Kalmyk Xinjiang region of Western China. As

Kalmyk Oirat, or the Kalmyk language is one
of the official languages of the Republic of Kalmykia, an autonomous republic
of the Russian Federation. Kalmyk is a variety of the Oirat language, a major
dialect of Mongolian, which is part of the broader and controversial Altaic
language family. The Republic of Kalmykia is located on the dry steppe of
southwestern Russia in between the Black and Caspian Seas. The Kalmyk people
are of Western Mongolian descent, and are also referred to as the Oirat
Mongols. Traditionally a nomadic people, after the break up of the Mongol
Empire the Kalmyk people finally settled in the Volga region of present day
Russia and electively became inhabitants of the Russian Empire (Remilev, 2004).
Beginning in 1648 the vertically written Mongolian script was used as the main
writing system. Since then however the writing system has changed many times
which has greatly disrupted the literary traditions of the language. In 1924 it
was replaced with the Cyrillic alphabet, which was in turn switched to the
Latin alphabet in 1930, and once again back to Cyrillic in 1938 where it has
remained until today. However with recent revitalization efforts there are
still ongoing arguments as to whether to switch back to the Mongolian script or
to adapt the Cyrillic alphabet for better usage (Grin, 2000) According to
Ethnologue the ethnic population based off of a 2010 census was 183,000 with
total users in all countries at 360,800. It lists Kalmyk as also being spoken
in the Xinjiang region of Western China. As it has co-official status with
Russian Ethnologue lists the language status as 2, and states that 91% of the
population speak it as L1, but that few children now learn it (Ethnologue,
2017). UNESCO labels the language as ‘definitely endangered’ and says that
according to a 2002 census it has 153,602 speakers (UNESCO 2017). Although
there has been a huge push for language revitalization and maintenance in the
last 20 years, based on the academic literature to be reviewed in this work,
these numbers and status’ are difficult to believe, and will be re-evaluated
after a discussion of the history of the language and the current
revitalization efforts.


Before discussing current language usage
and domains as well as revitalization efforts it is essential to discuss a
brief history of a usage of the language in the Kalmyk Republic to fully
understand the current status of the language. In 1837 the first elementary
schools were set up in the Kalmyk Republic, however nearly all of the pupils
spoke no Russian, and nearly all of the instructors spoke no Kalmyk. Nearly all
of the instructors felt no need to learn Kalmyk therefore pupils were forced to
learn Russian. It was not until 1911 that the Ministry of Public Education
granted permission for two hours of Kalmyk to be taught per day (Remilev, 2004)
In 1918 there was a Kalmyk uprising against the Bolsheviks in Russia, and this
in turn led to the burning of numerous Kalmyk temples, monasteries and books. Unfortunately,
in December of 1943 the Kalmyks were included on Stalin’s list of ‘eight deported
nations’ for alleged collaboration with the Germans during WWII. In late
December over 93,000 Kalmyks were herded into cattle trucks and trains and
deported to different locations, most of them in south-central Siberia. It is
difficult to find any records of the numbers but it is estimated that between
one fifth and one half of the total Kalmyk population died as a result of this
genocidal deportation. After more than 15 years of deportation, those who were
still alive were allowed to return back to their native land in 1957 after
Khrushchev’s apologetic speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist
Party of the Soviet Union in early 1956. By this time there were only around
100,000 Kalmyk people left, and 15 years in exile had horribly damaged their
language and culture (Grin 2000). Although the Kalmyks were allowed to return
in 1957 this was under Soviet assimilationist policies, which were very clear
that there would be ‘one nation and one language’ (Remilev, 2004). In the 1960s
all education in Kalmyk was discontinued due to cuts in native language
education budgets, and by the late 1970s all public school instruction was
solely in Russian (Grin, 2000). It was estimated that by 1985 nearly 93% of the
urban Kalmyk population could read and write in Russian, while only 46% had the
same proficiency in the Kalmyk language. This is indeed no surprise as many of
those who returned after deportation studied the language as if it were a
second language to Russian (Toronto Globe, 1993). Under the Soviet Union the
number of speakers of Kalmyk was often overestimated because of a high level of
ambiguity in the language related questions of Soviet censuses. For example a
1981 academic article stated that 91.7% of the ethnic population was able to
speak their mother tongue fluently (Comrie, 1981), but a 1999 article published
by Comrie (1999) states that only 2% of students entering primary school could
speak their mother tongue fluently. A further study by the Institute for the
Revival of the Kalmyk Language stated that only 6% of the younger generation
was fluent, and that Kalmyk remained the dominant language in only six small
villages throughout Kalmykia (Grin, 2000). With the fall of the Soviet Union,
Kalmyk has been taught as a core module in all public educational institutions
in Kalmykia, but is taught more as a second language and is not the primary
language of instruction (Remilev, 2004).

