SEC Seminar – Preserving Endangered Languages and Local Knowledge: Learning tools and community initiatives in cross-cultural discussion

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.

Erich Kasten, Olivia Kraef, Stephan Dudeck, Tjeerd de Graaf, Victor Denisov and Michael Duerr

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.

"Lenin lives, lived and will live"  a rare preserved Lenin in Eastern Germany
"Lenin lived, lives and will live" or "Everything was forever until it was no more"

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.

19 thoughts on “SEC Seminar – Preserving Endangered Languages and Local Knowledge: Learning tools and community initiatives in cross-cultural discussion

  1. Sounds like a great seminar. I totally agree with the critique of language preservation in a sort of biologistic manner. Languages live, develop – and may die. This may be very provoking, but what if the last speakers of a language themselves do not really want to use that language any more? Do linguists or other outside scientists have the obligation, or the right to ‘preserve’ it for it’s own sake? For linguistic study? For future generations in case a demand for that language revives? I don’t know, but these are relevant questions I guess.
    I remember that very good discussion of an Itelmen language preservation film project by David Koester with Liivo Niglas, where they filmed that person who did not really want to speak Itelmen any more. Their presentation is in the “Histories From the North” volume edited and published recently by John Ziker ( and myself. I’ll write a separate entry about that volume soon. Contact me if you want a copy.
    Another question is the relation of language and knowledge. I have evidence and always wanted to write an article that people switching from an endangered to a dominant language not automatically lose their culturally specific knowledge! I think the reason is that knowledge is not like a plant that dies either, but knowledge is enacted through practices, skills, and performances on the land. As long as people DO things, they KNOW, no matter what language they speak. I’m wondering what our linguist colleagues think about that?

  2. Stephan Dudeck

    I fully agree with you Florian, but I would like to make one addition: communication is also a practice, knowledge is embedded in! You can DO things with words. And distinct languages mark distinct forms of communication and interaction and the distinct knowledge they contain. Certain social practices (think only about the kinship and kinship terminology) perish together with the language. Often enough language-shift is the product of the political submission of people and marginalization of their particular lifestyles. A minority language often keeps an alternative way of communicating open that is the precondition of resistance against expropriation of resources and the curtailing of autonomy. See an interesting article in Russian here:

    1. Thank you for this link. Yes, language can be a vehicle for resistance, and obviously is very powerful for establishing distinct identities. I didn’t want to deny that. But what I do believe is worth remembering is that among many of the people we work with in the North, VERBAL communication is by order of magnitude less important than other means of communication. I’m sure many of us remember from the field a 1000 cases where we were wondering how people coordinated their activities, knew what the others were doing, responded with action etc, without even exchanging words. With our western preoccuppation on verbal communication I think we easily forget this. I think to a large extent it is these nonverbal practices of communication that enable people to hide and protect intimate knowledge. For example, Nuccio Mazzullo has written about Sami in northern Finland NOT telling correct place names to protect their areas and practices they perform on them. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care about languages. I’m just advocating to treat language as one among various practices of communication.

      1. Stephan Dudeck

        I heartily agree with what you say!
        But what is endangered is not the ability to speak or communicate (although there are situations of subtractive learning or aphasia under certain social circumstances), but the diversity of ways of communicating and interacting.

    1. Great footage. The first one about language echoes I think the bit simplistic stereotypes that have become popular after the Soviet Unions about the boarding schools. Lena Lyarskaia’s work and also that article by Burykin that you mentioned above (on abvgd…website) show that it’s not that simple to just blame internaty for language loss. After all, it’s also the parents who influence what the children speak, or at least understand, More nurses in the boarding schools are now indigenous and are parents themselves.

  3. Great seminar. As for the language and knowledge, of course people can practice their traditional beliefs for example, without speaking their native language. But, to my opinion they could easily lose the sacred meaning and something that deals not with the practical process itself, but with the soul and heart. Also there are words in native language that have no analogues in Russian for instance, how could they describe it? In such case they lose something very important…Here in Tiksi, town on the coast of the Laptev Sea in Yakutia, almost half of the population is indigenous, consisting mainly of Even and Evenk people. They do not speak their languages, only Russian and Yakut. And I see that it has a great influence on them. By the way, they have the optional course in basic Even language here at the local school, and children just do not master it, since they do not practice it out of classes.

    1. Stephan Dudeck

      You are right Daria! I’m curious if Even and Evenk language lessons have some importance for the children or their parents, when they do not speak the language anymore. Probably you could tell something in your very interesting blog about it. What do you think were the main changes when the Evenk and Even switched to Yakut language? How does the reality of the language lessons look like in the school? What are your main points of critique? And are Even or Evenk in Tiksi interested in preserving differences from the Russians or Yakut? And if so, which differences? Or is it mainly a romantic longing for the ethnic roots of the intelligentsia that is promoting ethnicity? A lot of questions, but you are at the source where to find answers!

  4. Daria,
    thank you for your comment. Yes, there are so many examples of heart and soul-related disorder among people who do not speak their original native tongue any more. I am sure language retention can contribute to prevent this from happening. But the other question that you seem critical of is whether or not language revival could cure it. Many would be interested in finding this out. Do you want to share some experience? Also on how being “language colonised” by Sakha is different from Russian. On the other hand I wonder if it needs language to hold on to sacred meanings, cosmologies and culturally encoded symbols. Well, definitely language is a culturally encoded system of symbols, but as said before one among many. Yes, Stephan, it’s the diversity of ways that is worth preserving! And different specialists have different interests and priorities, which is fine as long as all of them do their job.

