Monday, June 10, 2019

For First Time Ever, Children in Daghestani Highlands Not Learning Languages of Their Peoples, Dobrushina Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 8 – This year, for the first time since regular monitoring of language use patterns in the Daghestani highlands began, Nina Dobrushina says, youngsters in these groups are not learning their peoples’ native language.  A year ago, the Moscow linguist continues, “I would have said that this could not be.”

            “I had thought that the threat to local languages came only when residents of the mountainous villages shifted to the valleys” because “in cities, numerically small languages are not surviving,” the head of the International Laboratory of Linguistic Convergence at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics says (

            The expert says that “in this year, for the first time, inn one village of the Dakhadayev district, a teacher told me that she had in the second grade four children, of which three did not speak the native language of their ethnic community but instead communicated with one another in school in Russian.”

            There are more than 40 distinct languages in Daghestan and many more dialects, the Moscow scholar says. “People have lived alongside one another for many centuries and possibly even millenia, and it is very interesting how they interact over all this time. Until the mid-19th century, few knew more than one other language than that of their village.

            The men began to travel further for seasonal work in Georgia, Chechnya, and Azerbaijan. “But for the majority the distance they travelled was a maximum of 20 to 30 kilometers; and “this means that knowing two or three languages in addition to one’s native tongue, was sufficient, Dobrushina says.

            When transportation made it possible to travel further, Daghestanis had to learn more languages, frequently adopting a lingua franca to speak with others. Sometimes this took the form of asymmetric bilingualism, but sometimes, it involved “passive bilingualism,” where understanding was far broader than the ability to speak.

            But – and Dobrushina stresses this – “until the 20th century, there is no evidence that any Daghestani language was lost” as far back as scholars can look.  People retained the languages of their village, insisting in the rare cases of intermarriage that new wives immediately learn the local language even if they spoke one of the larger tongues or a lingua franca.

            Dobrushina says that she “does not believe that it is possible to preserve langauges in cities and in valley villages where there is a mixed population. But in villages in the mountains, this is still possible. The process has only begun and nothing fatal has yet happened.”  But the signs are not good.

            Children in these villages need to learn Russian, but in addition to the schools, they are bombarded by Russian radio and television.  Not long ago, real knowledge of Russian was rare – and highly valued as a result.  But now it is spreading, even though many people deny that the native languages are being displaced and even lost.

            Today, the Moscow linguist says, “the situation has changed and the priority given to Russian over native languages has become dangerous. But people still don’t recognize this, and when they do, it will be too late because the break with the native language occurs in an instant, literally in one generation.”

            “Children who do not know the language grow up and the language disappears. Therefore,” she argues, “it is necessary that in the villages everyone understand this. Let them learn Russian, but in the family and school they should speak in their own language.” And speaking is critical.

            In reality, she says, most schools do not in fact teach the native language. “For example, in the Dargin zone, they teach literary Dargin which is very far from the native dialects and not very much needed. As a result, the children can forget their native language without learning the literary version.”

            Today, Dobrushina says, is “a period of transition” and one that is very “complicated.” Tragically, she concludes, “the people do not recognize the dangers.”

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