“How was it again? I keep forgetting the Sámi words,” whispers the Russian student Roman to his classmate Dine. She replies very fast: “Buorre beaivi, mo manná?” meaning “Hello, how are you doing?”
In Sápmi, they are working towards revitalizing the Sámi language – not only talking about it, but also doing it by their hearts.
I am sitting in the language classroom at Sámi Allaskuvla, Sámi University College, which is also called Diehtosiida – the place of knowledge. We are in the little village of Guovdageaidnu in the Norwegian part of Sápmi, above the Arctic Circle. This little indigenous municipality has 3,000 inhabitants and about 250 students, both Sámi and international.
In the classroom, with Sámi-language signs on the wall and a panorama view to the center of Guovdageiadnu, to the bush and the tundra, you hear many kinds of accents and dialects, because the students are from Finland, Sweden, Russia and Norway. Roman Yakovlev is from Lujávri, the Russian part of Sápmi. Why does he want to learn Sámi at the age of 31?
“My grandparents spoke gielddasámegiella or Kildin Sámi, a language that is still spoken in Russia. I never had the chance to learn our language; when my grandparents passed away, the language was also silenced in our family. In our region there are only 150-200 people who speak Kildin Sámi, most of them elders, so I have only heard the language sporadically. I am a musician and would like to use our language when I sing. I would also like to write poetry and lyrics – and in the future, the main goal is that I can speak Sámi, both Kildin and North Sámi.”
The other student in the classroom is Dine Arnannguaq Fenger Lynge, a 32-year-old woman from Greenland, or Kalaallit Nunaat. She has stayed in Sápmi for almost 20 years. She is trying to learn Sámi with her Greenlandic accent, and pronounces Sámi words perfectly. From the wall, I can see that these students are learning grammar, the case inflection of the word nieida, ‘girl’: nieida, nieiddat, nieiddain, nieidan.
Dine Arnannguaq first started learning Sámi, because knowing a language opens up better job opportunities. “It’s necessary to learn the language of where you are. I worked at the hotel here in Guovdageaidnu, and in my experience it’s not so easy to get proper jobs if you don’t speak the native language,” says Dine.
According to her, the Sámi grammar is very difficult and so is the alphabet. “I’m trying to figure out how to use my tongue and mouth when I pronounce the letters á, č, đ, š, ŧ, ž and z, but I’m also learning new words daily,” Dine says. She speaks many languages: her mother tongue is Greenlandic or Inuit, and she also speaks Danish, Norwegian and English – and now she is working hard so that Sámi would become her fifth language.
Sámi Allaskuvla has a language policy that the staff shall speak Sámi, and if not, the institution gives them the opportunity to learn. One of the staff members is Jon Todal, a Norwegian professor. When he came to Allaskuvla nearly 30 years ago, he did not speak Sámi. Now it is his working language. “It is necessary to speak the same language as the students. I have Sámi students from four countries, and I want to communicate directly with them. Language is the identity of this university; we use it at all levels, and it would be a very bad language policy if I spoke English with my students from Finland or Russia,” Todal says.
Since the establishment of Sámi Allaskuvla in 1989, the main policy has been to get more educated teachers and strengthen the language. In the beginning, they only offered language courses to those who already spoke Sámi, but now they have courses and lectures for beginners as well. “This means that we have students at different levels. The beginners are learning the language while they do practical things, such as cooking food, picking berries, cutting hay, or just walking in the nature – trying to strengthen the language with practical work,” says the Sámi Allaskuvla rector Gunvor Guttorm. She is sitting in the heart of the building, by the fireplace in the cantina.
“We have worked hard, and now we can see the good results. Can you imagine, no one would believe that our institution currently has more than 20 students who are taking their PhD, and many of them are doing research about Sámi language – I am proud of it!” She talks about the importance of getting young people interested in language and getting them to see that speaking Sámi will provide them with opportunities. “That is our goal, and in that we are a role model for many institutions. We are creating knowledge,” Guttorm says.
In the library of Diehtosiida, a young woman is sitting with her books. She is Katja Ravdna Broch Pedersen from Deatnu, a Sámi municipality in the eastern part of Finnmark, Norway. She is an actor, and she loves to read and write. She has studied theater in Tromsø, but now she wants to strengthen her mother tongue. “I want to learn, to understand the grammar and the structure of the language.” In Romsa (Tromsø), she felt that the Sámi were outsiders. She was not able to use her own language for three years, and now she needs to refresh it. Katja Ravda decided to move to Guovdageianu, because here the majority speak Sámi.
Before I leave Diehtosiida, I bump into Dine Arnannguaq, and spontaneous as she is, she is yelling to me: “The Sámi giella is a cool language!” As she walks out of Diehtosiida, she is again yelling "Bàze dearvan – goodbye," her steps echoing in the lobby with Sámi designs and high tech side by side.
Yes, as a foreigner in Sápmi you understand that they truly embrace their Sámi giella as the language of the heart – váibmogiella.
Inga Hansen is from Greenland, and is currently studying towards a Master’s degree in Indigenous Journalism in Guovdageaidnu, Norway.