Revitalizing Nivkh (Sakhalin, Russia)

Project on revitalization of the Nivkh language on Sakhalin

Time frame: On-going

Researchers: Ekaterina Gruzdeva, Juha Janhunen

Nivkh is an isolate language of Sakhalin Island and the Amur region of the Russian Federation. It is a moribund language with only a few dozen elderly speakers. The transmission of Nivkh from parents to children was interrupted already several decades ago and at the moment all ethnic Nivkh have almost completely switched to the Russian language.

The idea to start a project on the revitalization of Nivkh was born after the ethnolinguistic expedition of Finnish researchers and students to Sakhalin organised by HALS in the summer of 2014. The results of the sociolinguistic surveys carried out by the members of the expedition demonstrate that the local Nivkh communities are very concerned about the future of their ethnic language and are willing to collaborate with professional linguists in order to ensure language survival.

The project is based on the Finnish theoretical and practical experience of language revitalization activities that have been carried out among the Saami in Finland as well as among several Uralic-speaking groups in Russia. Besides local language activists, the project team consists of specialists on the Nivkh language and experts on language endangerment, revitalization and multilingualism, all of whom are HALS members: Ekaterina Gruzdeva, Juha Janhunen, Janne Saarikivi, Annika Pasanen and Ekaterina Protassova.The main goal of the project is to bring the Nivkh language back into active use in the Nivkh speech communities. The project aims at “creating” and “re-creating” Nivkh speakers in different age groups by using various contemporary revitalization methods.

The project started with a methodological seminar, organized in June 2015 in the settlement of Nekrasovka. The implementation of the project was monitored in January 2016 and again in June 2016 in Nekrasovka, Okha, Nogliki, Chir-Unvd, Poronaisk and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. In all of these locations, the project team organized various events that targeted both children and adults and were aimed at attracting general attention to the Nivkh language.

Currently, the most promising part of the project is associated with language-learning teams or “family nests” that are organised by Nivkh community members and are working according to the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Method. The teams are centered around a Master or two Masters (typically great-grandmothers who have a good command of Nivkh) and involve representatives of several generations, mostly belonging to the same family. Each “family nest” comes or intends to come together at least once a week and studies the Nivkh language in the form of a game or a play. The groups discuss various topics, such as shopping, cooking, visiting a doctor, etc., and create their own learning materials. Some “family nests” are very active and obviously enjoy their learning activities, which gives hope that this method will indeed bring the expected results, so that committed and motivated semi-speakers and even non-speakers will achieve a communicative competence and become able to use Nivkh for different purposes in various practical situations.