O.I. Artemenko, M.N. Kuzmin, D.M. Nasilov

Native Languages Of Indigenous Non-Numerous Peoples Of The North In The Context Of The Education System Reform

The topic of the present round table discussion “The Languages of the Indigenous Peoples of Siberia under the Threat of Extinction” is obviously not purely linguistic, it exceeds the framework of linguistics and our purpose is not only to understand the causes that have led these languages to the fatal limit of nihility but to bring to light possible ways of blocking this process, to find practical means for revitalizinf Northern languages and in this way to improve or mitigate the situation.

The basis and sources of the said language crisis can be traced back to the period of the 20-ies of the XX-th century – the starting point of the socialist construction which according to modern views is considered as a particular state-monopoly stage of modernization. Its actual content was the inter-civilization transition from a traditional agrarian society (which in case of Northern peoples preserved an appropriating character) to the modern one.

The socialist doctrine being the basis of the state policy offered the peoples staying at pre-capitalistic stages of development “the non-capitalistic development path”. That a plan was pointed at accelerate, “pursuing”, social development having the aim of direct transition to modern forms of social life that “omitted capitalism” and other prior forms of social organization.

This plan assigned general school a part of a social-cultural institution that was forming from heterogeneous material “a new person” adequate for “a new community”. Creating new school system, which was able to solve that problem in national regions, previously demanded (as they occupied different stages of their social, language, cultural and schooling development) to create social, cultural, linguistic and pedagogical conditions necessary for forming full-value educational process in the native language.

The previous steps comprised working out the alphabets for non-literate languages and developing writing in the native language; written fixation of folklore as a massive of popular culture; developing ABC books and other textbooks in native languages; forming-up the integral content of primary education on the basis of the folk culture; organization of a school network which was able to provide general primary education for young people; training national teaching staff, establishing institutions for their training and retraining; uprising the educational level of the population up to the general primary one at first and up to the general basic one afterwards.

The period of the 20-30-ies was the stage of the active development of the national school network for the Northern peoples. In 1932 writing systems were created for 16 peoples of the North: Nentsy, Selkoups, Khants, Mansi, Saams, Evens, Evencs, Nanaitsy, Oudegeitsy, Chukchi, Koriaks, Itelmenians, Eskimos, Nivkhs, Aleouts, Kets. An obligatory school system was being built up: by 1933/34 school year 60% of Nothern children had been embraced by a four-year primary compulsory education.

Accelerated industrialization and urbanization in the 30-ies modified the society, extended its educational demands, increased the volume of education and consolidation challenges which school had to decide. All that resulted in making the Russian language as a means of international communication (and also as a common command language in the reformed army) to be a compulsory school subject in the education content of national school in 1938. To facilitate mastering of the Russian language by pupils the script of the most mother tongues was converted from Latin into Cyrillic one. (This operation is being estimated ambiguously nowadays.)

Most tasks set before Northern school remained the main objectives of school system constructing during the postwar period. That process resulted in the total shift to general 7-year education with subject oriented education content.

The state refusal to apply previously used totalitarian repressive “methods” of ethnic and social integration (1956) called for extending ideological ways of consolidation of a multinational society. The Act “On Strengthening of Relations between School and Society” (December, 1958) enforced the integrative functions of school including enhancing of the place and role of the Russian language in the national school. Actually, it was the border-line that accomplished the 40-year period of developing mother tongues being a subject of school education.

Estimation of the results of the education system functioning in the Far North regions for the period of 1958-1988 as well as for the one of 1918-1988 can not be unequivocal. On the one hand, by the end of the 80-ies, some evident results had been achieved: organization of a school system in the area according to European model, developing writing systems for non-literate languages, fixation of their folklore, emergence of neo-literate literature, forming up of indigenous intellectuals and other strata of urban population which are characteristic of the structure of modern society.

Nevertheless, these results were accompanied by serious drawbacks that deprecated their significance. Some of them arose from the boarding school system introduced in Northern regions in the 30-ies. Considering all positive sides of boarding schools as general education institutes (material resources, qualified teaching staff etc.), they separated children from their parents for 8-10 months a year during 10-11 school years.

Typical of the boarding school system separation of a child from his/her parents, family and habitual way of life, entering unfamiliar psychological environment hurt children’s mind and upset their proper evolution. Introduction of the Russian language as the main teaching language made deeper the separation from their mother tongue, previous national culture tradition and way of life. It meant the shift of values and life purposes, choosing different careers that demanded different training and total change of the way of life and activities. All that was conducting to broad marginalization of indigenous population, stimulated assimilation processes, caused some other ethnic, culture, language and demographic tendencies dangerous for their results and leading to degradation of the Circum-Polar civilization.

