Friday, February 19, 2016

Dying Out of Languages in Russia ‘a Myth,’ Tishkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 19 – Valery Tishkov, the former Russian minister for nationality affairs and former director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology, says that UNESCO, because of the “romanticization” of minority languages, has propagated “the myth” that 116 languages on the territory of the Russian Federation are at risk of disappearing.

            In fact, he says, in an article that will appear in “Vestnik Rossiiskoy Akademii Nauk” (no. 4( 2016)), few of the languages that the UNESCO research says at risk actually are. Instead, they are surviving as a second or third language among people who have adopted Russian and/or a language of a larger local group (

                The striving to preserve languages of numerically small peoples as part of the world’s cultural heritage of course is meritorious,” Tishkov suggests. “Nevertheless on this issue UNESCO and the authors of the project have turned out to be prisoners of an office-romantic and politicized idea about language and its role in the life of people, societies, and states today.”

            Many countries, he continues, have yet to find a good balance between the need to integrate all the people living within their borders by having a common language and the preservation of languages spoken by minorities and especially extremely small minority nationalities.

            “There are problems in this regard in Russia as well, but its experience is on the whole positive: during the entire 20th century not a single language [spoken by one of its peoples] disappeared” even though as the 2010 census showed 99.4 percent of the population speaks Russian.

            That finding, Tishkov argues, “testifies to the high degree of assimilation in favor of Russian and (or) the spread of bilingualism among non-Russian citizens. Some politicians and specialists consider this trend negative.” But individuals or parents should have the right to decide what language they or their children will learn and use.

            “Many Russians (about a quarter of the population) are born and grow up in ethnically mixed families and often master in equal measure the languages of the mother and father” or speak a second or even third language because of where they live and their specific needs. UNESCO, he contends, fails to take into account the way languages survive as second tongues.

            Tishkov continues: “More than 30 of the largest non-Russian peoples have their own ethno-territorial autonomies and their langauges in the republics have an official status alongside the state language Russian.” Nationalities with such autonomies have retained their languages to a high degree.”

            “Among the major peoples of the North Caucasus, actual bilingualism exists, and many consider both languages to be native.” Among these are the Avars, Chechens, Dargins, Lezgins, Karachays, Balkars, Osetins, Circaassians, Kabardinians “and others,” the Moscow ethnographer says.

            It is indicative, he continues, that “bilingualism among the majority of north Caucasians is not in favor of the ethnic language: the number who have Russian is higher, and if one takes into account those who life beyond the borders of ‘their’ republics, than knowledge and use of Russia is much higher than the knowledge of the language of their own nationalities.”

            For example, he says, among the Chechens of Daghestan, “64.6 percent speak Chechen but almost 100 percent know Russian.”

            Despite Tishkov’s argument, many non-Russians and many specialists on language (and not only those who cooperate with UNESCO) will see this pattern presaging the demise of some of the smaller languages which either do not have their own republics or do not have sufficient numbers to attract the rising generation to them.

            And consequently, they are likely to view the situation of language survival among the smaller nationalities – including the 116 that UNESCO says are at risk – in a far less optimistic fashion, even if they accept Tishkov’s argument that it would be well to count those who speak two languages among the bearers of the minority language who will guarantee its survival.

            The reason for that is obvious: Once an individual acquires a second language that is spoken by a larger number of people, he or she will almost inevitably shift to that language and use what had been his or her native language less. And that points to problems ahead for the numerically small languages in Russia and of course elsewhere as well.

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