Monday, November 13, 2017

Udmurtia – Where Some Study Their Native Tongue as a ‘Second Foreign Language’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 13 – Most attention to the current fight over making the study of non-Russian languages has focused on Tatarstan and to a lesser extent Bashkortostan and Chuvashia. But the impact of Vladimir Putin’s Ufa declaration on this point is affecting many other republics; and because they lack coverage, changes in them may be even more fateful.

            Udmurtia is a Finno-Ugric republic in the Middle Volga whose population is roughly two-thirds ethnic Russian and one-third Udmurt. Because of this imbalance, the Udmurts have suffered a significant loss in the number of speakers in recent decades, although importantly language change has not in most cases led to a change in ethnic self-identication.

            Elena Koroleva, the director of a school in that republic, tells Regina Gimalova of Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir Service that “in recent times, the status of the Udmurt language has begun to be lost.” That is, while it is the native language of the titular nationality, many of the members of that group now speak Russian (

            In her school and many others in the republic, only a handful of students speak Udmurt well, and that has forced teachers to provide instruction in it not as a native language but as a foreign one that the students don’t know. Despite that and despite that instruction in the school takes place in Russian, “we do study our Udmurt language as a national one.”

            A graduate of the school she now heads, Koroleva says that “until 2012, we had separate courses in Udmurt literature and Udmurt language.” Since then, the language courses have continued but the literature ones have been dropped. Unfortunately, the situation now is that “children study it not as a second native language but as a second foreign one.”

            And that is despite the fact that “approximately 60 percent” of the pupils there are ethnic Udmurts.  All the other ethnic groups, from Russians to Roma, “study Udmurt” and to make it more interesting and attractive for them, the school offers courses in the study of the republic and its surroundings.

            Other schools where the population is overwhelmingly Russian ethnically have gone over to Russian instruction completely despite the republic’s laws and constitution. Meetings with parents get a chance to weigh in, Koroleva continues, and parents are also required to file written requests concerning the language of instruction they want for their children.

            According to the Udmurt school director, there have not been any conflicts over language of the kind that have broken out in Tatarstan and elsewhere this fall. Perhaps one of the reasons is that she reports magistrates investigated the schools of Udmurtia about the status of Russian and Udmurt instruction already three years ago.

            [Koroleva doesn’t say, but the fact that this happened below the radar screen as it were suggests that Putin’s declaration in Ufa may have been less off the cuff and ill-prepared than many have assumed and that Moscow officials had been pursuing an analogous policy to the one he announced already for some time.]

            The school principal says that one of the results of this is that there is enormous diversity in the amount of Udmurt studied in various schools of the republic. In some, Udmurt is studied up to five hours a week, more than the federal standard, and in others, it is studied far less. But it has not yet disappeared from any school there, Koroleva concludes.

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