Unfortunately interdisciplinary approaches are often declared but rarely put into practice. That’s why I was especially happy to take part in a joint endeavour of linguists and anthropologists at the Foundation of Siberian Cultures in Germany to organize a seminar and a joint publication project on language preservation and education activities in indigenous communities in the North and in the South.
Next to a beautiful lake in the small town of Fürstenberg, ninety kilometres north of Berlin Erich Kasten and Tjeerd de Graaf organized at the beginning of January 2012 already the second meeting to discuss papers dealing with alternative school models for reindeer herders in Siberia and with the situation of language minorities in the Netherlands, Russia and China. The presented papers facilitated a deeper understanding of processes of language change and of the preconditions for the preservation of linguistic diversity.
A lot of languages are in danger of extinction and minority languages experiencing a loss of language prestige and interest in intergenerational transmission. Scientific research deals with endangered languages often like biologists with rare plant or animal species that are only worth of scientific analysis before they will inevitably die out.
The top-down approach for the development and implementation of educational materials and language preservation programs usually suffers from a lack of response from local communities. State policies claim the safeguarding of languages, but they regularly promote artificial standards and folklorized and commodified versions of indigenous cultures and often provide the colourful façade for the attempts to erase any difference in lifestyle and values for the purpose of integration and bureaucratic control of the minority population. But in some cases the local population reacts with resistance to colonizing policies and use sometimes colourful façades to hide their internal cultural practices from the interference of outsiders.
First responses of the participants of the seminar indicate that particular attention should be paid to the discussion of adequate modern learning tools and culturally-related teaching methods. In addition, we should consider the particular social and political environments and – as far as possible – find out how to influence these in favourable ways. Without careful ethnographic work and sociolinguistic analysis projects aiming at the preservation of languages and local knowledge can have the opposite effect.
Two of the researchers involved in the Orhelia project will contribute to the planned volume with papers about alternative educational projects in Western Siberia. Roza Laptander writes about the development of a model for a tundra school in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region as a new form of education for children from nomadic and semi-nomadic Nenets families. The title of Stephan Dudeck’s paper is: “Challenging the state educational system in Western Siberia: taiga-school and multimedia centre on the Tiuityakha river.”
Additionally, a DVD with booklets in various languages will summarize the outcomes of this seminar for local communities. Annotated video clips will give examples of similar initiatives from the various cultural contexts around the world. The aim is to enhance cross-cultural awareness within the communities that should encourage them to develop community-driven initiatives for the preservation of their cultural heritage.