Many languages spoken by relatively small numbers of people would be at risk regardless of what the government does and many spoken by larger numbers will survive, again regardless of official policies. But at present in Russia, Moscow is using its laws to tilt the process “to one side,” helping Russian and hurting non-Russian languages.
Mikhail Khaminsky, a specialist on languages, adds that “there exists a natural selection process. If a language is valuable from the point of view of linguistics, then attempts at the preservation of the language will intensify. With Chuvash in fact not everything is all that bad,” he insists.
In Russia today, “there are languages which are in a much worse position than Chuvash and Bashkir. And so up to now, nothing threatens these languages,” although the new language law will make that survival for difficult. “But there are languages in Russia which are on the brink of disappearance because so few people speak them.”
One of the important points speakers made, however, is that the survival of languages depends not just on numbers but on state policy and on the work of those who care about the language in question. Daniil Zaytsev, an expert on the Erzyan language of the Mordvins, says that its future depends “entirely on the region.”
“There is a good and professional school in Saransk. [But] beyond the borders of the republic of Mordvinian, the situation is worse. People want to study Erzyan not only in Mordvinia but also in Samara, Ulyanovsk, Penza oblast and even in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Demand for courses is growing.”
He too stresses that the Russian language law is working “only in one direction,” thus adding to the difficulties of those who want to retain their non-Russian languages. In some cases, however, people don’t want to save their languages or don’t have the opportunity to because there are no teachers or space to practice their language in.
What many forget is that knowledge of one language can open the door to the learning of others. Maria Shnaid, a linguist who spoke to the meeting, pointed out that learning Hebrew helped her learn Chuvash which in turn helped her to learn Finnish. Similar patterns are true for other language groups as well.
Knowing that will attract students to languages they might not otherwise study, she suggests. Indeed, it is a major reason why maintaining linguistic diversity is important. If one of the parts of such chains disappears, the chain disappears as well.