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Daily Israel Report

Here’s How Hebrew Saves a Language in Lapland

The Sami people of Norway are learning Hebrew language teaching methods to help save their own endangered language.
By Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu
First Publish: 2/21/2012, 1:53 PM

Ben-Sasson and Johansen
Ben-Sasson and Johansen
Hebrew University

The Sami people of Norway are learning Hebrew language teaching methods to help save their own endangered language.

An estimated 100,000 Sami people live in Lapland, a region in northern Europe stretching across Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia. Of ten known Sami languages, several have disappeared, and some currently have as few as 30 speakers. Not all of the languages are mutually understandable.

With financial support from the Norwegian government, the Sami have launched several initiatives, such as a Sami-language kindergarten, to promote the use of their traditional languages. But their current objective is to learn how other cultures successfully revived traditional languages and to adopt those methods in their own communities.

The Samis came to Israel because of its high reputation for teaching Hebrew.

“At first we focused on Scotland and Wales, because we had looked at how many people speak the different minority languages in Europe, and while most had declined, Scotland and Wales had some success,” said delegation leader Kevin Johansen during his visit to Jerusalem Monday.

“But they told us that it's better for us to go to Israel, because the Israelis are the experts and they had learned from the Israelis,” he continued. “We wanted to learn from the best and so that's why we decided to come here." Johansen is an advisor for Sami issues at the University of Nordland in Norway and for the county governor of Nordland.

The delegation was greeted by Hebrew University president Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson, who told them that the Hebrew University's name reflected a conscious decision to emphasize the Hebrew language. Ben-Sasson pointed out that while over 100 years ago few believed it was possible to bring Hebrew back to life, history has proven otherwise.

The delegation attended an beginners-level ulpan class at Hebrew University, met with teachers and administrators, and learned how the Hebrew University and other institutions have taught Hebrew to vast numbers of immigrants, students and others.

Johansen said, "Even though we have been here a short time, we learned a lot and we have started planning for the next trip, to bring Sami teachers for a longer stay so they can learn ulpan teaching methods.”