Thursday, December 13, 2012

What is being done to save the Crimean Tatar language?

In my last blog post I wrote about Crimean Tatar as an endangered language and why it is important to save it, how the survival of a language is inextricably linked to the survival of a culture. But how do you go about saving an endangered language? When only 5% of the children speak the language (the oft quoted statistic about Crimean Tatars), where do you start in reversing that fatal-seeming trend?
Obviously, the key to saving any endangered language is to provide conditions whereby children grow up speaking the language and receive schooling in which lessons are conducted in the language. As far as I know, there are no clear statistics on the level of language instruction in Crimean Tatar homes. In my limited experience, the older children (age 13+) who speak Crimean Tatar do so because their parents made an effort to speak it at home as they were growing up, and almost invariably, they grew up with a grandparent living in the household. The young people I know who did not grow up surrounded by adults speaking Crimea Tatar do not know the language.

And even if they did speak Crimean Tatar in their first years, that language could be lost once they started school. When the oldest son of a Crimean Tatar family I know began school in 1997, there wasn’t a single school in which Crimean Tatar was used as the language of instruction. He soon lost the language he had spoken the first five years of his life, and now, as a young adult, is “ashamed” that he does not know his mother tongue. 

Beginning in 1998, a number of schools called “national schools,” in which Crimean Tatar is the language of instruction, have been established in Crimea. According to a report published by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization ( in March of 2008, there are 3,472 pupils who study in 15 national schools. These schools (now numbering 16) are scattered across the peninsula from the largest cities to the smallest villages with enrollments running from 33 to 403 students. In 2012 there were 110 graduates of the national schools. 

In addition, also according to the 2008 UNPO report, 1029 pupils study Crimean Tatar in 33 general education institutions in which Russian is the main language of instruction. However, children are taught in Crimean Tatar for only four years before they are then taught exclusively in Russian. Obviously, a significant portion of school age children in Crimea are not able to study the Crimean Tatar language. Contrast this to before the 1944 Deportation, when over 40,000 students received instruction in Crimean Tatar language in over 300 schools. 

So what efforts are being made to change these grim statistics? Some Crimean Tatar leaders feel there is a great need to open more national schools.  Refat Chubarov, First Vice Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, has stated that “the main problem is the lack of Crimean Tatar schools and text-books in the native language. The national schools are not being built. The number of Crimean Tatar children that study in the native language is very small – 1 of 10 pupils attends Crimean Tatar schools. In order to guarantee the education of the children in our native language we need at least 40-50 schools,” said Chubarov in a May 2012 discussion with Steven Page, Second Secretary of US Embassy. (

Others feel that there needs to be a broader initiative outside the education system that brings in non-governmental organizations and the possibility of international funding.  According to the UNPO report, there are only 14 centers in Crimea offering extracurricular activities in the Crimean Tatar language.

 A recent study conducted in six Crimean cities by the Peace Action Training and Research Institute of Romania (PATRIR) with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland concluded that Crimean Tatar language can be preserved by the introduction of a multilingual education model (Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean Tatar) in Crimea. “Participants in the survey noted that this model of education helps children learn the second or third language much faster by teaching some subjects in the curriculum of these languages.”  Multilingual education also has the advantage, the report notes, of increasing trust and reducing isolation among the different ethnic groups of the peninsula. (From Crimean News Agency QHA report on April 25, 2012).

And perhaps fundamental to all these proposals is the recognition of Crimean Tatar as an official language in Crimea. The prospect of this happening has moved much closer in recent months. In August the Ukrainian president signed into law a bill that recognizes Russian as an official language in any region where more than 10 percent of the residents are Russian. There was huge opposition to this bill because of it being seen as one more move to closer ties with Russia and the beginning of the end of Ukrainian as an official state language.  However, because Crimean Tatars constitute 13% of the population in Crimea, the Crimean Tatar language would also fall under this law and become an official regional language in Crimea along with Russian. 

I remember so well my first weekend in Crimea when Nadjie Yagya, my counterpart at the library, took me on a little walking tour around the center of Simferopol. One of the buildings on our tour was the large modern structure housing the Crimean Rada (congress). Nadjie proudly showed me that the words inscribed on the panels above the doors announcing that this was the home of the Crimean government, were not only in Ukrainian and Russian, but also Crimean Tatar. Perhaps the inclusion of Crimean Tatar as an official language of the peninsula will help give support to the many proposals to strengthen the now endangered language of the indigenous people of Crimea.
Entrance to the Verkhovna Rada (congress) in Crimea. Ukrainian, the state language is in the front with Crimean Tatar (on the photo) to the left, and Russian to the right.

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