Language Revival – Getting It Right

Fascinating article in the Washington Post featuring the Sami people of Scandinavia and the many lessons to be learned from the nation of Israel on language protection and revival. Lessons that we in Ireland need to take to heart.

“Norway’s Sami people, an indigenous community with roots as reindeer herders in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and Russia, are looking south to Israel for help preserving their fading native language.

A Sami delegation spent five days in Israel recently, hoping the Jewish state’s experience reviving the once-dormant ancient Hebrew language can provide a blueprint for them.

Over the past century, Israel has transformed Hebrew, once reserved almost exclusively for prayer and religious study, into a vibrant, modern language. Through its “ulpan” language immersion program, it has taught a common tongue to immigrants from all over the world, helping the young state absorb generations of newcomers.

“We are trying different methods for 20, 30 years and we haven’t succeeded in increasing the number of fluent Sami speakers,” said Odd Willenfeldt, principal of Sami School for Mid-Norway and a member of the delegation. “So we are looking for methods that are good and have shown results to make people bilingual.”

Nils Ante Eira and Lars Joar Halonen stood in the corner of a Hebrew class late last month at Ulpan Morasha in Jerusalem as a class of two dozen adults mumbled through introductions in Hebrew. The men watched carefully, with an eye toward picking up ideas for how to teach adults Sami at home.

Both men speak Sami at home to their children, but say they are the exception following years of government suppression of the indigenous culture.

“It was prohibited to use Sami at school,” Halonen said. “It was prohibited for Sami to have land, and it was prohibited for Sami to use Sami.”

In recent years the Norwegian government has made an about-face and now funds the revival of the Sami language. With government support, Eira and Halonen launched a Sami language kindergarten in 2009.

At the time, they consulted with educators in Wales, where efforts to teach children the Welsh language are under way. But when it came to teaching the language to adults, the Welsh recommended Israel.

The revival of Hebrew dates to 1881, when Belarus-born Eliezer Ben-Yehuda moved to Israel and vowed to speak only Hebrew with his family, said Gabriel Birnbaum, a senior researcher at the Academy of Hebrew Language.

Ben-Yehuda, who also wrote Hebrew dictionaries and invented Hebrew terms for the modern world, eventually persuaded his friends and schools to switch to the new language.

Today, Israel offers free intensive Hebrew classes to new immigrants of all ages. The ulpan, Hebrew for studio, allows newcomers to gain a rudimentary grasp of the language in their first few months in the country while they adjust and search for jobs.

They are not the first foreigners to look to Israel for language instruction tips. Visitors from the Maori tribes of New Zealand, from Wales and from the Basque region of Spain have come before.”

And the most important tip of them all from Israel? Do not ghettoise your language in the education system!

There is no point teaching students to speak the Irish language in schools across Ireland when it remains confined to those schools. The language must also exist outside the school system and that can only happen through the state and body politic determining that it will make it so.

That takes comprehensive language policies at a national level, legal protections for Irish speakers placing their civil rights on an equal footing with their English-speaking peers. It means pro-active legislation in both the public and private spheres promoting both a monolingual Irish and bilingual Irish and English society.

When an Irish citizen can walk into a shop in Ireland and through the Irish language engage in the purchase of goods across the counter, and know that legally they must be facilitated, then we have arrived at true equality. That is language revival!

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