Quantitative changes in the status of the Sámi language in Norway

Jon Todal

Statistics are a useful tool when devising policies to boost minority languages. In order to ensure adequate official language planning, it is important to know how many people understand a language, how many speak it, how many read and write it, how old these people are and where they live, how many families pass on the language informally from generation to generation, how many people encounter the language in kindergartens and schools, the degree to which the language is used in the most popular media, and the extent to which the language can be used when accessing public services.

However, obtaining figures on all these factors is not enough in itself. To be able to interpret the figures we need comparable data showing changes over time. We should also seek to establish which direction things are heading in before taking action.

Most past research into Sámi languages concerns grammar and language history. This research looks at the actual language, more or less independently of social factors. In recent years, however, some research has been conducted which looks at the Sámi languages in a contemporary social perspective. Most of these studies have raised issues concerning language shifts, revitalisation and ethnic identity, and the data sources have usually been in-depth interviews. Figures and statistics are therefore rather scarce elements in Sámi language research. We will be looking more closely at the published quantitative sources and research that do exist.

The reports and articles we will be examining contain more statistics and quantitative information than we will be discussing here. The objective for the selections has been to look for figures that can tell us something about changes in the status of the Sámi languages. We will be covering five different areas: (1) sources for the total number of Sámi-speaking people, (2) quantitative research that tells us something about the handing down of Sámi language in the home, (3) statistics on the choice of language in primary and lower secondary schools after 1990, (4) commissioned research on the use of Sámi in public services after the creation of the Sámi language administrative district, and (5) figures on the status of the written Sámi languages.