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On the 27th of October 1999 the
Act of the Languages of the Peoples of the Republic of Kalmykia was signed into
law (Kornoussova, 2012), with the aim to ‘guarantee the revival, preservation
and development of languages as a most important element of the spiritual
heritage of the peoples living in the Republic’ (Grin, 2000). Under this act
Kalmyk gained equal status with Russian, and language-based discrimination was
also legally forbidden. Kalmyk was already considered to be quite standard in
terms of grammar, phonetics and lexicon, however because of the educational
domination of Russian many Russian words were borrowed for new words in the
last 50 years. Therefore under the Language Act a terminological committee was
established to create new scientific and technological terminology for the
Kalmyk language; it is fairly easy to create new words in Kalmyk, as it is a
highly agglutinative language. The new words were introduced to the public
through local newspapers, however it is difficult to tell if they took hold or
if people kept on using the Russian words. As stated above Kalmyk is now part
of the core curriculum, and there are two compulsory exams for high school
students, in 9th and 11th grade. There are very few
instructors who specialize in Kalmyk language, therefore as an incentive Kalmyk
teachers earn a 30% bonus on their salary. Although all of these steps have been
taken to revitalize the language, and it is easy to find Kalmyk in books, on
TV, billboards and the radio, Kornoussova (2012) states that, walking through
the streets of the larger cities of Kalmykia, mostly everyone is speaking
Russian. Why is this? Possible reasons are because of the memories and shame of
deportation, which led to language shift to Russian, or the fact that Kalmykia
is not an independent country and the population will always be required to
speak Russian in addition to their mother tongue. It may even possibly be
because ethnic Kalmyks and Russians are actually happily unified, unlike nearly
all other parts of Russia with large ethnic minority populations, and there are
high levels of intermarriage (Toronto Globe 1993).


Being the only Buddhist population in
Europe, Kalmykia and the Kalmyk language have received considerable attention
since the turn of the century, and there is a an obvious reawakening of
cultural identity among the population. In 2004 a survey of 100 Kalmyks aged
17-26 was held in Elista, the capitol, Moscow, and Rostov-on-Don. Many young
people often leave Kalmykia because of poor social and economic conditions, and
they two of the most popular destinations are Moscow and Rostov-on-Don, but
they are by no means the only destinations that Kalmyks emigrate to. The survey
revealed that despite low levels of language use there was a strong sense of
cultural identity among the young Kalmyk population. For example 73% of those
surveyed said that they often went to Kalmyk museums, theatre, or other
cultural events. 2/3 of those interviewed said that they knew how to perform
the traditional Kalmyk dances, and 27% reported that they could play a
traditional Kalmyk instrument. In addition 66% were able to identify popular
Kalmyk leaders of culture such as singers and actors (Nuksunova, 2009). There
is also a strong connection to Tibetan Buddhism, the traditional religion of
the Kalmyks. In contrast to religion in the rest of Russia, Buddhism is on the
rise in Kalmykia and Buddhist teachers are being sent from abroad to help with
the revival of traditional religious practices in Kalmykia, and in 2008 a
Kalmyk Buddhist Centre was opened in Moscow (Grin, 2000). According to the2004
survey 81% of those surveyed said that they identified as Buddhist. These
results demonstrate that the younger generation of Kalmyks is actively
participating in their cultural heritage, however the responses of the
language-based questions were strikingly different. Only 7% of those surveyed
said that they thought in Kalmyk and that they could speak it fluently, 54%
said that they were able to understand it but that they didn’t speak it, 18%
said that they did not think in it or understand it at all, and only 58% said
that they used is somewhat with their family at home (Nuksunova, 2009).