  5. Well, when do indigenous people speak their mother tongue? It happens when the population is more or less homogenous.

    But here in Tiksi and Bulun region we have the multicultural society, which comes from other regions of Yakutia, Russia, and former Soviet republics. There are Even, Evenk, Yakut, Russian, Ukrainian, Kirgiz, Tatar, Moldavian and etc. And of course, the language of interethnic communication is Russian, and all the children grow up in Russian speaking environment. There are a lot of mixed marriages, which is also a very interesting topic for research, which of course is caused by the well-known historical processes took place in the region.

    I think that not only the language, but the traditional lifestyle could cure the disorders and problems, and help people to identify themselves as Even or Evenk. Very often people living in the town are not educated, they have no jobs, no perspectives, they abuse alcohol, they do not live in a way as their ancestors did, and they do not speak their mother tongue. It might sound not very academic, but I believe that the labour could cure such social illness as alcoholism. I think that people living in a traditional way of life are more responsible for their families than those living in houses with central heating and running water.

    That’s why I do not think the idea of sending the women with alcoholism problems to the rehabilitation centres in the city to be sound. As the practice shows it’s not the most effective means. To my mind, it would be more useful to let them stay here in the Arctic and make them spend some time in traditional camps working. Like shock therapy, or downshifting, or whatever. Let them remember their traditions and roots, where they come from. Maybe it might help. Once more, it might sound not very scientific, but these are just my ideas…

  6. As for the “language colonisation”:

    Even and Evenk people speak both Yakut and Russian, but they consider themselves as being Yakut rather than Russian. “Yakut language colonisation” is more extensive, and as far as they consider themselves being Yakut, it will be so. That’s why it is easier to assimilate and adopt Yakut traditons and beliefs.

    Yes, of course, since the native languages contain the traditional knowledge in themselves. For example, the names of the months which are named so according to the natural cycles and natural processes taking place in the region. I’ll find out other examples from Even language.

  7. Daria, just quickly
    Thanks a lot for these thoughts. After all we are not only academics, we are also people! I agree with you about people living in the tundra / taiga as a therapy. One of the characters in a film that we made in Sakha with the BBC ( was like that, returned to reindeer herding after years of ‘bichevanie’ in town. But two things: firstly, the person really has to want it him/herself. I don’t think that it’s going to work if the pressure to go back to the land comes from outside. Secondly: I think the problem is not that people live in the village a decent live with running water in neat warm houses. We have the freedom to chose, and so should they. The problem is that there is nothing interesting for them to do in town, and that’s why they start getting all these disorders. We who think and write about this here, live ourselves in towns and don’t suffer from these things.
    To go back to academia: I am convinced that it stands and falls with what people DO. Therefore it seems to me that your thoughts are really a case put forward for this approach directed to enacting practice. You are what you do (and I personally think more than what you speak)! And what you do changes all the time. So if people have something to do that they are happy with, they will contribute to keeping their community alive and vital in one way or the other.

  8. Stephan Dudeck

    I met Nikolai Vakhtin yesterday in Sankt Peterburg and got a copy of a new and very interesting book, that probably can provide some answers: Вахтин Н.Б., отв. ред.: “Языки соседей: мосты или барьеры? Проблемы двуязычной коммуникации” (Languages of the neighbors: bridges or barriers? Problems of bilingual communication) Издательство Европейского университета в Санкт-Петербурге 2011.

  9. Thank you Stephan,
    I wonder how much Nikolai and all our readers would agree with the end of an article that I just read from Eva Toulouse on the Forest Nentsy, that says:
    “In half a century nobody will speak it [Agan Nenets] anymore. But this does not mean that they have abandoned their values and their identity: they are only preparing to express them in a different way.”
    From what I have seen among the European Nentsy, I would fully agree with this. There we have a similar process happening.

    1. Stephan Dudeck

      My experiences here are not so pessimistic concerning the language. Of yourse some Nenets swiched to Komi language and a lot of them to the Russian language. But there are still bilingual and trilingual Nenets, even younger ones in the European tundra. If Nenets succeed in challenging the paradigma of monolingualism they will manage to preserve the Nenets language in Europe. There are signs that this could happen here!

  10. Thanks a lot for your response.
    Yes, you’re completely right.
    We had a seminar on alcoholism and family relations at school, where we’ve invited the parents of the schoolchildren. The head of the local anti-alcoholism society talked about the women who wished to go to the rehabilitation center in the capital. The problem was that the society did not have any means to buy them plane tickets, which cost very expensive. I do not know whether they are eager to move to the traditional camp for a while in order to cure themselves, but if they really wanted the rehab and achieve their goal, they agree with the option of traditional camp life.
    But how can they find themselves?And find something that will make them happy and satisfied about the way they live their lives..? so that neglected children could live in a loving and caring family environment they fully deserve
    So, that’s true, everything depends on person and his/her wish.

  11. Daria,
    yes, I agree. And of course we researcher can do our part for making such a camp life more desirable. For example by writing and publicising about it in a way that increases the rating and prestige that such a life has in society!

  12. fstammle
    This is an interesting website powered by google which gives apparently open access data on all languages in their database. New ones can be added by anyone who has an account. I think probably these people will be at the Cambridge workshop as well so I try to find out what we can learn for our planned ORHELIA database from them.

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