For thousands of years, the Sami people roamed across in the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland, as well as Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Semi-nomadic, they hunted, trapped, fished and herded reindeer, remaining culturally and linguistically distinct from the Europeans around them.
As Scandinavia was carved up into modern nation-states, the Sami came under the jurisdiction of the governments of those states, and their minority culture fell victim to those governments’ desire for cultural and linguistic homogeneity.
Only in recent decades have organized efforts been made to preserve the Sami culture and their native languages. Now, the Sami are getting help from a seemingly unlikely source: Israel, whose efforts to revive the Hebrew language have been wildly successful. As CBS recently reported, a Sami delegation recently visited the country in an effort to learn better ways of teaching the Sami languages to adults who grew up without them.
The Sami language family consists of 11 different languages. Of those 11, two are already extinct, one is moribund, one is dying, and the rest are somewhere along the spectrum from “endangered” to “seriously endangered.”
The odds may sound daunting, but Hebrew overcame even greater odds- extinct as a native language since the 4th century CE, it was revived after the state of Israel was established and now has 3 million native speakers.
While European regions like Wales have created successful programs to teach native languages to children, the Israelis are considered the experts in language revival among adults.
As Odd Willenfeldt, principal of Sami School for Mid-Norway, explained to the Associated Press, that’s exactly the kind of expertise the Sami people need now:
“We are trying different methods for 20, 30 years and we haven’t succeeded in increasing the number of fluent Sami speakers. So we are looking for methods that are good and have shown results to make people bilingual.”
Hebrew did have some advantages that the Sami languages do not. Scandinavian governments are now investing in efforts to revive the Sami languages, and they are official languages of traditionally Sami municipalities in Sweden, Finland and Norway. However, for the most part, Sami has ceased to be an essential part of daily life even in these regions. Israel was and is a nation of immigrants, all of whom needed a common tongue to be able to communicate with each other. Hebrew filled that role, and the practice of teaching it to new Israeli immigrants means that it will continue to do so.
Still, Lars Joar Halonen, another member of the delegation, told the AP that despite these disadvantages, he thinks the Sami people’s will to preserve their language and culture is strong enough that it will endure:
“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. They probably know some phrases in Sami and some Christian songs in Sami. They have a belonging to the language.”
Hopefully, that’s enough.