Action needed to save Sami language

The Sami language, spoken by the Sami people of northern Scandinavia, is under threat and local dialects such as southern Sami and Luleå Sami are in danger of dying out completely. A government inquiry recommends a range of measures, including more tuition in the language and granting Sami official status in over 20 northern local councils.

The inquiry’s report ‘Reclaiming my language’ seeks once and for all to end the Swedish state’s attempts to assimilate the Sami people. The long-standing policy has meant that many older Sami have gradually lost their language over the years and that younger Sami have never had the chance to learn it. Many Sami are quoted in the report as saying that they’ve been deprived of their language and they lay the blame at the state’s door.

Of the 20,000 Sami living in Sweden today, about half can speak their language, but only about a quarter can read or write. Luleå Sami and southern Sami are in most danger of dying out if no action is taken.

Sweden has been criticised by both the Council of Europe and the United Nations agency UNESCO for its policies towards minority languages, including Sami. The head of the inquiry, Paavo Vallius, recommends a long list of measures to revitalise Sami and increase its status. All Sami children in Sweden should have the right to learn Sami and access to educational materials in Sami should be improved.

Vallius also recommends that the number of local councils considered to form the administrative area where Sami is used should be increased from four to 20. Those councils should also grant Sami official status and authorities should offer the language in all public contact. About 70% of the country’s Sami population live in the 20 proposed local council areas.

Michael Teilus, who worked on the inquiry as an expert advisor, is a typical example of the problems facing the Samis and their language. His parents moved south and the Sami he learnt gradually faded. Now as an adult, he’s had to learn his mother tongue from scratch. Despite the dangers facing Sami, Teilus remains optimistic.

“It’s not too late. There are sufficient numbers of Sami speakers, even if they are mostly older people. The most important thing is to get more speakers quickly and to get through to the children,” he said.