousand copies) are sufficient for the primary level, the secondary one requires additional materials which can be partly found only in a monthly four-page paper "Kodimo" (the circulation of 990 copies) which publishes articles in Vepsian or in Russian. In this connection it would be proper to note that lore literature is often more interesting for literators and culturologists than for common speakers of a certain language. The latter would prefer pieces of fiction of various genres, social, political, probably popular scientific, literature without which the very existence of the language, leaving aside its enhancement, is hardly possible. The lack or insufficient amount of such literature provides no motivation for continuous learning of the language, discourages the students. Another difficulty, which hopefully will be overpasses in the complete lack of elaborated methods of minority language teaching in the local conditions.

The data of the 1995/96 academic year collected at the three secondary schools of the Vepsian region in settlements Rybreka (Kalajogi), Sheltozero (Shoutjarv) and Shoksha are as follows:

	Settlements	Kalajogi	Shoutjarv	Shoksha
	Classes	   	number of	students 	(pupils)
	Kindergarten	-		 -		13
	1st		11		23		28
	2d		18		20		-
	3d		12		17		-
	4th		10		18		-
	5th		8		8		-
	6th		8		8		-
	7th		9		8		-
	8th		10		9		-
	9th		8		7		-
	10th		-		3		-
	11th		-		1		-

Note: The absence of pupils after the first year at the shoksha school is explained by the fact that the school was opened only two years ago. In general, a dramatic reduction of students in senior classes of the secondary school can be observed. To a great extent it can be explained by the lack of literature in Vepsian which can be read by senior students with proper interest.

This decrease is not inevitable. However, pooled efforts of educators, librarians, journalists and public figures are required in order to oppose this trend. Without proper literature, a system of language teaching of adults is practically impossible. That' why such system for the time being does not exist in the Vepsian Region. Taking into consideration all mentioned above, one may see a most significant role of writers, publishers, librarians and libraries, practical teachers and scholars in care for minority languages. By the way, there are several books in Vepsian published in Finland which are not widely available in the libraries of the Vepsian Volost. An important task of the local librarians is to try one's best to collect all the existing literature in Vepsian and to actively popularise it among the users. IFLA's assistance in this field would be welcomed. Similar situations are observed in other parts of the Russian Federation. The research of the reading domain in the Buryat language performed by the National Library of the Republic of Buryatia showed that for every citizen of the Buryat nationality only 0.2 books in the Buryatian language are in library circulation, while for every Evenk residing in Buryatia - only 0.06 books in the Evenkian language. Now let us imagine the quality of teaching these two languages with practical absence of books in them. There is no doubt that no modern language practically can exist without written literature of various genres. Such situations are to be in the forefront of attention of local publishers and librarians because without their assistance educators will be unable to do anything, irrespective of the number of classes and lessons of local non-Russian languages.

Situation in Germany

A comparison is proper with the situation of, say, Frisians in the North of Germany (Kreis Nordfriesland, Land Schleswig-Holstein). Frisians are an indigenous population of the region who speak nine, to a certain extent standardised and normalised, dialects which can be considered genetically related languages of the Germanic group. Some of language versions, especially used in Northern islands, are not even called Frisian (Fering in Fohr, Solring in Sylt, Halunder in Helgoland, etc.) For a recent decade the Frisian ethnocultural movement has significantly grown, and the number of schools where the Frisian language (languages) is taught as a subject of instruction has significantly increased. In the 1995/96 academic year the situation in Nordfriesland was a follows:

Kind of institution			Number of institutions
Kindergartens			 2		 84
Junior Secondary Schools	18		903
Senior Secondary Schools	 5		111
Real Schools			 2		 25
Gymnasiums			 3		 57
Auxiliary Schools		 1		 10
Altogether: 31 1190		

There are adult language courses which in the 1996/97 academic year are attended by over 200 evening students. As in the Vepsian National Region in Russia, an active role in native language teaching in Nordfriesland belongs to out-of-class work by elderly curators (grandmothers and grandfathers); as in the Vepsian National Region, to a great majority of children Frisian is the second functional language with standard German (Hoochdeutch) as the first. However, a great difference can be observed in number and content of publications in Frisian(s). Small-circulation publications are widely published by several publishers, the main role belongs to the Publishers of the North-frisian Institute - a scientific and educational institution whose principal aim is to promote and develop the Frisian languages. Every year the Institute issues a booklet of books in print both in standard German and in various Frisians. For example, in the booklet of 1995 more than one hundred titles were mentioned. Some of the books with the same text, illustrations and design have been published in six or even more Frisian languages. Fortunately, the Frisians can afford to have such publications in such amounts. For the Russian federation it is thus far unattainable luxury. My personal observations in nordfriesland permit me to say that large amounts of books of different genres in Frisian languages together with periodicals which regularly publish articles in all of them provide a very good motivation for learning the language and using it in every day life.

