51. New speakers are building a future for the Sámi languages

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Annika Pasanen, Ph.D.
Sámi University of Applied Sciences (Guovdageaidnu / Kautokeino, Norway)


The Sámi languages——nine separate languages as a whole—form a continuum that runs, geographically, from central Scandinavia to the east coast of the Kola Peninsula. The Sámi are an Indigenous people—the only officially recognized one in the EU region. Their languages, livelihoods and worldview have evolved in the diverse conditions—from taiga to tundra, from inland riverbanks to the shore of the Arctic Ocean—of this large area. Reindeer herding and fishing play an important role in the life of the Sámi, and the annual cycle of seasons regulates their livelihoods and households. However, a constantly increasing proportion of the Sámi live in urban surroundings outside the traditional Sámi region. All Sámi groups have experienced drastic cultural and linguistic assimilation. As a result, their languages have become endangered. An increasing need for language revitalization has therefore emerged.

Nowadays, most Sámi languages are actively being revitalized and strengthened. One of the most effective ways to fight against language loss is the one-year intensive education programmes in Sámi languages and culture that are offered to adults. This article is based on my postdoctoral research on people who have participated in this education and started using a Sámi language in their lives. This research began in 2017, and the data include results from a survey of 132 respondents who are new speakers of Inari Sámi, North Sámi and Skolt Sámi. I am interested in how Sámi languages are learnt, used and also passed on by people who did not acquire them during their childhood. I call them new speakers of Sámi languages.

Endangered Sámi languages

Out of the nine Sámi languages, three are spoken in Finland: Inari Sámi, North Sámi and Skolt Sámi. They are all endangered languages. Sámi people originally populated large areas of the current state of Finland, but for centuries, the Sámi languages have been spoken only in northernmost Finland. As in other countries, in Finland the Sámi have suffered language deprivation, faced widespread language shift from Sámi to the dominant language, and live nowadays with the complex reality of assimilation and language revitalization. The official domicile area of the Sámi in Finland covers the three northernmost municipalities—Utsjoki, Inari and Enontekiö—as well as the northern part of Sodankylä. However, nowadays the majority of Sámi live outside this area. For instance, there is a significant group of Sámi living in the metropolitan area of Helsinki. Preserving, revitalizing and passing on Sámi languages, as well as giving effect to the linguistic rights of the Sámi, are naturally much more challenging endeavours in urban areas.

In sociolinguistic tradition, intergenerational transmission of the language is widely considered the most important factor in a language’s vitality. It is the process through which children acquire the language of their community from the previous generation(s)—usually their own parents. When a language becomes endangered, its intergenerational transmission weakens and finally stops, with the dominant language gradually replacing the functions of the minoritized language. These breaks on intergenerational transmission happen when parents are recommended—and sometimes forced—to shift to a dominant language, allegedly in their children’s best interests, as shift that they are often just silently supposed to make. In societies where institutional education plays an essential role, parents’ language choices are usually closely linked to the education sector’s language policies.

When transmission of a language is interrupted, children grow up without the ethnic language of their family and community. A group of children of this kind is sometimes called the lost generation. The term does not necessarily refer to a homogeneous age group with the same linguistic situation; it may also refer to a very diverse group of people, some of whom did not acquire the language of their family at home. There may be differences between the members of such groups when it comes to how they feel about not knowing the language of their community. For some, it may be a huge trauma that impacts their whole identity, while for others it is not a big deal. In Sámi communities, more and more people want to have their ancestors’ language back.

Intergenerational language transmission is a critical question in all Sámi communities, but it is especially so in those where transmission was totally interrupted as a consequence of assimilation. This is the case of the Inari Sámi and Skolt Sámi languages. Both of these have a smaller number of speakers nowadays. Inari Sámi has approximately 450 speakers and Skolt Sámi maybe 300 speakers. Historically, these languages have apparently always been spoken by no more than a couple of hundred people. North Sámi has the biggest number of speakers—possibly 20,000—and it is spoken in Norway and Sweden as well as in Finland. Although North Sámi has constantly been passed on to children in its core areas, it has been lost in many others, and there are similar needs for revitalization of North Sámi as there are for the less commonly spoken Sámi languages.

Revitalization of the Sámi languages has gradually been taking place since the 1970s. In Finland, the main revitalization tools have been language nests for children under the school age, mother-tongue-medium education at school, and intensive language education for adults. One of the main challenges of constantly widening revitalization efforts has been the lack of educated adult speakers. Linguistic assimilation can be seen as a vicious circle, within which all the negative forces speed each other up. Revitalization, by contrast, can be seen as a virtuous circle that works in the opposite direction. All acts of revitalization influence and depend on each other. Language nests and mother-tongue-medium education have increased parents’ motivation to learn or relearn Sámi. Language education for adults has strengthened the basis for language nests and mother-tongue-medium education when there are more adult speakers capable of working in the Sámi language. Revitalization activities outside the home have increased the use of Sámi language at home, and strengthening the language situation of families has increased the need for and resources of the whole revitalization.

Rebuilding the lost generation through language education

One-year full-time study programmes in Sámi languages and culture are arranged by Saamelaisalueen koulutuskeskus, the Sámi Education Institute in Inari, in all the three of Finland’s Sámi languages. This education programme comprises approximately nine months of full-time studies, five days a week, seven hours a day. Learning a Sámi language is the focus of the year, and students cannot, for example, work at the same time. In addition to formal language instruction, other methods are also deployed, including practical cultural courses, trips, language training in Sámi-speaking workplaces, and master-apprentice language learning, which is based on interaction between the learners and native speakers of the Sámi language in question. This method has been applied to Sámi-languages adult education since the first education initiative for the Inari Sámi language, and both students and the elder, first-language speakers of Sámi languages, have warmly welcomed it.