A more recent report by the Enduring Voices
Project in May of 2012 reports similar findings about cultural revitalization
in Kalmykia. The project visited the Republic of Kalmykia to help the community
create multimedia language learning material, and they stated that, similar to
the 2004 survey, there was a ‘strong cultural revitalization among the younger
generation, in song, dance, poetry and the use of the language’ (Howley, 2012).
This report concludes that because of a strong grassroots movement directed by
teenagers and the younger generation, there is an indisputable reversal of
language shift happening (Howley, 2012). However this could simply be the
optimistic opinion of the author as this article was written based off a few
interviews with cultural leaders in the community, as far as I am aware, the
last published language and culture survey was the 2004 survey discussed above.
Although this 2012 report is optimistic, we must continue to be weary of the
incredibly low level of language use among the Kalmyks, and base our
evaluations of the language off of the most recently published studies.


Having reviewed the literature pertaining
to historical and current usage of the Kalmyk language, it will now be
evaluated using two different scales. It will first be evaluated using the
UNESCO Language Vitality Assessment Form, followed by an evaluation using the
Extended Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale.


The UNESCO evaluation will be performed
using the guidelines on UNESCO’s Language Vitality and Assessment form (UNESCO,
2003). A copy of the form can be found in the appendix of this paper. For the
first factor ‘Intergenerational Language Transmission’ Kalmyk receives a grade
of 3 ‘Definitely Endangered’, because, in compliance with the UNESCO
guidelines, it is not being learned as a mother tongue by the younger
generation, thus the youngest fluent generation is that of the parents.
According to Ethnologue, using the 2010 Russian census, there are 80,500
speakers (Ethnologue, 2017). For factor 3, ‘Proportion of Speakers within the
Total Population’, 80,500 is divided by 183,000, the total ethnic population,
to give us a percentage of 44%. Thus according to the UNESCO guidelines Kalmyk
receives a grade of 2, ‘Severely Endangered’, as a minority speak the language.
For UNESCO’s factor 4 ‘Shifts in Domains of Language Use’, Kalmyk receives a
grade of 2 ‘Limited or Formal Domains’, because it fits this description best
as for the younger generation, the language is mostly only used for ceremonial
purposes, and because many people can understand the language but cannot speak
it. For Factor 5, ‘Response to New Domains and Media’, Kalmyk receives a grade
of 4 ‘Robust/Active’, because as discussed above, even though many people are
not speaking Kalmyk, numerous materials are available and the language is used
in the media and around the city on advertisements, newspapers, and magazines. Factor
6, ‘Availability of Materials for Language Education and Literacy’ gives Kalmyk
the highest rating possible of 5, because, although there is not a strong
literary tradition in the Kalmyk language, there are multiple educational and
teaching materials available, as well as a well established orthography. For
Factor 7, ‘Governmental and Institutional Language Attitudes and Policies,
Including Official Status and Use’, Kalmyk receives a grade of 5, ‘Equal
Support’. The UNESCO guideline states for ‘Equal Support’ that ‘All of a country’s languages are valued as assets. All
languages are protected by law, and the government encourages the maintenance
of all languages by implementing explicit policies’ (UNESCO, 2003) This may not
necessarily be the case for all minority languages in Russia, but because of
Kalmyk Language Act of 1999 this grade is appropriate for the Republic of
Kalmykia, whether or not people are actually using the language or not. Factor
8, ‘Community Members’ Attitudes Towards Their Own Language’, is one of the
most difficult factors to grade in this scale for Kalmyk. Based on the literature
reviewed above it is clear that young Kalmyks are serious about reviving and
maintaining their cultural heritage, however when it comes to their language,
this is unfortunately evidently their last priority, probably because they have
no qualms with the Russian population or language. Kalmyk therefore scores a
grade of 2, ‘Some members support language maintenance; others are indifferent
or even support language loss’, because it is clear that, even if they are in
favour of cultural revival, most young Kalmyks are indifferent to the
continuation of the use of their language. For Factor 9, ‘Type and Quality of
Documentation’ it is difficult to decide whether to give Kalmyk a grade of 4,
‘Good, or 5, ‘Superlative’, because there are comprehensive grammars and
dictionaries, and everyday material in the language. However I would give
Kalmyk a score of 4 because based on the literature review, although the
language is used in the media, it is not clear that there is ‘a constant flow
of language materials, and abundant high-quality audio and video recordings
exist’, which is a requirement to earn a grade of 5 (UNESCO, 2003)