Situation in South Africa

In contrast to the situation in Russia and Germany, in South Africa minority languages (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, Ndebele, Sotho, Twana, Tsonga, Venda, some of them have been recently raised to an official status, along with English and Afrikaans) are primary functional languages for most of the people who belong to these ethnoses, while the majority languages, English and Afrikaans, have been and are now second functional ones for the majority of the non-white population. At present English is being introduced as a compulsory subject of introduction at all secondary schools of various types, irrespective of the ethnic origin of students. Another difference with Germany and partly with Russian is that in all secondary schools for non-white students the minority languages are used, as a general rule, as media of instruction. In this case the necessary condition would be a wide circulation of manuals, text-books, books for reading in various domains of knowledge in these languages. However, this condition is far from being satisfied in present-day South Africa. Secondary schools suffer from both the lack of qualified teachers with sufficient knowledge of the respective languages. (5) Sure, efforts are being made to improve the situation. In october, 1996 in Moscow (Russia) an exhibition of South African books for children and teen-agers was presented. one could see that newly-published books in minority languages, as well as in English and Afrikaans, have a vividly expressed multicultural background. Among more than 500 titles published by 12 publishing houses, the largest part was in minority languages. Various publishers deliberately focus their attention to educating in readers a respect to one's own and neighbouring ethnic culture. The country whose ideology for so many decades was bases on apartheid is being changed. However, the lack of cooks in minority languages for adults, of periodicals and text-books presents many difficulties for the future of the country. Again the same dilemma: lack of motivation to learn languages, to work out writing systems for some of them due to the lack of money for publishing books and periodicals. Sometimes, same as in Russian and Germany, parents of non-white children and student do not want them to study the written mother tongue or to use it as medium of instruction, since they are not sure that this mother tongue has some decent perspective. Remember, that both Russia (the Vepsian Region) and in Germany (Nordfriesland) it took not less than two-three years to persuade the parents in desirability and use of learning the minority languages.


Despite any arguments in favour of preservation and enhancement of minority languages, a question may still persist: "Why are we to car for them? Wouldn't it be better to pay more attention to the majority language, to teach everybody to speak, write and, probably, think in this language instead of cherishing languages of very restricted scope of use?" The answer is definite: "No, it wouldn't." Those minority languages which fulfil primary functions within a certain ethnos are indispensable in education, especially the primary level. All minority languages, irrespective of the scope of their functionality and the number of speakers, are indispensable in preserving and developing original cultural treasures of various ethnic cultures. The main problem for practically all multiethnic states is the lack of financial resources for the purpose, the lack of qualified teaching personnel and scientifically-bases methods of teaching, the lack or insufficient amount of text-books, manuals, books for reading. The lack of sufficient literature of different genres, teachers, and teaching methods cannot be compensated by attempts undertaken in some countries to raise a legal status of such languages (a status of national in republics within Russia or official in South Africa). In this respect, financial, methodical and educational assistance of international organisations, such as UNESCO, IFLA, IAU, etc. can be of primary, sometimes even of decisive, importance.


  1. Omarov, E.A. Grant has helped us (in Russian) "Biblioteka" No 3. 1997. 17.

  2. Diatchkov, M.V. Minority languages in multiethnic states (in Russian) Moscow. 1996. p23.

  3. Batsyn, V.K., Kuzmin, M.N. Ethnic problems of education in the Russian Federation (in Russian). In: "Shkola i mir Etnosov". Moscow. 1995. p.27-28.

  4. Pastukhova, I. Practical work... , "Bibliotheka" No 2. 1997.

  5. Van der Walt, Th. Multiculturalism and Multilingualism in the Rainbow Country Mimeographed. 1996.