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Learning math in your native toungue: How Siberia keeps indigenous languages alive

Representatives of many linguistic groups used to live in Siberia since the ancient times

KRASNOYARSK, November 8. /TASS/. Krasnoyarsk's scientists - in order to keep and develop languages of the North's indigenous peoples - are working on modern books in different school subjects.

Earlier, head of the federal agency on nationalities, said it is necessary to resume the practice of teaching pupils during first school years in two languages - the Russian and the national languages. He said, implementation of this project means there is a demand for teachers, speaking two languages, and for special books. For example, most schools in Krasnoyarsk territory's north teach in national languages only the subject called "Native Language," and some subjects are in national languages only after classes. For example, in central Taimyr's Volochanka, the school teachers physical training in the national language. The Siberian specialists are working on books and materials in mathematics. They have told TASS how teaching mathematics in native languages could return popularity to the languages of the Dolgans and Ngasans.

Linguistic development

Languages of the Siberian indigenous peoples, especially of the people's living in the north, are at high risk now: not because the peoples are disappearing, but because their lives are changing. Formerly, indigenous peoples on Taimyr were nomadic, and now they settle in villages, begin speaking among themselves in Russia, and their children do not speak the native tongue any more. If at school they were taught in native languages, the languages could be kept, the federal agency's experts say. Experts support the initiative of books in national languages, including books in Mathematics.

President of the Association of the Low-Numbered Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, legislator Grigory Ledkov says the issue of teaching in national languages are complicated for many regions, and the demand in it is only evident. He calls logical to teach in national languages mathematics and other exact sciences, as well as history and other humanitarian subjects. The aspects, which have never been discussed in those languages, would give additional impetuses to their development, he added.

While traditional crafts are disappearing, the expert continued, speaking national languages may be possible about modern things - for example, politics. However, the youth should be taught to do so.

"This way the native languages would integrate even more with the every-day life. Languages (of the northern peoples - TASS) are related to reindeer breeding, they have many notions from it, and from other crafts and occupations," Ledkov said. "If they could transform to share the knowledge in politics, history and other aspects, that could be their development."

Current situation

Representatives of many linguistic groups used to live in Siberia since the ancient times. New peoples appear, the old disappear, languages and dialects - quite often absolutely different - used to get mixed, others disappeared for good. For example, from the Yenisei linguistic family, which speakers lived in the modern Krasnoyarsk territory, now there is only one language - keto - a small northern ethnic group. Currently, only a few dozen languages and dialects of the indigenous peoples are kept throughout Siberia. The most spoken of them are - the Yakut, Buryat, and Tuva, while only hundreds or even dozens can speak languages of Ents, Chulyms, Tofolars, Oroks.

A well-known Russian scientist, studying ethnic groups, Viktor Krivonogov, at a recent roundtable in Krasnoyarsk said in the human history languages of big nations always absorb languages of small nations. The first generation speaks only the native language, while their children are bilingual - they speak the national and the language, dominating in the society where they live. The third generation loses the native tongue.

The situation with dialects of the low-numbered peoples is affected by the obligatory school exam in the Russian language. "Some Siberian schools have cut the lessons in native languages to have more hours for getting ready for the exam in the Russian language. In this situation, for example, are the Altai and Tuva languages," expert Shirobokova told TASS.

At the same time, there are languages, which are only in the oral form or which have gained alphabet only recently. According to Koptseva, the Siberia's most ancient nation - the Nganasans - have received own writing in the 1990s only. Prior to that, their language was only in the oral form. The Ensk language still is only oral, while the number of people speaking it is under 100.

According to the expert, the changing way of life threatens the languages of the low-numbered indigenous peoples - whenever a northern ethnic group stops wandering the tundra, its language "dissolves" immediately in mixed compounds. "Some Evenks are nomadic, others live in villages. In the areas, where the Evenks remain nomadic together with their children and do not live in villages - the language is alive. It is impossible to manage organizing artificially a multi-lingual environment, as people migrate freely, move from one place to another - as they wish and as they think would be better," the scientist said.

Arithmetic with ropes

In the early XX century, the Soviet scientists tried having lessons of Mathematics in the indigenous languages. The school books written then were a breakthrough, an expert of the Siberian Federal University Natalia Koptseva said. In those times, teaching in national languages was not doable due to a shortage of teachers. Thus, from 1948, the indigenous peoples were taught in Russia, which, of course, has not favored keeping the national languages.

However, the experience of the 1920s-30s, like Popova's Arithmetic, which was translated into absolutely all written languages of the USSR, could be used nowadays, experts say. For that, the only thing to do is to make texts modern - instead of using soviet terms and measuring ropes to use objects from the present life.

"From the point of view of teaching mathematics, the book is not outdated, teaching continues to the level of algebra. Outdated are objects of counting, pictures and examples. Those could be changed, and we, our university and students, would be doing it. By late November, we shall present the project for further discussions," Koptseva said. Teaching exact sciences in the indigenous languages would favor keeping them, she said. Besides, the mathematics apparatus would take to a new level the very thinking in the national language, experts added.

Teachers, working in the north, support the idea of having "national mathematics." Director of the Volochanka school on Taimyr Denis Terebikhin called it a "good idea," though pointed to a problem, which was typical for the Soviet times, too - a shortage of teachers. "Take for example my school - I do not have a teacher of mathematics, speaking a national language. I am not an exception," he said. "However, it is still worth trying. To begin with, those could be a couple of national schools, having such teachers."

Science and government

Natalia Shirobokova of the Academy of Sciences' Institute of Philology says first of all the government should be supporting national languages. Without such a support, all efforts of scientists would be lost - exactly like it happens nowadays with the Tofalar language.

"For that language, a Russian scientist Valentin Rassadin (linguist, prominent scientist in Buryatia and Mongolia - TASS) about 10-15 years ago made an alphabet, wrote books, a dictionary, and comparison monographs. He taught teachers how to teach children the Tofalar language. As far as I know, nowadays, many of his works are lost," she said.