Saving an Arctic Indigenous language, child by child
Language nest brings Saami to children in Finland’s capital, Helsinki
HELSINKI, FINLAND — In Finland’s capital city, about 1,000 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, a group of young children can now learn the Saami language, spoken among Indigenous Saami across northern Finland, Sweden, Russia and Norway.
Ten children, aged one to five, attend the Máttabiegga Giellabeassi (South Wind Language Nest) located near the busy downtown core of Helsinki.
There, these children, some of the 1,000 Saami now estimated to live in the city of about one million people, will get the opportunity to do what most of their parents didn’t: grow up hearing their Indigenous language.
While the children can speak Finnish to each other and their caregivers at the nest, located in a cozy two-bedroom apartment, they hear only Saami, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day.
To reinforce their language learning, there are books, videos, signs with prompts in Saami, and many games, such as a memory card game which features photos of Arctic wildlife and Saami tools.
“The ideal way to learn the language is through doing,” educator Ida-Maria Helander said — and that’s why the concept of a nest works.
To strengthen the children’s sense of cultural attachment, Saami traditional art forms also decorate the walls. Even the bathroom features two silhouettes of a Saami woman and a Saami man in traditional clothing.
Sometimes meals feature northern foods, such as reindeer, and there are days when everyone wears their Saami outfits.
Still the most widely spoken of all the Saami dialects, the number of Northern Saami speakers is estimated to be somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000. Of these, about 2,000 live in Finland — but the number of fluent speakers, especially among youth, said Helander, has decreased as they opt to speak Finnish, a language which is related to Saami.
In Finland, Saami have the right to use Saami for all government services in the northernmost municipalities of Enontekiö, Inari, Sodankylä and Utsjoki.
But many Saami live outside those regions and some parents, like Helander’s own father, haven’t spoken Saami to their children because they felt the language was a less valuable language to teach them.
But the Saami language, which Helander has since studied, is the language which “speaks to my heart.”
The next step for the children after they leave the nest would be a Saami-language school, she said.
The nest doesn’t forbid the children to speak Finnish because that, Helander suggested, could be as repressive as the former education system which made children embarrassed to speak Saami.
The children may not come out of the nest as fluent Saami speakers — unless they have a parent who is a native Saami speaker.
But when the children leave the nest, they will then be able to study Saami two hours a week outside school hours.
The Máttabieggam Giellabeassi opened at the end of 2013 in Helsinki, but the concept of the language nest was first devised in New Zealand for Maori children.
The Helsinki nest is run with funding from the ministry of education channelled through Finland’s Saami Parliament and the City-Sámit organization
The idea of a language nest is not new to Nunavut: A free preschool language nest, Aaralaat Uqariuqsajut, shut down in 2012 after six years of teaching Inuktitut to children in Iqaluit.
The language nest ran out of a donated Nakasuk School space for years, that is until the Nunavut government’s department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth cut its funding.
Now its role is assumed by Tumikuluit Saipaaqivik, which does require that parents or guardians speak Inuktitut.
And you can also find the Tumiralaat childcare centre in Ottawa which serves Ottawa’s growing Inuit community.