Identity and Language are Supported by e-Books

Decades with no first language teaching has today been replaced by schools with Sami as their official teaching language and with distance education. Small e-books, developed as part of a Nordplus project, are an important tool in language teaching and identity formation.

By Joan Rask

Parents of Southern Sami descent want their children to speak Southern Sami and to regard their own ethnicity as both Sami and Norwegian/Swedish. This was a rarity back when the parents grew up, but today it is becoming the norm. The most advanced municipality is Snåsa Kommune, which has officially been bilingual since 2008 with Southern Sami and Norwegian. The municipality lies in the middle of Norway, north of Trondheim, and it is home to the country’s biggest (and only) public school with Southern Sami as the official teaching language, a Southern Sami kindergarten, and a museum for the entre Southern Sami region which reaches deep into Sweden.

Hans Lindberg is Rector and Centre Director. He is himself of Southern Sami descent from the Swedish side, and he has been in this job for a little more than two years. Actually, he is still a little surprised that he ended up working in a Sami school. He had just applied to a job in France and was offered a job in Stockholm when the vacant position as Rector at the Åarjel-saemieh School in Snåsa was brought to his attention.

“My motive for applying was definitely personal. I wanted to be closer to the Sami culture and the Sami language. Mentally, I was fully prepared, but there were lots of other issues which I needed to quickly get a grasp of,” says Hans Lindberg.

The first two years have been busy, and it was not until 2018 that he seriously understood the impact of the small Atlantbib e-books, which are produced by primary- and middle school pupils. Atlantbib is a Nordplus project that commenced in 2015 due to a Danish initiative. The pupils produce their own texts, take pictures, and digitally voice record texts, and all of this is merged into an e-book that forms part of a common website with multiple other, small e-books. Children in other countries or with minority languages then translate and voice record the text into their own language. This means that the texts can be compared across all Nordic languages and that children are able to view the differences and similarities in spelling and syntax – and listen to pronunciation and linguistic nuances.

“It’s been of enormous significance for the pupils’ language and identity; they experience that the Sami language can be used to talk about everyday things and the condition of other countries – and that it’s not only used to describe traditional Sami activities, such as reindeer herding and the crafts,” says Hans Lindberg.

Teachers develop teaching materials

Two teachers at the school have established the foundation for the participation of the

Åarjel-saemiej school in Atlantbib. The school is one of the most recent partners, and they joined at the same time as three Baltic countries, a Danish school in South Schleswig (Germany), and multiple sign language schools. The effect has been that Sami children are able to learn about Denmark and Greenland in Sami, for example. On a day-to-day basis, it is of great, practical importance as the school produces part of its own teaching materials since such materials are often not in Sami, so every contribution is welcome. However, it has also been of importance to the children’s opinion of their Sami identity.

Today, there are only a few people with Southern Sami as their first language; to the majority, it is a second- or third language. At the Åarjel-saemiej school, part of the pupils are both Northern Sami and Southern Sami – because one parent is Southern Sami and the other Northern Sami. Some of them live in Sweden and are taught at the school in Norway and therefore, explains Hans Lindberg, the teaching of almost all pupils is individualised.

“In light of the complex teaching task we must solve, we have to be proficient at using digital tools and it’s exactly here the small e-books are extremely useful – both in classroom teaching and as part of our distance education,” says the Rector.

From near and far

There are almost 20 pupils attending the school; most are from Snåsa Kommune and the neighbouring municipalities in Norway and Sweden. There are about 10 pupils who receive distance education and, additionally, the school continuously takes in trainee teachers and participants in culture projects. When the Sami pupils from the Åarjel-saemiej school leave middle school and transition to what the children refer to as “the Norwegian school”, they continue their education in Southern Sami. The transition can be difficult. Both personally and linguistically.

“Our children are often worried when they have to change schools. I hope we can minimise this by having peers cooperating on the e-books as a shared activity. Namely, there are not a lot of e-books in Norwegian, so we have invited the Norwegian school to join Atlantbib,” says Hans Lindberg.

Atlantbib is coming to Snåsa

He does not know how many resources the Norwegian schools in Snåsa Kommune have available for Atlantbib or how great the interest will be, but he knows that there lies a great joint task ahead of them. When the 13 partner schools in Atlantbib meet in April 2020, it will be in Snåsa. Here, the Southern Sami school and the Norwegian school will jointly host the project seminar. In a busy day-to-day life with complex challenges, it might look like too big of a challenge for the small Southern Sami school, yet Hans Lindberg thinks the school cannot afford not to do it.

“All schools must help their pupils to become better at reading and writing, but in some ways we have an even greater task, as we must provide the children with the opportunity to become sure of their own Sami identity and teach them to be proud of that identity,” says Hans Lindberg.

In fact, he is unsure of what is more important.

“Perhaps it’s a biproduct – or perhaps it’s foundational. I don’t know, but it’s an important product of teaching,” he says.

Children learn languages quicker

Hans Lindberg also sees a potential for Atlantbib among the youngest children. They can namely also listen to the books, view the pictures, and experience it in relation to Norwegian and Swedish. The current number of children in kindergarten at the centre is the greatest it has been in decades, and here, they speak only Southern Sami. He enjoys visiting them, but he always keeps slightly back.

“I’m in the process of learning Sami, so I often keep quiet – that way I don’t make a mess of their language. It’s important that they don’t lose their language because they’re really good at it,” he explains.

Reactions from both the involved teachers producing the e-books and those only using the e-books as a digital tool during the school day are positive. Similar reactions are shared by the parents, Hans Lindberg knows. Therefore, he does not doubt the future of the e-books.

“We’ll definitely actively use the e-books in the future, as they provide the children ownership of their language. It’s a brilliant method, since the children both produce and create language, and utilise the language itself,” he says.

Yet, there is one thing Hans Lindberg wishes to change. Both he and the other project partners miss Norwegian e-books and translations. He therefore hopes that Norwegian schools will join the partnership.

Of course introducing new tools is time-consuming and requires support from management, but the advantage is that the e-books can be utilised by all teachers and pupils even though they aren’t project partners,” he says.

That is one of the reasons that Hans Lindberg gladly saw Atlantbib form part of teacher training curriculums.

“It would double the effect, as the teaching trainees would learn about both the Nordic countries – and Sami and would, at the same time, receive a concrete, digital tool that they can implement during everyday school life as teacher,” says Hans Lindberg.


Southern Sami school in Snåsa Kommune, Trøndelag