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From Language Revival to Language Removal? the Teaching of Titular Languages in the National Republics of Post-Soviet Russia

By Zamyatin, Konstantin | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, April 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

From Language Revival to Language Removal? the Teaching of Titular Languages in the National Republics of Post-Soviet Russia


Zamyatin, Konstantin, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


Minority language education has been planned in post-Soviet Russia for two decades. During this period, language policy in education has shifted from compulsory to voluntary study of native languages in school. The effect of this move in policy and its relation to general trends on language education has not yet been systematically evaluated. Addressing this gap, the current article employs a quantitative method to calculate dynamics in the relative share of native language learners attending school. This study demonstrates that, after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the significant investments by regional authorities to extend titular language teaching resulted in the provision of native language teaching to most of the titular students in some former autonomous republics, notably the Turkic republics in the Volga and Ural areas. In contrast, steps for the promotion of titular languages in the Finno-Ugric republics have had less impact on native language teaching. Throughout the two post-Soviet decades, the insufficient amount of teaching of the Finno-Ugric languages in titular republics failed to ensure the transfer of language competence to a considerable proportion of children. This failure to ensure revival of the titular languages may accelerate the language shift from minority languages towards Russian.

Keywords: minority language education, language revival, education reform, Finno-Ugric republics, Volga and Ural Turkic republics, Russia

Since the early 1990s, "language revival" has been at the core of language policy in education in Russia's national republics. Have the policies actually "revived" the languages? The problem of evaluating the policy impact on the teaching of the republics' titular languages in post-Soviet Russia has been a subject of scholarly interest. Some research has been conducted on language revival in education in the republics titled after peoples speaking Turkic languages, starting in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan (e.g. Boiko et ah, 2002; Garipov et ah, 2006; Gataullina, 2001; Safin, 1997; Graney, 1999; Gorenburg, 2005 and others). There are also studies into the dynamics of change in the republics titled after peoples speaking Finno- Ugric languages (e.g. Gabov, 2006; Klementiev, 2006 and 2010; Mosin, 2010; Shutov, 2003; Strogalshchikova, 2008; Lallukka, 1994 and others). The research typically demonstrated trends towards an increase in language teaching in the 1990s.

However, the current situation on language education and overall trends in language teaching remained understudied. Official statistics and research are far from exhaustive in this respect. Official sources typically provide the absolute numbers and sometimes also the relative share of minority language learners in relation to all students of a republic. However, they rarely, if ever, provide information on the relative share of students of titular ethnic origin studying their languages. Authorities report that:

during the last decades, the tendency can be observed in most regions of Russia (Bashkortostan, Komi, Tatarstan, Tuva, Sakha (Yakutia), etc.) for an increase in the number of children studying in general education institutions where the language of instruction is native (non-Russian) and humanities are taught based on ethnic culture (Russia's State Council Report, 2011, author's translation).1

Yet, as this study will demonstrate, data on minority language education present a significantly more multifaceted picture and largely contradict the optimism of the authorities. Why were some republics more successful in promoting and sustaining their titular languages in education than others?

The aim of this study is to measure access to native language learning in the republics during the last twenty years. The study objectives are the following: 1) to outline figures from the author's original research that show varying dynamics in language education in the republics, 2) to demonstrate how the legacy of the Soviet period has predetermined the diversification of post-Soviet institutional educational settings, 3) to understand the reasons behind the trends in the current situation, and 4) to explain varying trends in language education in the Turkic and Finno-Ugric republics.

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