Delegation from northern Russia seeks to preserve vanishing indigenous languages in their communities

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FARMINGTON — Seven women from Indigenous communities in the northern part of Russia visited Navajo Preparatory School on Monday to learn about the school's programs to teach the Navajo language.

The group's visit to the United States is part of the U.S. Department of State's International Visitor Leadership Program and was coordinated by the Santa Fe Council on International Relations.

Karin Elliot Whitney is an administrative interpreter for the program, which scheduled a three week visit for the group to travel to Washington, D.C., New Mexico, Oklahoma, Seattle and New York City to learn about efforts by tribes to preserve their native languages.

"The primary goal is for our visitors to get a sense of how native languages are preserved in our country today and compare it to the way that languages are being preserved in their country, in their ethnic groups they represent and what efforts can be made to improve language preservation," Elliot Whitney said.

The group toured the school on Monday, where its members learned about programs and services designed to help students learn about Navajo culture and language.

In a Navajo language class, participants watched teacher Kimberly Becenti read a sentence in Navajo.

After completing the sentence, Becenti asked the students to translate its meaning into English.

Students also read sentences out loud in Navajo before Becenti explained the difference in how sentences are structured in Navajo and in English.

Elena Nesterova is participating in the program because it focuses on language preservation and the methods used to continue languages.

Nesterova, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Yakutsk, said language preservation is important for her people, the Even.

"We are a minority people and we have few speakers of our language," she said, speaking through an interpreter.

There are 22,815 Even people and only 3,760 speak the language, all of them middle-aged or elderly, she added.

The Russian government runs programs designed to save the language, but the success of its work depends on funding availability, Nesterova said.

Other steps are being taken to sustain the Indigenous language but not at the level demonstrated by Navajo Prep, she said.

Galina Kravchenko, lead methodologist at Kamchatka Center of Folk Arts in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, said she is interested in learning about native languages and about strategies used by Native Americans to teach their languages.

"I like what I've seen here in the states, even the terminology that's used. Instead of the preservation of languages, they talk about revival. And not just study of the traditional languages, but immersion," Kravchenko said.

She is a member of the Itelmens, an Indigenous people on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia.

Kravchenko, speaking through an interpreter, said there are approximately 15,000 Itelmens and only four fluent speakers, which leads to a dire situation for preserving the language.

"There are classes in the native language in some of the schools and preschools with the Itelmens teachers taking initiative but still, it's not enough," she said. "What I've seen from here, I can see that you need a more complete immersion in the language full-time in preschool and in school and not one hour a week like we have."

In addition to Navajo Prep, the group learned about Navajo language programs at San Juan College and Farmington High School.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

 

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