Hence, the results achieved by Northern school turned out significantly inadequate to the proclaimed purposes which therefore still needed new solutions.

A new stage of Russian modernization that started in the 80-90-ies of the XX-th century and was marked with a radical shift of priorities, altered the character of development of the sub-civilization of the Northern peoples. Social reforms contributed to the processes of reconstruction of the public role of native languages and cultures, to their coming into the field of education. (Some results of this process are reflected in the Annex).

The search for new possibilities, ways and forms of preserving traditional way of life and housekeeping, its adaptation to a new social situation and transformation of the economic system into the market one started simultaneously.

Today the fundamental acts which regulate ethnic and national education issues are the Law “On Education” (1992/1996/2002), the Law “On the languages of the Peoples of the RF” (1991/1998) and some other. The Law “On Education” extended the number of the subjects of the RF having the right and possibility to satisfy their own interests and aims in education and proclaimed the protection of national languages and cultures by the school.

The choice of the language of teaching became under the Law the prerogative of the founder. National culture was restricted within the space of the so called regional (national regional) component of the education content with a fixed volume of study time.

The Law gave new possibilities for developing the new education content within the framework of the national regional component which encouraged seeking new ways of transformation of the Northern school, optimizing the educational process. Emphasizing the regional component gave the possibility to support regional culture traditions and peculiarities within the framework of the integrated field of Russian culture. Besides that, separation of the independent sphere of the national component objectively meant separation of the independent space in the education content for native languages and cultures with their individual imaginative and patterns and values. As a result the content of general education in such schools has acquired heterogeneous bicultural character.

Regionalization of the education process meets the requirements of the education subjects. It facilitates social adaptation of the students in new environment. National regional component is a part of the federal education content that is why the scientific ground for the regional education standard with its invariantant alternative parts is so important. Development of native languages serves the national and culture interests of indigenous Northern peoples of Russia. National school in general and Northern school in particular is directed to bilingual communication.

So the modern period in the fate of the languages of non-numerous ethnoses and ethnic groups wherever they live – either in places of compact dwelling, or in settlements with mixed ethnic population, or within megalopolis – can be characterized as the period of revitalizing of languages and traditional cultures. Under revitalizing one should understand the process of further evolution of ethnic cultures under bilateral control - an outside one being executed by federal authorities, and an inside one being executed by the most politically dynamic indigenous groups and their voluntary bodies, as well as by local institutional framework, where the representatives of indigenous peoples make out, if not the majority, but a rather significant part.

In the republics of the RF new ethnic elites headed by ethnic presidents use the language having the status of a state language as a powerful instrument of providing personnel policy that would result in neo-ethnization of government agencies, i.e. forming of the latter from the representatives of title nationalities.

The following issues form the most important part of the national language politics of the Russian Federation:

  • defining and characteristics of the development and modern status of national-Russian and Russian-national bilingualism of the RF citizens in connection with the educational processes in different subjects of the RF and its regions;
  • analytical description of the status and structure of the language situation in RF subjects;
  • issues of linguistic education in national school and ways of solving essential education problems.

The last point is of special importance for us because it is necessary to clarify that national school is the primary focus of real national and language relations, which every young representative of some ethnos comes into. It is also a potential source of national conflicts and, vice versa, a place where children are brought up in the spirit of mutual respect and language tolerance.


Table 1.
Native Language as a Teaching Language (number of pupils)

1990/91 1995/96 2000/01 2001/02 2002/03
Nivkh 17 - - - -
Evenki - 44 344 - -
Even 109 261 110 129 -

Table 2.
Native Language as a School Subject (number of pupils)

1990/91 1995/96 2000/01 2001/02 2002/03
Dolgan 543 717 1019 920 855
Itelmen 115 153 131 88 87
Ket 15 156 82 102 52
Koryak 874 1368 712 1070 862
Mansi - 549 741 1057 776
Nanai 885 572 873 943 913
Nganasan 75 31 - 491 -
Nivkh 338 242 180 152 200
Nenets 976 4072 5202 5284 5316
Neghidal - 30 - - -
Selkup - 233 171 213 172
Udeghe - 35 - 147 -
Ulchi - 9 - - -
Khanty - 1272 2379 2526 2702
Chukchi 1978 2409 2658 2345 2341
Evenki 1346 2704 2424 2803 2222
Evens 1169 1157 974 1328 1795
Asian Eskimo 198 233 248 230 275
Ukaghir 45 113 114 118 121

Translation provided bt the authors

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