Teacher Nadezhda Petrovna says a word in Russian and lobs a softball into the hands of one of the four children in the class. The girl thinks for a moment, then says the same word in Vepsian and passes the ball back to the teacher. Petrovna comes up with a new word in Russian and tosses the ball over to another pupil.
The Veps is together with the Sami and the Nenets the official indigenous peoples in the Barents Region.
Fun to learn Vepsian “I think it is fun to learn Vepsian, especially when we play like this”, says 12- year- old Katya, who has been learning the language for almost six years.
“At home only my aunt speaks Vepsian. She comes over from time to time to help me with my homework,” Katya adds.
She doesn`t think it is so hard to learn Vepsian words, but the grammar is hard to remember, she admits.
“Mum and dad didn`t understand Vespian before I started to learn it. Now my mum tries to learn it together with me,” she says.
Parents say no The Vepsian people have only been considered indigenous peoples within the Russian Federation since 2000.
The Veps language is a Finno-Ugric language and is therefore quite similar to Finnish.
Today there are 6000 Veps people living in Russia, including 4000 who live in the Republic of Karelia, close to the Finnish border. The veps people mainly live in small villages in remote parts of the region. Petrovna says there is a big group of Vepsian people living in the city of Petrozavodsk, but they don`t want their children to learn the native indigenous language.
“The parents don`t understand how Vepsian language can help their children getting a good job in the future. They just don`t see the value in learning a small language like vepsian,” says Petrovna to BarentsObserver.
Because of this there are only two or three pupils in each Vepsian class.
“If she interest will continue to fall we are afraid that we won`t be able to teach the language at all. My biggest fear is that the language will die,” she says.
Moscow decides According to Petrovna , one of the main barriers to children learning native Russian languages including Vepsian is that these aren`t highly valued by the Unified State Exam that every student in Russia must pass after graduation from school to enter a university or a professional college.
Russian language and mathematics are obligatory courses for students writing the exam. That means that every student needs to get the necessary results in these subjects to enter any Russian university. Other languages they can choose are English, German, French or Spanish. But Finish is not an option, even though that`s the main language in Karelia after Russian.
“To be able to study Vepsian at the University you need to pass an English exam, but if your first language is Russian, second language is Vepsian and third language is Finnish, it is extremely hard for the kids to get a good mark in English as well,” says Petrovna.
Vepsian faculty closed down Because of the lack of students interested in studying the indigenous language, in 2012 the Faculty of Vepsian and Karelian language was closed down in the Republic of Karelia.
But in late April 2013 it was decided to establish a joint Faculty of Finnish, Vepsian and Karelian language.
Because of that Petrovna remains optimistic about the future.
“I still think that the Vepsian language has a chance to survive. The youth are interested in learning the language. Some of them have started a theater group in Vepsian language and this is extremely important to make the kids interested in learning Vepsian in the future. The fact that they meet weekly and talk Vepsian in so called “language clubs” is also very positive,” she says.