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The first Udmurt grammar was published in 1775. Included was an orthography system in the Cyrillic script, which became the basis of later orthographies for the language 1). During the 1920s, an orthography debate arose among Udmurt writers and linguists. All parties agreed on the use of Cyrillic for the language, but some wanted to develop a new orthography adapted to the Udmurt phonology, while others wanted to use the same orthographic principles as in the Russian language. The latter prevailed, meaning that Udmurt orthography closely resembles Russian orthography, with extra diacritics used on some letters to write phonemes not present in Russian 2).
The Republic of Udmurtia, a federal republic of the Russian Federation located in the southeast of European Russia, is the main area in which Udmurt is spoken. Its constitutional status as a republic allows for the adoption of a second official language next to Russian 3). This option has indeed been chosen by the Republic of Udmurtia, in which Udmurt also has an official status 4).
State map of the Republic of Udmurtia. Map made by PANONIAN, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A sizeable minority of Udmurts (about 20 percent) lives outside the Republic of Udmurtia: in Perm, Sverdlovsk and Tyumen to the east, in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan to the south, or in Mari El to the west of Udmurtia 5).
Udmurt varieties are divided into 4 subgroups: the Northern (1-3), Middle (4-8), Southern (9-22), and Besermyan (23) dialects. The southern dialects are subdivided further into central (9-13) and peripheral (14-22) dialects 7). Syntactic and morphological systems of these varieties are reported to be nearly identical across the whole language area, with differences between them mainly confined to the phonological and lexical levels 8).
Estimates for the number of Udmurt speakers range from 324.338 to 565.786 9). This corresponds to at most a third of the inhabitants of the republic of Udmurtia. However, levels of speaker concentration vary greatly. In some rural areas, up to 95% of the people is proficient in Udmurt, while in the capital, Izhevsk, only 16.5% of the inhabitants is able to speak the language 10).
In the 1920's and 1930's, an increase in Udmurt national consciousness led to the foundation of several Udmurt schools. However, in the following years, these early efforts to establish Udmurt-language education were crushed during the late 1930s, as the main leaders of the fledgling Udmurt national movement were eradicated in the Stalinist purges 11). In the first years after World War II, translations of schoolbooks to Udmurt were still attested, but from the 1960s, Udmurt-language teaching materials ceased to be produced 12). This absence of the Udmurt language in education persisted for several decades, until the fall of the Soviet Union. The main mark of a school's success became the pupils' knowledge attained through the medium of the Russian language. From the 1990s onwards, this attitude changed slightly. Russian legislation provided for a three-tier curriculum, which divided the subjects in a mandatory federal part, a national-regional part mandated by the federal subjects, and a variable part which can be filled in by individual schools 13). This national-regional part of the curriculum allowed more room for both the Udmurt government and individual schools to reintroduce education in the Udmurt language and culture in so-called national schools 14). However, a federal education reform in 2007 abolished the national-regional part of the curriculum, which greatly reduced the opportunities regional governments had to implement education in Udmurt 15). The developments of 2018 made that Udmurt education could no longer be set as a mandatory subject. This led to protest with an open letter and the self-immolation of Udmurt language activist Albert Razin on September 10, 2019 16) 17).
The Russian Federation has signed, but not ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages 18). This means in practice that the intention to comply to the charter is indicated, but that Russia is not bound by the charter. In the years 2009-2011, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the Ministry for Regional Development of the Russian Federation conducted a pilot project, in which implementation of the Charter was simulated in three regions. Udmurtia did not benefit from this pilot project 19). As a result of this project, this Joint Working Group created a draft instrument of ratification for the Russian Federation. In this proposal, Udmurt would be protected under Part III of the Charter 20). However, this is still nothing more than a proposal, which is not put into practice yet.
Read more about Russian federal legislation concerning minority languages.
The Republic of Udmurtia adopted the Udmurt language as co-official language alongside Russian by implementing the 1993 Law on the State languages of the Udmurt Republic and other languages of the peoples of the Udmurt Republic 21). Although this seems like a measurement to promote the Udmurt language, it is argued that in fact this co-official status does nothing to promote the use of Udmurt through the de facto dominance of Russian. This can clearly be seen in the Udmurt Concept of the State Nationalities Policy, in which Russian is defined as “the common state language and the language of inter-nationality communication”, while Udmurt is defined as “one of the state languages of the Udmurt Republic”, clearly implying a de facto superior status for Russian. The aim of the previously named Concept enlightens us a bit more in that respect, as the implementation should “facilitate development of state bilingualism and social multilingualism by the integrating role of the Russian language”. (emphasis added) 22).
