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Nordic people see hope of preserving culture, language in Hebrew revival

JERUSALEM--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.

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