assessment consists of a decision tree, which will be included in the appendix,
and five key questions about language use that can be used to diagnose the
status of the language. The first key question is: ‘What is the current
identity function of the language?’ with four possible answers. Kalmyk best
fits under the description for the third response ‘Home’, with a description
of, ‘The language is used for daily oral communication in the home domain by at
least some’. The second key question is ‘What is the level of official use?’,
and Kalmyk best fits under the description of ‘Regional – The language is
officially recognized at the sub-national level for government, education,
business, and other functions’, as it is officially recognized as equal to
Russian under the Kalmyk Language Act. According to this response, because
Kalmyk has been ranked as ‘regional’ it should receive an overall Level of 2 –
Regional, however because we answered ‘Home’ for the first key question we are
instructed to continue on the question number three which is ‘Are all parents
transmitting the language to their children?’ Based on the literature it is
clear that the answer to this question is ‘No’, we are therefore instructed to
skip key question 4 and continue on the number 5. Key question number 5 is
‘What is the youngest generation of proficient speakers?’ As a very few
percentage of the young generation claimed to be fluent in Kalmyk in the most
recent surveys the response for this question is ‘Parents’, which states that
the language is clearly undergoing a shift, which provides us with the final
EGIDS level of ‘7 – Shifting’, which, according to the EGIDS scale, corresponds
with the UNESCO grade of ‘Definitely Endangered’. It is clear that the UNESCO
scale provides a much more in-depth view into the vitality of a language than
the EGIDS scale, however we have ended both evaluations with an equal level of
the language vitality of Kalmyk.  


Compared with many other regions across the
globe, the Republic of Kalmykia has been extremely proactive in combatting
language shift, especially since the adoption of the Kalmyk Language Act of
1999. However, as can be seen from review provided in this work, the ways in
which the Kalmyk government has been trying to preserve the language and
culture for the last 20 years have clearly been working for the culture, but
not necessarily for the language. Being recognized as the only native Buddhist
community in Europe, and with the visit of Enduring Voices in 2012 Kalmykia was
shed into the international spotlight for their progressive attempts at
language and cultural preservation. As the attempts since 1999 have unfortunately
not maintained the language as well as originally planned the government has
met with this challenge head-on and has begun a new attempt at language
preservation. In 2015 the local government began the ‘Preservation of the
Kalmyk Language for the Period from 2015 to 2025’ state program. As the
government has come to the reality that the previous attempts to teach Kalmyk
language have not worked as planned they have developed this program with many
new goals to fix this problem. The new program aims to develop and adopt new
and updated educational content, as well as train textbook authors to create a
new generation of textbooks, as those in current use are very outdated. The
program also aims to provide better teacher training for Kalmyk language in
addition to creating new testing sites and testing systems across the Republic
of Kalmykia. Furthermore, under the program, a new social council was created
to implement ‘Ethno-cultural connotation of the educational content’ (Pankin,
2015). The program also plans to partner with state universities to develop and
hold international academic conferences on the problems of the preservation and
maintenance of the Kalmyk language. Additionally, with the partnership of
universities, the program aims to develop an international exchange of
‘educational and other video production with television broadcasters in
Mongolia, Buryatia, China and other countries’ (Pankin, 2015).


Having reviewed the current linguistic
situation in the Republic of Kalmykia and having evaluated the Kalmyk language
on two different scales it is clear that the Kalmyk language is in danger of
disappearing. Due to multiple factors; a tragic history of the decimation of
nearly half of the ethnic population, a successful cultural and linguistic
integration with Russian, and an unsuccessful attempt at preservation, the
Kalmyk language has continued to slip towards oblivion despite the efforts of
the Kalmyk community to preserve it. However, the situation is much more
optimistic in Kalmykia than other regions of the world for multiple reasons. Primarily,
there is a definitive interest in preserving the ethnic culture by the younger
generation and a willingness by the people to participate in the overall
preservation of the culture. Most importantly there is an active participation
by the local government and the local community to develop and enact laws and
programs that will help preserve the Kalmyk language. Although the last 20
years have not gone as planned the government has realized that changes needed
to be made, and a new program has been developed. One can now only hope that
these changes will be effective and that a reversal of language shift will soon
begin in the Republic of Kalmykia.