Ainu Itak: An introduction to the Ainu language and its current state

by Dan Mitropolsky

The intent of this section of the website is to provide background about the Ainu language including our findings relating to its current state (usage, attempts at revival, fluency of speakers, etc.). The second part will be a resource for those interested in learning some of the language itself. It is obvious to anyone who has tried to learn the Ainu language, at least from outside of Hokkaido, that resources are extremely limited, and structured, continuous and thorough learning materials especially so.

Overview of resources for learning the Ainu language: In my attempt to learn the Ainu language I have had to use a combination of disconnected online resources, equally unstructured printed materials acquired in Japan, and often overly technical or academically linguistic resources (also to be acquired in Japan, and exclusively in Japanese). There exists perhaps one or two truly adequate learning materials (in that they are ground-up, consecutive and self-contained, include meaningful exercises and/or explanation) including a grammar textbook available in Japan (which, although the best guide to learners of the language, suffers from lack of vocabulary building and into-Ainu translation exercises), and a CD based learning kit that is used in the few Ainu language classes that exist in Japan. For readers truly interested in acquiring the language I would recommend the grammar guide, アイヌ語文法の基礎、佐藤知己. Other resources include mini-textbooks that are text versions of Ainu language radio lectures; these, however, are not well structured or interconnected and are not the best resource to a standard language learner. Furthermore, the most valuable resources are entirely in Japanese. It is hence my goal to compile a guide to the Ainu language in English using the aforementioned resources and others. I will include references to the resources I use but it is my hope that this guide will serve directly as a resource to new learners of the language.

Why learn Ainu? Just like all languages, the Ainu language is a product of human culture and civilization. Learning it is fascinating from a historical, cultural, anthropological and linguistic perspective. Ainu is a language isolate; there are no established relationships between Ainu and any other language, although numerous linguistics have proposed various relationships (main proposed relationships include Ainu with Japanese, Ainu with Korean, Ainu with Altaic in general, Ainu with Nivkh and/or other North Asian languages, Ainu with Indo-European, Ainu with Ugro-Finnic, and others. Again, none of these theories has ever gained widespread acceptance; there is not enough core vocabulary correspondence based evidence to conclude a linguistic relationship between Ainu and anything else. This does not mean that the Ainu are a ‘unique’ peoples of complete historical isolation, if such a concept even exists. Many languages are isolates, including Japanese and Korean. Most likely, the Ainu language is distantly related to some language in the geographic vicinity, but this connection would be so ancient that the amount of linguistic change that has occurred by now makes it extremely difficult to establish). Learning Ainu is also preservational, helping keep alive a language that has very few speakers and is widely viewed as moribund. However, with enough People learning Ainu (and in particular with an international interest in the language), it is possible to revive and sustain this unique vestige of human heritage.

Current Status of the Ainu Language

There is much confusion over the true current state of the Ainu language. Different sources give different figures about the number of speakers, and there exists even more variance and inconsistency surrounding the number of truly fluent or native speakers. What can be said for sure is that there is no comprehensive and truly reliable study about the number of Ainu speakers. However, from members of Ainu organizations in Hokkaido who were able to present us with rough estimates based on their understanding of the general affairs surrounding the Ainu at present, it is reasonable to estimate that there are only a handful (fewer than 10) truly fluent speakers, but perhaps several thousand who have some knowledge of the language. However, the latter ranges from conversational Ainu to knowledge of a few words or phrases. It is impossible to say anything more conclusive than that. Hokkaido University has perhaps 2 or 3 truly fluent speakers of the language, and Sapporo University perhaps 1 more. The amount of academics truly fluent in the language is startlingly low; many academics involved in Ainu research have basic to no knowledge of the language.

From speaking with activists, academics and Ainu leaders, it can be concluded that the intensity of efforts to revive or support the language is low. The language is taught at several universities but not learnt by many. At Hokkaido university, the only university to have an academic center or department of any kind dedicated to Ainu study, two courses of the language are offered. One is in fact a general overview of Ainu language, culture, and history targeted primarily at college freshmen, and is taken by around one hundred students each year. In this course, students learn very basic Ainu- perhaps self-introduction, basic grammar, and an extremely limited vocabulary. An intensive course in the Ainu language (which focuses on translation and knowledge of research or academic work rather than overall proficiency or fluency) is also offered and taught by the single Ainu language teacher in the university, but is taken by only a few students (~5) a year. Again, graduates of this class are by no means fluent or even able to speak the language. However, more practical courses aimed at delivering everyday conversational competency in the language can be found at various smaller programs and schools throughout Hokkaido ran by individuals with a personal interest in teaching Ainu. There are at least 15 such centers, and they receive some sort of funding from the prefectural government. Many of these centers use the aforementioned CD kit, and most of its students are working adults with a side interest in acquiring some knowledge of the language of their ancestors. It is unlikely that these programs produce many fluent speakers, or at least anyone who will go on to integrate the language at home or in their daily lives. The director of the Hokkaido Ainu and Indigenous Peoples center shared with us an anecdote of one professor in the center who is very fluent in Ainu (although he learnt it, not a native speaker) and uses it at home with his children. However, the nature of this anecdote and its peculiarity reveals the scarcity of such cases. This- the usage of a language at home and an upbringing of a new generation of native speakers- is the essential step to language revival, and there are no efforts to promote this. The main problem surrounding Ainu revival is that it is difficult not only to organize effective learning programs, but at present, it is also difficult to find individuals interested in committed study and use of the language.

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