Written by Kaja Gjelde-Bennett and Paulette van der Voet

The Norwegian Sami Parliament organized the Sami Language Conference in the beginning of February in Tromsø to present their new language strategy and to highlight UNESCO’s 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages. A recurring theme throughout the whole conference was the relationship between language and identity, which is also important for Sami (language) education today.

Opening the conference, President of the Norwegian Sami Parliament, Aili Keskitalo, explained the conference’s central theme and the new language strategy. Giélelutnjeme – Giellalåpptim – Giellalokten, translated to English as “Lift the Language,” calls for strategies which strengthen and develop all the Sami languages as natural, living languages in all areas and at all levels of society: local, regional, national, international. The first strategy area President Keskitalo presented included children and youth with education at its center. She emphasized the need to open new language areas for children and youth both inside and outside of schools to strengthen language competency and to elevate the status of the Sami languages.

The first talk was held by Camilla Kleemann-Andersen from the University of Greenland. She gave a short introduction on the relation between language and identity in Greenland. Bilingualism has been a long-term goal in Greenland, as Danish was considered a prestige language and Greenlanders were happy to learn it. When Greenland became an integral part of Denmark, this resulted in more resources for Danish language education. This marked the beginning of Danification resulting in rootlessness and an identity crisis for Greenlanders. Kleemann-Andersen described the current situation in Greenland as a period of Greenlandification which started in the 1970s and 1980s. Nowadays one is considered to be Greenlandic when he/she speaks Greenlandic. Something that results in a new identity crisis for those who do not speak the language. The overall message of Kleemann-Andersen’s presentation was the impact education and language can have on one’s identity and feeling of belonging to a culture.

Another prominent, recurring theme of the Sami Language Conference was the need to engage in diverse contexts for developing and improving children and youth’s competence in the Sami languages. As a unique example of a children’s language immersion activity, Patricia Fjällgren presented her project, Giella Čirkuš, which emphasizes play as an effective mode of language acquisition. Giella Čirkuš, or “Language Circus,” is a mobile workshop where children participate in group activities including juggling, acrobatics and theater. The children come from different countries with diverse cultural backgrounds and are encouraged to speak in whatever language they choose, excluding the host country’s majority language. These structured physical activities for children create a space for play which brings the Sami languages into a social context with the same status as other world languages, such as Spanish, for the purpose of improving children’s language abilities as well as normalizing the use of the Sami languages.

Kristin Solberg later presented a similar project called Giellariššu, translated from North Sami as “Language Shower.” Solberg discussed the challenges of getting Sami-speaking children to use Sami language outside of the classroom, especially in an urban environment like Tromsø where Norwegian is the predominant language. A cooperation between the Tromsø Municipality and UiT, Giellariššu is an after-school program that aims to address these challenges by creating a safe and structured environment in which children with different levels of Sami language ability can play and interact through various outdoor activities.

A presentation focusing on the Sami languages in education was given by Inga Lill Sigga Mikkelsen. She focused on the goals of Sami language education, which is important for the future for the Sami languages. Kindergartens and schools should have clear common goals in order to promote the use of the Sami languages. According to Mikkelsen, this is not the case for the current situation given the overall goal of functional bilingualism. Furthermore, she raised the issue of the responsibility for this bilingualism strategy within the context of decolonization. Why is Sami language education responsible for achieving bilingualism and would it not be more important to focus on the Sami languages first? Therefore, Mikkelsen argued that it should be about using the language, with ‘Speak Sami’ as an overall goal.

The central message tying many of the conference presentations together was the need to not only strengthen Sami language education within schools by encouraging students to speak Sami, though this was an important point, but also to open diverse spaces for Sami language use. As the result of this conference, it has become clear that the Norwegian Sami Parliament intends to focus on children and youth for lifting the Sami languages by incorporating other methods to ensure the languages leave the schools and enter into other parts of Sami students’ lives. President Keskitalo ended the conference with a sentiment of joy, stating that despite the painful history of Norwegianization, Sami people should take joy in speaking their language.

 

ICE’s Hilde Sollid also participated at the conference and she shared this view in her comment on the conference. According to her, this theme of celebrating the languages was present in most talks and discussions. Showing the importance that learning and using the Sami languages should be fun.