Russia: Daghestan Scholars Sound Alarm For Indigenous Languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Aug 21 13:49:38 UTC 2007

Monday, August 20, 2007

Russia: Daghestan Scholars Sound Alarm For Indigenous Languages

By Liz Fuller

August 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Participants at a recent roundtable
discussion in Makhachkala expressed concern that Russian is fast
becoming the sole state language in Daghestan, even though the
republic's constitution ranks Russian equal with the languages of 13
other nationalities. They called on President Mukhu Aliyev to take
urgent measures to reverse the ongoing decline of smaller languages,
some of which they fear may otherwise become extinct within 10-15
years. Unique among Russia's 85 federation subjects, Daghestan has no
fewer than 14 titular nationalities (Avars, Aghuls, Azerbaijanis,
Dargins, Kumyks, Laks, Lezgins, Nogais, Rutuls, Tabasarans, Tats,
Tsakhurs, Chechens, and Russians), all of whose languages are
designated in the constitution as state languages.

Given that these languages are all not mutually comprehensible or even
inter-related, it is Russian, which is taught even at kindergarten
level, that serves as the vehicle of communication between members of
different ethnic groups. The director of a school in the village of
Andikh in Shamil Raion in west-central Daghestan, told RFE/RL that his
school cannot buy new textbooks for students in 10th and 11th grades,
and that teachers comb villages in the hope of buying old ones.

True, during the Soviet period, most of the titular languages -- Avar,
Azeri, Dargin, Kumyk, Lak, Lezgin, Nogai, and Tat -- were taught in
schools alongside Russian. And according to the British scholar Robert
Chenciner, in the 1990s it was decided to create written languages
for, and begin the formal teaching in schools of Rutul, Aghul, and
Tsakhur (all of which belong to the Lezgin group of languages), even
though according to the 2002 Russian Federation census those three
ethnic groups each accounted for less than 1 percent of the republic's
population, numbering 24,298, 23,324 and 8,168 people, respectively.

Soviet Legacy

The Soviet Union took a dual and even contradictory approach to the
teaching of minority languages, promoting the creation of literary
languages for small ethnic groups, and encouraging writers who chose
to use their native language, however obscure, as part of the broader
ideology of Friendship of Peoples. But at the same time, the Soviet
leadership relentlessly implemented a policy of requiring non-Russians
to become fluent in Russian, to the point that mastery of the Russian
language became the key to career advancement.

For that reason, many parents opted to enroll their children in
schools where Russian, rather than their native language, was the
language of instruction. Yet whether as a result of the emphasis on
preserving minority languages, or as a conscious statement of national
identity, many non-Russians still identified the language of their
nationality as their native language. Data from the 1979 Soviet census
show that more than 90 percent of Daghestan's 10 largest indigenous
native groups designated the language of that ethnic group as their
native language. By contrast, the percentage for the native peoples of
Siberia and the Far East averaged 61 percent, and for some of those
small ethnic groups it was as low as 30 percent.

No Money For Books

The collapse of the Soviet system demolished the ideological rationale
and the hothouse conditions, including generous state subsidies, that
existed for encouraging the use and teaching of small languages. At
the same time, a knowledge of Russian as lingua franca remained
crucial, especially within a multiethnic society such as Daghestan,
where, in addition, unemployment is high and competition for jobs
intense. Moreover, Daghestan's government, which as of 2005 depended
on subsidies from Moscow for 80 percent of its budget, was forced to
revise spending priorities, with education getting short shrift. This
has led to chronic shortages of school textbooks in languages other
than Russian.

Even the language of Daghestan's largest ethnic group, the Avars (who
numbered 758,438 people in 2002, or 29.4 percent of the republic's
population), is under threat, and has been for some time. In 2002, a
language teacher in Kaspiisk told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that
several factors were contributing to the decline in the use of Avar: a
lack of qualified teachers and up-to-date textbooks (not all schools
had an adequate number of textbooks, and the limited number available
were up to 20 years old); the lack of an up-to-date Avar-Russian
dictionary; and, crucially, lack of interest among school students in
studying their own native language. Some wealthy businesspeople
sponsored the publication of language textbooks, but those textbooks
were not always approved by and coordinated with the republic's
Pedagogical Institute.

The situation does not seem to have improved greatly over the past
five years. In 2003, a new Avar-Russian dictionary was published, the
first for over 50 years, but native speakers say it is not of
outstanding quality, and the print run was only 3,000 copies.
And the problem of school textbooks remains acute. Magomed Gazaliyev,
the director of a school in the village of Andikh in Shamil Raion in
west-central Daghestan, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in July
that his school cannot buy new textbooks for students in 10th and 11th
grades, and that teachers comb villages in the hope of buying old

"We have been without books for more than 10 years," he said.
Gazaliyev said the republican Education Ministry claims it does not
have sufficient funds to finance the publication of a new series of
textbooks. He said the ministry is apparently hoping that a private
sponsor might be found.

Study Time Reduced

Gazaliyev further complained that the number of hours devoted to the
study of Avar in schools is being reduced, but did not specify how
drastically. In rural schools, instruction in all subjects is in Avar
for the first four grades. From fifth to ninth grade, instruction is
in Russian, with two hours per week devoted to the Avar language and
two to Avar literature. In 10th and 11th grades, two hours per week
are devoted to the Avar language. "They are reducing the time spent on
teaching the native language and literature and increasing the number
of hours spent studying other subjects at their expense," Gazaliyev
told RFE/RL.

Radio and television broadcasting in languages other than Russian has
also been subjected to cuts. Republican television now broadcasts
exclusively in Russian, although there are still daily radio programs
in the 13 other titular languages, in addition to Russian. The number
of hours broadcast is directly proportional to the number of speakers
of a given language, with Avar and Dargin having the most and Tsakhur
the least. All these factors serve to undermine many Avars' commitment
to their native language. And the decline in the use of Avar is not
confined to urban areas with a multiethnic population, but extends to
districts where the population is almost exclusively Avar.

A correspondent for RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service recently quoted
Bata Aliyev, a resident of the village of Mesterukh in Akhvakh Raion,
as saying that with every year that passes, it becomes clearer that
members of the local Avar population are losing respect for their
native language. "The raion administration, the local education board,
schools, and local television are contributing to the gradual decline
of the Avar language, because the Russian language is used
everywhere," Aliyev said. "Very little time is devoted to the study of
the Avar language in school."

The published summary of the July 12 roundtable discussion in
Makhachkala did not give any indication whether participants came to
the conclusion that some languages are in greater danger of becoming
obsolescent than others, and if so, which. The participants said much
of the blame for the decline of Daghestan's indigenous languages lies
with the Education Ministry. They characterized many of the ministry's
staff members as having no relevant expertise and implied they are
indifferent to the issue of teaching small languages

They contrasted the situation in Daghestan, where high-school students
spend a maximum of four hours per week studying their native language,
literature, and history, with that in Kabardino-Balkaria, where the
comparable figure is 36 hours. The roundtable participants appealed to
Daghestan President Aliyev to take urgent measures to reverse the
decline in the use of small languages. But even if the republic's
leadership could secure funds for programs to promote the study of
Avar and other state languages, it could take years before such
programs yielded the desired effect.

(Magomedgadzhi Gasanov and Uma Isakova of RFE/RL's North Caucasus
Service contributed to this report.)

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list