Bilingualism in the Tyvan Republic, Russian Federation

Joan Chevalier, Brandeis University

Most non-Russian-speaking populations within the Russian Federation have experienced cultural assimilation accompanied by language shift from bilingualism to Russian monolingualism. The legacy of decades of Russification within the non-Russian speaking territories has resulted in subtractive bilingualism characterized by widespread intergenerational language shift from local home-based languages to the prestige language, Russian. From 1970–1989 the number of Buryats, Komis, Tartars, Udmurts, Chuvash, and Yakuts who do not know their ethnic language doubled (Mikhal’chenko 2002). According to the 1989 Census, only 50% of Karelians considered their ethnic language as native (rodnoi) while 30% of Bashkirs, Komis, Mordovians, Udmurts and only 20–25% of Tatars, Maris, and Chuvash consider their ethnic languages as native .

The Republic of Tyva in southern Siberia is unique in several respects. Tyva is one of the few republics where the titular ethnic group makes up more than half of the total population. And the majority of the Tyvan population identify themselves as native speakers of Tyvan (64% in 1989) (Martan-ool 2000: 486), a Turkic language forming part of the Altai-Sayan group of Turkic languages. A comparison of census data from 1989 and 1994 reveals that, while in most Turkic speaking areas the percentage of the titular ethnic groups considering the titular republic language to be their “native” language is dropping over time, the percentage of Tyvans considering Tyvan to be their “native” language is holding steady (Solntsev and Mikhal’chenko 2000: L, L1). Census data suggests that language contact in Tyva seems to have resulted in stable bilingualism rather than assimilation.

This paper will present the results of a sociolinguistic survey conducted in the Kyzyl district of Tyva in June 2005. The survey consisted of 102 questions (in Russian and Tyvan) designed to elicit information about the current vitality of Tyvan in the capital district of Kyzyl. Fishman’s Graded Intergenerataional Disruption Scale (GIDS) was used as the theoretical basis for the design of the survey (Fishman 1991: 80–121). The GIDS model presents language shift as a continuum. At one end of the scale is the monolingual speaker of the home-based language, at the other end of the scale is the outcome of language shift–the total loss of the home-based language (Veltman 1991:146). Between these two ends are varying degrees of bilingualism. According to this model the central criterion of language vitality is the rate of intergenerational transmission of the home-based language. The survey featured questions about the linguistic and demographic background, as well as questions about national and linguistic identity. Preliminary results indicate that although Tyvan is widely used among urban Tyvans, assimilation has occurred (and is continuing) among significant percent of urban youth born and raised in Kyzyl. A significant percent of Tyvans who migrated to the capital district as adults report that they are not fully fluent in Russian. The paper will analyze the findings and discuss their broader significance for other bi- and multilingual populations within the Russian Federation.

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