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Voices from Buryatia

Tjeerd de Graaf        

Paterswolde, 28 August 2005

In July, Tjeerd de Graaf, research fellow at the Frisian Academy, presented the final report of a project carried out together with Russian colleagues in the framework of the Voices from Tundra and Taiga research programme. This joint programme is related to the study of various minority languages in the Russian Federation. The research group received positive reactions, both from scientists as well as from teachers, students, native speakers and local authorities. This applied in particular to Buryatia, one of Russia's federal republics in Siberia, where Tjeerd de Graaf and his Buryat colleague Ljuba Radnajeva visited several centres in June and July 2005. During special teacher seminars, they reported on the results of their projects and on the use of information technology in language teaching. Scientists and teachers from Buryatia are ready and eager to take an active part in the realization of similar new projects. A proposal for such a project has been prepared and submitted to the INTAS Organisation of the European Union.

The Buryat language is one of the languages in the Russian Federation.  It is spoken by more than 300,000 people. The Buryat language belongs to the Mongolic languages and has strong cultural and historical links with Mongolia, Tibet and China. Along with the Russian language, the Buryat language is considered to be the state language of the Republic of Buryatia and the official language of the two Buryat national autonomous regions in Aginsk (Chita region) and Ust-Orda (Irkutsk region). In Buryatia, we may observe a unique co-existence of various - and often quite different - languages and cultures: mainly Buryat, Russian, Evenk, and Russian Old Believers, but also others may be found. As an illustration of  Buryat material culture, the photograph shows both scholars during their expedition in Aginsk.

The case of Buryat language teaching and language support may be considered a rather favourable one  compared with other lesser-used languages in the Russian Federation. It is the state language of the Republic of Buryatia; it dates back to ancient history; it has a written language; there is some Buryat language TV broadcasting (one hour a day), and it is taught at university. However, these efforts have proved to be insufficient for solid and effective support of the language in view of the conditions related to total globalization.

In spite of the official status of the Buryat language, Buryat language use by the indigenous Buryat population remains problematic.  One of the reasons for the language situation being serious is the fact that there is only one national school in the Republic of Buryatia where teaching takes place in the Buryat language. All the other children depend solely on their parents to learn the language.  However, in many Buryat families - especially in mixed marriage families, where parents do not use Buryat - the children have no opportunity to learn the language. In many cases, only the older generation use the native language, while the younger generation cannot even understand the language of their (grand)-parents. In this case, native language teaching becomes similar to teaching a foreign language.

According to the latest UNESCO data, the Buryat language is considered an endangered language and is registered in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages. Meanwhile, many Buryat people demonstrate their wish that their children use the native language. Nowadays, quite an ironic situation has developed in which many Buryat children are very well equipped to use computers and the Internet, but at the same time cannot speak their native language.

Modern educational resources (such as computer-assisted language learning, multimedia teaching material) are almost non-existent in teaching the Buryat language. It should, however, also be mentioned that good and promising conditions exist to develop such teaching resources based on information technology. The proposed joint research project will make this possible.