Teaching Nanai.

Dmitry Oparin interviews Vasily Kharitonov for the Russia Program:

Vasily Kharitonov is a linguist at the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 2022, he went to the Nanai village of Dada in the Far East to teach children the Nanai language and study the local linguistic landscape. In a conversation with anthropologist Dmitry Oparin, the scholar talks about his methods of studying native speakers, the factors that influence the prestige of a language, and how the infrastructure in Russia works for those who communicate and read in more languages than just Russian. […]

You teach at a school in the village of Dada. Is this a Nanai village?

In Dada, all families are Nanai. That is, there are many non-Nanai here, but usually these are members of a Nanai family. There are almost no people like me who are not a part of some family.

How many Nanai are there in Dada and how many of them are native speakers?

For me, the question of being a native Nanai speaker isn’t binary — a simple “yes” or “no.” A person may have excellent comprehension, but may not speak a word. And there are those who both understand and speak, but usually understand better than they speak. This year, I came up with an entire language proficiency map. […]

Could it be said that there are as many different flavors of language proficiency as there are speakers?

Absolutely. I tried to combine the foreign language assessment system and the field linguist system for assessing language proficiency. There is everyday speech: give this, bring this, do this. Almost like imperative commands. Next comes the ability to talk about oneself, then tell or retell stories. And then expressing an attitude or feeling about a situation. This is the main set, and there are two additional criteria: how ready a person is to communicate in social and professional situations. These are different macrospheres of language use and different lines on my table.

There are also the “Comprehension,” “Speech” and “Dictated Speech” columns, as well as additional characteristics: speed, phonetics (native or accented) and about a dozen others. We can conduct an analysis for any speaker; it only takes 20-30 minutes of communicating with them.

There are probably 200–300 active speakers of the Nanai language. There are more who understand but do not speak — about 400 people.

This seems like a significant amount for a small-numbered indigenous Siberian people.

I don’t know. Villages here are more closed-off, more remote: Dada, Dzhuen, Achan. In Dada, the lower threshold for speaking the language is probably 50 years old, and understanding is about 40 years old. I am 35 years old, and there are no people my age who speak Nanai. And there are almost no people who understand it, just a few. In Dzhuen, it seems to me, this threshold is a little lower. There’s a woman of about 30 who lives there and can hold a conversation in Nanai. And there are villages where 60- and 70-year-olds don’t speak at all.

No matter what book I pick up on sociolinguistics in the North, I always see the speaking threshold of 50 years. For example, Nikolai Vakhtin wrote back in 1993 about the “breakthrough generation”— the middle generation. The older generation speaks and is oriented towards a minority language, while the younger generation does not speak. But he wrote this book in the 1990s and these were completely different people. And once again, we are talking about the generational boundary.

Yes, there are two general ideas about this. The first is that as people grow up, they begin to remember the language. There is an article by Australian linguist Nicholas Evans, “The last speaker is dead—long live the last speaker!” — when conservative speakers speak, less well-spoken speakers remain silent in front of them. And I have observed this myself. You come to a village and ask: “Where are the native speakers?” They tell me about one woman, I go to see her and hear that she doesn’t speak very well. But she is very conservative, she shuts everyone down because they say things “wrong.” And they are all silent. As soon as I talk to them without her, everyone else immediately becomes more active and suddenly begins to speak Nanai.

The second possibility is that this is an observational error. What I am saying now could have been said about the Nanai language 20 years ago, but for a larger number of villages. In Sikachi-Alyan (75 kilometers from Khabarovsk—and the closer to the city, the worse), for example, there are only a few speakers. We still have dozens. But 20 years ago, the situation in Sikachi-Alyan was probably similar to ours.

Finally, researchers often try to search for good speakers through their own channels (snowball sampling), and some may be excluded from this sample, as many hide their imperfect proficiency.

Nikolai Vakhtin calls the tendency for interest in a native language to grow in adulthood “regressive language revitalization.”

In Dada, we work with 50-year-olds. We talked to several people who are about 50, and now with their help we are trying to get 40-year-olds to converse with us.

What do you mean by “get them to converse?”

They understood the Nanai language, but did not speak it, and we began to constantly conduct conversational practices with them and try to speak. Recently, the head teacher—she’s about my age — tried to speak Nanai in the staff room. Meaning that you go into the staff room and they’re chatting about work in Nanai. Awesome, isn’t it? A few years ago, this would have been impossible to imagine.

[…] How do you classify this project?

It’s not a project. I actually think of it as a kind of lifestyle. I used to think of it from the perspective of trying to influence someone. My attitude towards the situation has changed a lot. Sometimes it seems that I’m doing all this for my own sake, so that I have someone to talk to in Nanai. I try to get others to talk so they can have a conversation with me. Now, any inkling of messianism has gone out the window.

I even sometimes think about the school in the same vein: I go to school and teach children not for their sake, not for the sake of the Nanai language, not for the sake of anything else, but simply so that I can speak Nanai with the children. This is such a point of growth for me — being able to speak Nanai with children at school — specifically children, and not adults. My lessons in the lower grades are taught in only Nanai. I don’t speak Russian at all. […]

And overall, it’s not uncommon for someone to have a problem with not knowing the language. Quite a lot of young people, knowing that I speak Nanai, feel uncomfortable because of this and take the aggression out on me. It’s not like they conspire against me or do it in a roundabout way, they tell me directly: “You’re great, but because of this I have an [inferiority] complex and don’t really want to be friends with you.”

For some people, this issue is very painful and even leads to internalized racism. “I don’t like feeling like a Nanai, and I want my children to be Russian, I want to marry a Russian,” says one of the girls. About one person out of ten will think this way, eight will think: “The Nanai language is something important and interesting, but hard to understand. We are ready to participate in something like this, but we are not completely certain.” And only for one person out of ten it will be of the utmost importance: “I will do anything, just let me learn this language.”

I don’t like that activists constantly want to force things on people. It’s more important for me not to force those who don’t want to, but to give an opportunity to those who do.

Lots of interesting stuff there, and there’s lots more at the link; I admire his modesty.


  1. Here is some of their music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAtZnaCf1Ew.

  2. It’s kind of disheartening to think that linguists might feel more concerned about the language than the locals. Languages die lingering deaths, and walking into a situation where you can see the death occurring before you eyes must be dispiriting. I guess only a certain proportion of the population is deeply committed to their language. Even with English I suspect a lot of people wouldn’t cling to their language if another language became dominant and English was no longer very useful.

  3. Indubitably true.

  4. “it seems that I’m doing all this for my own sake” – I often think about it along these lines.

    Especially with children.
    With other cultures there is one more consideration: I want to play with them:) The concept of a “tourist” feels wrong. Hense my [postponed] project of planting a system of informal math education similar to the Russian one on the ground of some “third-world country” – something I know how to do and can enjoy and possibly useful to someone.

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