Sunday, August 16, 2020

15 Languages in Russia Spoken by Fewer than 20 People Each Headed toward Extinction, Kazakevich Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 13 – While Moscow tends to provide more support for non-Russian languages spoken only by a few than for non-Russian tongues spoken by thousands or millions, 15 of the very smallest languages in that country, spoke by fewer than 20 people each, are now on the brink of extinction, Olga Kazakevich says. 

            Kazakevich knows whereof she speaks: she heads the laboratory for research on and preservation of numerically small languages of the Moscow Institute of Linguistics and teaches courses on linguistics at Moscow State University (

            She says that in 2018, her institute calculated that there are 153 languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation and another 142 spoken by immigrants. Numerically small peoples are legally defined as those with fewer than 50,000 each. There are 46 of these and another 30 to 40 or so in Daghestan.

            It is noteworthy, Kazakevich says, that there are more languages of numerically small peoples than there are peoples themselves because “in recent years, certain local variants of these languages, which earlier were considered dialects of one language have begun to be considered as different languages.”

            That means there are “no fewer than 100” languages of the indigenous numerically small peoples of Russia. “All the speakers of these languages are bilingual and many know three or more languages.” Typically, the second language is Russian; but in the Caucasus it may be a regional language.

            In today’s world, “people do not die: they assimilate and lose their language and then gradually their ethnic self-identification as well.” But “languages die. Over the past 50 years, Russia has lost “ten languages” – Southern Mansi, Soyot, Sakhalin Ainu, Yug, Orochi, Kamasin, Western Mansi, Sirenik Eskimo, Kerek and Eastern Mansi.

            The 15 languages at risk of disappearing are spoken by fewer than 20 people each, and most of these are elderly who will soon die and with them the language. They are Aleut, Babi Saami, Vod, Itelmen, Yokan Saami, Karaim, Kolyma Yukagir, Krimchak, Orok, Mednov Aleut, Taz, Tofalar, Tundra Evenk, Chulymski Turkic, and Southern Selkup. 

            Other languages spoken by more than 20 but fewer than 50,000 also have problems and may die out as well in the not too distant future. They too are no longer being transmitted by parents to children or in the schools and so are only remembered by the oldest members of these communities, Kazakevich says.

`           Languages can be preserved, and it is important that they are because each one provides a different lens through which to view the world. Consequently, the loss of even one language is a loss for the speakers of all, depriving us of a way of seeing and of another piece of evidence about how languages arose.

            The most promising and effective way to promote the survival of languages spoken by all numbers of people is the creation of “language nests,” places where children can go where the language is spoken. That tactic was developed in New Zealand at the end of the 1970s and shows real promise.

            Another way is to us one-one-one instruction. In Russia, both methods have been used; and they are both more effective than trying to teach such tongues via the schools. Those have been much less effective.  But what is most important of all is the creation of a language supportive of numerically small languages.

            People must view them as important rather than as some archaic survival of the past fated to disappear as people learn and use numerically larger languages instead. That attitude unfortunately is not nearly as widespread as it needs to be for many of these languages to have a future. 

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