When minority languages are talked about, the focus is typically placed on their endangered status or the death of a language. Linguist Riitta Valijärvi from the University College London likes to direct attention to celebrating linguistic plurality and the communicative power of languages.
Why should minority language be supported in the first place? Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone just spoke English?
There are many reasons why linguistic plurality is a positive thing. Linguistic creativity would weaken and lose some of its communicative power, if everybody used the same language. In addition, a lot of local knowledge would disappear. Even small languages can carry huge amounts of information on local nature, conditions, medical plants and history. During the last 10–15 years, the freedom to speak one’s native tongue has also been seen as a human rights issue. This applies to all languages, even if a language had only a few speakers, and it wasn’t useful for example in the job market.
What is the Nordic countries’ attitude towards minority languages at the moment? Has there been a change in the way they are seen?
It can be said that a renaissance of sorts is taking place. At the moment it is trendy to be Sámi and the injustices that took place in the past are talked about more openly. It fits well in the Nordic countries’ identity to take responsibility for past actions and support such causes. On the other hand, it must be said that it is easy for things like this to be prioritised in these countries that are doing financially considerably well. It also needs to be mentioned that even if loads of money is spent on revitalising these languages, it doesn’t mean that all of them are going to survive. Overall, I hope supporting minority languages is not just a fleeting trend, but a long-term course of action. Beyond the Nordics, on a broader scale, the European Union charter on minority languages has been very important when it comes to strengthening their status.
On a more concrete level, what have the Nordic countries then done in practice to support minority languages?
One of the most important practical measures has been that the Nordics have made the status of minority languages official. This has also increased the languages’ value in the eyes of the speakers. Media visibility is another thing that helps on a practical level. In Finland the Swedish speaking population has for a long time had their own tv channels and newspapers. In Norway the NRK has been active in supporting Sámi content and Sveriges Radio in Sweden shows programmes in Finnish and in Mäenkieli. YLE in Finland has produced content in three different Sámi languages, which is fantastic. The Nordics have also conducted research on how to revitalize minority languages and endorsed the so called language-nest practice, where older generations spend time with children and help pass the language on.
However, it is crucial to remember that the Nordics aren’t a utopia. For instance, all Sámi peoples don’t live in one area, which is why it is particularly challenging to organise formal language teaching. Despite this, it is important that it is attempted. After all, the key is in understanding that it is not enough that on state level huge amounts of money is pumped into one thing, such as formal language teaching at schools. Homes are equally important places when it comes to keeping minority languages alive.
So on state level good practices have been found. What about individuals, what can a single person do to support minority languages?
On the grassroots level individuals can share information and awareness. If possible, it can also be very rewarding and informative to take courses on Sámi or other minority languages and cultures. There are also organisations such as The Foundation for Endangered Languages, that take donations and work to protect endangered languages. All in all, individuals can help minority languages by talking about them in a positive light, listening to music and consuming other types of cultural products made in these languages.
What kind of a vision do you have for the future?
I’m glad that attitudes have changed. I still think that we shouldn’t be overly ambitious about increasing the number of speakers of minority languages. In my opinion stability is a good vision for the future. The main thing is to make sure the situation doesn’t change for the worse. It would be great if we managed to encourage those that hardly use these languages to speak them more actively. I also hope that in the future there would be more opportunities for people to use their languages and that even small languages would be seen as useful.
Riitta Valijärvi (University College London) will participate in a panel discussion Preserving Minority Languages with Jim Whannel (The University of Edinburgh, Bòrd na Gàidhlig) and Antonella Sorace (University of Edinburgh) January 31st at 6pm, free admission.
CCA Glasgow, 350 Sauchiehall Street, G2 3JD Glasgow.
Text: Eeva Lehtonen Photo: Chris Ward