Wednesday, September 25, 2019

State of Native Language Instruction Varies Widely Across North Caucasus, Scholars Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September -- That non-Russian languages are in trouble across the Russian Federation is beyond question, something that ever more people are coming to recognize in the wake of the tragic suicide protest of Udmurt scholar Albert Razin. But they are also learning something else: the situation is not the same everywhere.

            In some places, local people and local officials have simply folded in the face of Moscow’s Russianization and Russification program; but in others, they have resisted and managed to save at least for the time being one of the most important elements of their national life, their languages.

            The Kavkaz-Uzel surveyed scholars in various North Caucasus republics on the state of native languages there. While none of them reported that conditions were ideal or even that they had not deteriorated and many said they were disastrous, their reports of some local successes are evidence that non-Russians can in fact resist the center (

                Timur Aloyev, a scholar at the Kabardino-Balkar Institute for Humanitarian Research, says that Moscow’s policies threaten to kill off the Kabardin language and argues that “national languages must be a cult in small republics.” Unfortunately, in many of them, they aren’t – and so the core of identity is at risk.

            He hopes that Razin’s suicide will become “a kind of trigger for change.” But speakers of Circassian face an uphill battle, as his colleague Madin Khakuasheva reports findings she has shared earlier (

            Samir Khotko, an ethnographer in Adygeya, says that “the problem of studying native languages has long existed. If in the 1970s, a child in an aul who did not know his native language stood out as a rarity, now such people are widely found.” The schools don’t teach it and the parents don’t support it. 

            But Raisa Unarokova, another Circassian ethnographer, says that despite all the threats, there has been an increase in interest in the study of her nation’s native language.  Yes, there have been cutbacks in the hours devoted to the language in schools, but the number of people applying to study Circassian at univesities is more than twice the number that can be admitted.

            This increase in interest, she says, has led to various innovations, including language camps, Circassian language tests “analogous to the Russian ones,” and the spread of free courses in Circassian for children and adults.  Up to now, Unarokova continues, there is no shortage of instructors or textbooks.

            In North Ossetia, most of those queried by Kavkaz-Uzel say that the situation is better and even improving. Tamerlan Kambolov of the North Ossetian State Pedagogical Institute argues that the problems that do exist can be solved by electing sympathetic people to the State Duma and having teachers reach out to the population.

            As a result of their efforts, he says, the number of schools and kindergartens with Ossetian instruction has increased over the last year to 60 and “the number of hours of the study of the native language has not changed,” despite the new Moscow law.  Kambolov says the republic uses the 2010 norms, not the more recent ones.

            A second Ossetian scholar, Ruslan Bzarov of the Institute for History and Archaeology says that “the situation connected with the study of native language in North Ossetia has not changed over the last several years.” The same number of hours are offered, and there is thus “no great danger for the native language.”

            But he adds that “this is not to say that there have been significant improvements.” And that reflects changing attitudes in society “not the law on languages.”  If Ossetians see the language more widely used, they will support it in the schools; if they don’t, the scholar suggests, they won’t.

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