Monday, December 2, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Minority Languages in Russia Not Dying Out, Tishkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Despite UNESCO’s listing of languages under threat of disappearance and complaints from non-Russians about threats to their languages, Valery Tishkov, director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, says that minority languages in Russia not only are not dying out but are experiencing “revitalization.”

            In comments to a Duma roundtable on language policy in the Russian Federation, Tishkov said that “languages are returning to life after decades of dying off or being forgotten” and that in Russia, the numbers of people speaking native non-Russian languages has increased (

                The long-dominant view that minority languages are fated to disappear under the impact of globalization needs to be modified, he said, because of this trend, the increase in the number of places where more than one language is used on a daily basis, and the spread of multi-lingualism.

            (According to UNESCO, 20 minority languages in Russia must already be described as having disappeared, 22 more are in critical condition, and 29 face the threat of disappearance. Among those at great risk now, the agency said, are Yiddish, Udmurt, Kalmyk, Yakut and Tuvin (

            “Despite the dramatic predictions of certain scholars and politicians,” Tishkov continued, “linguistic multiplicity will be preserved given the increasing complexity of the language situations among contemporary nations and the broadening of the language repertoire of particular individuals.”

            Because that is so, the Moscow ethnographer said, “we do not share the views of the supporters of the conception of ‘the dying off of languages.” Tishkov’s argument was supported by Aleksandr Zhuravsky, the regional ministry official now supervising inter-ethnic relations, who said that he had “doubts” about the way UNESCO had compiled its list of dying languages.

            Other participants in the meeting offered some alternative views. Zikrula Ilyasov, first deputy minister for nationality policy in Daghestan, said he wanted to include native languages in the country’s educational testing program, a step that a Moscow offical said the law allows (

                Yekaterina Kurasheva, Chechnya’s deputy minister for nationality policy, said that her republic plans to “equalize the Russian and Chechen languages” to promote the return of Russian speakers to Chechnya.  She noted that despite the events of the last two decades, Chechen officials still use Russian in their work.

            Danil Mustafin, first deputy minister of education and science in Tatarstan, said that schools were no longer the place where the fight for the survival of native languages was being fought. Instead, he said, officials should focus on the media which sometimes overwhelms the languages that the schools teach it.

            Alfis Gayaov, Bashkortostan’s education minister, suggested that urbanization is reducing the number of students of non-Russian languages. There are fewer young people in the villages, and in cities, “one or two languages” dominate the schools and the public space.  As a result, “linguistic diversity is disappearing.” 

            And Aleksandr Akimov, a senator from Sakha, one of the places where UNESCO says the titular language is under threat, expressed the view that there are enough problems in this area that the government needs to come up with a state program designed to preserve linguistic diversity.

            In reporting on this meeting, pointed out that non-Russians are sometimes among those who oppose requirements that pupils study their national languages.  That is because they fear that if they study their national languages, doing so will take time away from subjects, including Russian, they are convinced they need to get ahead.

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