This kind of education has been developed into its current form over several decades. North Sámi has been taught intensively at the Sámi Education Institute since the beginning of the 1990s, and in the current form of a one-year programme since 1999. Inari Sámi was first taught in an intensive five-month period in the spring of 1999. The first full-year education programme was organized for the 2009-2010 academic year by the Giellagas Institute of the University of Oulu, together with the Sámi Education Institute and the Association of the Inari Sámi language. In 2011, Inari Sámi intensive studies were arranged for the first time by the Sámi Education Institute. Skolt Sámi became part of the institute’s curriculum in 2012. This education has produced at least 250 or 300 new speakers of Sámi languages in total. For many of them, learning a Sámi language has been a kind of turning point in their lives, as it has opened up entirely new career opportunities and new social networks to them.

New speakers of Sámi languages: Who are they?

In my postdoctoral research, I have studied former students of Inari, North and Skolt Sámi who studied language and culture in an intensive education programme run by the Sámi Education Institute between 2009 and 2016. I had three main lines of inquiry: (i) the backgrounds of the students and their motivations for language learning; (ii) the students’ experiences of the year in education and the language-learning process, and (iii) the impact of learning and use of Sámi in different domains and individuals’ identification with the speech community. On the basis of my research, new speakers of Sámi languages are a very heterogeneous group in terms of age, education, motivation for language learning, results of the language education—and even ethnic identity. In addition to the Sámi, there are almost as many Finns among the students, and occasionally some other ethnicities, too. There is, however, one dominant background factor: gender. Women form a large majority in Sámi language and culture classrooms as well as in institutional professions linked to Sámi languages and culture. Both practical reasons (related to, for example, livelihoods) and cultural, ideological and emotional factors explain this situation.

Participants’ motivations for attending the year-long intensive language course fell into two main categories: Reclamation of the heritage language and “other reasons.” The most common motivation for learning Sámi was the reclamation of one’s own language or heritage language. Other motives for language learning included, for instance, widening one’s prospects in the labour market, having a general interest in language, and wishing to support the Sámi-speaking community. The Sámi in Finland have reached a stage that many Indigenous peoples and minorities around the world can only dream of: Knowing Sámi is clearly an advantage in the labour market. This is partly because of the Sámi Language Act, which obligates authorities to offer public services in Sámi, but of course, it is also about the widespread change of attitudes towards Sámi and the increasing prestige of it. However, these observations mainly apply only to the domicile area of the Sámi. Outside this area, awareness of the Sámi is quite low, and the Sámi have very limited linguistic rights.

Moving forward with the new language

My research data paint a picture of new speakers using Sámi languages very actively in different domains of life: work, social networks, and even the family. Almost half of the respondents of the survey, carried out in 2017, reported active, daily use of the language. Only a fifth of them responded that they use Sámi language seldom or not at all. The rest were using the language actively, but not daily.

A remarkable proportion of the new speakers in my data had started to use Sámi in their work—by either starting a new job or starting to speak Sámi in the position they already held. The vast majority of working-age speakers of Inari and Skolt Sámi are new speakers, which means that they are found in all professions in which these languages are used. This is not quite the situation in the case of North Sámi, but there are also many professionals who have learned North Sámi through intensive studies. New speakers are working, among other roles and workplaces, as employees in language nests or mother-tongue Sámi kindergartens; as teachers in primary and secondary schools; in institutions like the Sámi Parliament, the Sámi radio service or the Sámi Education Institute; in various cultural or scientific projects; in organizations; and at the University of Oulu. There are also new speakers of Sámi languages working in municipal social and healthcare services—for example, in dental and elderly care.

An even more significant proportion of new speakers have started to use Sámi language with their friends, relatives and other members of their social networks. Many have managed to switch the language they use even with their closest ones. For instance, some new speakers of Sámi origin who used to speak Finnish with their parents have started to speak only Sámi with them after their experience of studying the language. Examples of this kind reflect deep motivation and commitment—things that play an essential role in the revitalization of any endangered language. What is especially interesting is that it is not unusual nowadays for a parent learning Sámi at the adult age to choose it as the language they speak at home with their children. In fact, almost all parents who currently speak Inari or Skolt Sámi to their small children are new speakers, and so are a remarkable proportion of North Sámi-speaking parents. Furthermore, there are also ethnically mixed couples whose non-Sámi member has chosen to transmit Sámi language to their children, e.g. because the Sámi member of the couple does not speak Sámi.

Understanding, accepting and supporting new speakers

The phenomenon of learning and using Sámi languages as an adult is obviously going to continue in Finland and elsewhere. Although language revitalization has gained momentum, the lost generation is still still felt like a tragedy on both the individual and collective levels. Rebuilding the lost generation will take many generations, and reclaiming the Sámi languages should be understood as a constant need and a linguistic right of the Sámi people. New speakers are visible across the Sámi-speaking world. Nevertheless, we know very little about their backgrounds, motives, learning processes, efforts, ideologies, aims, challenges and achievements. Both research and open discussion are needed to develop the picture of the speakers of Sámi languages and to create conditions in which all speakers can strengthen the Sámi languages together.

For the sake of the future of Sámi languages, as well as that of other endangered languages that are being revived, it is very important to understand, accept and support the role of new speakers, with regard to intergenerational language transmission too. For people taking back the endangered language of their community, recommendations concerning the language spoken in the home and multilingualism—“Always speak your mother tongue to your child!” or “The language between you and your child should be the language you know best”—often seem inadequate, even hurtful. When a language is reviving, and the community is healing following assimilation, recommendations must be rethought. Transmitting an endangered, reviving language to children should be a right of any parent, regardless of when and how they learned the language. It is essential for the future of the world’s linguistic diversity, and it is essential for the next Sámi generations.