In Hebrew's Revival, A Nordic People See Hope

By Salon Staff

Published March 6, 2012 6:36AM (EST)

JERUSALEM (AP) — 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."

The Sami, the Nordic countries' only officially indigenous people, live in northern Sweden, Finland and Russia. There are no official population statistics for the Sami, but best estimates range between 80,000 and 100,000; around 30,000 speak Sami languages, Willenfeldt said.

Sami were formerly known outside their community as Lapps — a term that means "patch" and has been abandoned because the Sami regard it as derogatory.

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.

Halonen was wearing a blue fleece over brown leather pants, shoes and a belt, all made by his mother from reindeer hide. He heads the Sami Language Centre in Lavangen, a mostly Sami community in northern Norway.

Eira, a member of the Lavangen town council, wore a green tunic edged in an elaborate woven ribbon that is the hallmark of his Sami tribe.

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."

Today, most Sami are fully integrated into the societies where they live and have adopted Christianity instead of the traditional shamanism. Although reindeer herding remains prevalent, many Sami also work in fishing, education and other industries because of shrinking habitat and earlier official efforts to suppress the indigenous culture.

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.

"By 1914 Hebrew as a spoken language in the land of Israel was a fact," Birnbaum said. The language received an extra push in 1925, when universities in Jerusalem and Haifa opened and held classes in Hebrew.

The academy is an official body founded in 1953, five years after Israel gained independence, to coin new terms and preserve correct Hebrew usage in Israel.

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.

The Norwegians visited Hebrew University's Rothberg International School to observe Hebrew courses taught to foreign students. Then they spoke to professionals in the Education Ministry and observed an ulpan.

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.

Welsh expert Jasmine Donahaye, a researcher at Swansea University in Wales, said that Welsh educators visited Israel in 1973 to learn how to preserve their language at a time when Welsh-speaking areas were shrinking. They set up adult education courses across Wales with Israeli guidance. They even called their courses wlpan, a Welsh spelling of the Israeli title.

In a 2004 census, about 22 percent of the residents of Wales spoke Welsh, which Donahaye said was a vast improvement.

"It's been a huge success," Donahaye said. "It was a radical innovation."

In recent years the Welsh have moved away from Israel as a model because of rising criticism of Israel's policy toward the Palestinians, Donahaye said. Today it would be difficult to envision the same cooperation.

Halonen and Eira acknowledge there are differences between teaching Hebrew and Sami.

In Israel, new immigrants need the language for their daily existence; in Norway most people do not need to speak Sami. In Israel, ulpan lessons last for five months, at a time when new immigrants are settling in and searching for jobs. In Norway, the Sami already have jobs and established lives, which could make it harder to motivate them to learn another language.

Still, Halonen and Eira said they hope to open a two-month course for adults modeled on the Israeli ulpan next year, and they believe they will find eager students.

"Many of the people we're talking about, the language of their hearts is Sami. ... They call themselves Sami, they are Sami, they are proud to be Sami and they keep the language of their hearts," Halonen said. "They probably know some phrases in Sami and some Christian songs in Sami. They have a belonging to the language."

Salon Staff

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