That does not mean that there is no place for the Udmurt language in Udmurt educational legislation at all. The Conception on the National Education Policy of the Udmurt Republic states that education in Udmurtia should take into account the ethnolinguistic and ethnocultural needs of the peoples of the Republic, stresses the need for Russian-Udmurt bilingualism, and acknowledges the important role of education to keep the minority languages in the Republic (including Udmurt) alive. Furthermore, the opportunity is given to found educational institutions with any language of instruction 23). All these recommendations, although they give languages other than Russian a position in Udmurtia, are soft recommendations. No hard obligation to teach the Udmurt language has been implemented by the Republic of Udmurtia 24).
Since 1996, the Scientific Research Institute of National Education for the Udmurt Republic is responsible for providing scientific and methodological support for the education process in school in Udmurtia 25). Concrete responsibilities of this organisation include ensuring the quality of teacher education and developing materials for learning about Udmurt language, culture and literature on pre-, primary, and secondary education 26).
Udmurt law might allow for education in Udmurt, but in the Republic of Udmurtia, the option of Udmurt as language of instruction is only taken up at pre-school level 27). There are multiple explanations for this lack of schools with Udmurt as language of instruction. It could for example stem from rising Russian nationalist sentiments in federal policy, making it harder to implement minority language support programmes 28), the lack of schoolbooks in Udmurt, or the negative attitudes of parents towards advanced learning in Udmurt 29).
So, the use of Udmurt as language of instruction is very limited, but in 2011-2012 the language was offered as a subject in 341 (mostly rural) schools (56%) to 20.229 students (14%). This constitutes a remarkable drop in just a decade, as in 2000-2001 Udmurt was still taught to 33.143 pupils (41,2%) 30).
Ironically, the use of Udmurt as language of instruction is more widespread outside the Republic of Udmurtia. In areas of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan in which Udmurt is also spoken, a few hundred pupils have the opportunity to receive Udmurt-language education up until secondary school 31).
Kindergartens that use the Udmurt language as medium of instruction have been attested in the Republic of Udmurtia. However, none of these are full immersion programmes. This has a legal reason, as the Russian federal authorities deemed the 'language nest' approach to be 'segregating children on ethnic grounds', thus prohibiting full immersion minority language pre-schools 32).
In primary education in the Republic of Udmurtia, Udmurt language and literature are recommended to be taught for four hours per week for those who already know the language, and for three hours for those without knowledge of the language 33). Research suggested that the percentage of students who considered themselves proficient in the language is much higher for those who have had Udmurt education in primary school (47,7% to 8%) 34), although one wonders how much of this difference can be explained through a higher degree of previous knowledge for those who go to schools where the language is taught.
In the neighbouring federal republics of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, Udmurt-speaking children in primary school have the opportunity to study with their own language as medium of instruction 35). This option is taken up by respectively 8,6 and 14,5% of Udmurt pupils in these areas 36).
Additionally, small numbers of Udmurt children follow Udmurt lessons outside the regular curriculum in Mari El, Kirov Region, Perm Territory, and Sverdlovsk Region 37).
At least 14 secondary schools in Udmurtia offer the possibility to study Udmurt as a subject, although only for students following a 'language and art' major 38). In 2012, a regulation was approved which enabled students to take optional final exams in the subject of Udmurt 39).
One experiment was set up in Udmurtia to introduce Udmurt as language of instruction in secondary education. The Kuzebay Gerd School, named after a leader of the Udmurt language movement in the 1920s, was founded in 1999 to support Udmurt language and culture in education, aiming to teach in the Udmurt language. However, responses to this idea were negative, so the school decided not to use Udmurt as medium of instruction. Instead, they offered the language as a subject, like all other 'national schools' 40). Contrary to Udmurts in the Udmurt Republic, Udmurts in Tatarstan do have some opportunity to get secondary education with the Udmurt language as medium of instruction 41).
The five universities in the Republic of Udmurtia are fully Russian-language, except for special subjects related to Udmurt language, culture and literature 42). These subjects are found at the faculty of Udmurt philology of the Udmurt State University, where it is possible to major in Udmurt Studies 43). In this programme, students have to study the Udmurt language and literature, plus an additional language. Students can choose Russian, English, German, Finnish, and Hungarian as their second language of study. The Udmurt-Russian specialization is also offered as a part-time correspondence course 44).
Since 2001, the Udmurt State University offers summer courses on the Udmurt language in English, aimed at foreign students. In 3 weeks, participants go through a programme existing of 56 teaching hours on the Udmurt language, 10 hours on Udmurt folklore and literature, and 24 hours on Udmurt traditions. In the weekends, students stay with Udmurt-speaking families in order to practice their Udmurt language skills 45).
БУУР НИИНО - Scientific Research Institute of National Education for the Udmurt Republic: governmental institute responsible for developing Udmurt learning materials. (Page in Russian)
Факультет удмуртской филологии - Degree programmes at the Udmurt State University in which you can study Udmurt. (Page in Russian)
Summer School of the Udmurt Language - Three-week programme by the Udmurt State University dedicated to the Udmurt language and culture.
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