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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

2 June 2021

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Growing up Jewish in Russia

When she was a little girl in the Soviet Union, Professor Alexandra Aikhenvald realised how important one’s name and one’s mother language can be. Now she lives in Cairns, Australia, and studies endangered languages around the world.

Alexandra Yurievna "Sasha" Aikhenvald  has spent years in the rainforests of Brazil and Papua New Guinea in order to preserve and protect spoken, but undocumented languages that are under threat. For International Mother Language Day, which  is on 21 February 2021, Sasha remembers what it meant for her to grow up in a country where only Russian culture mattered.

Sasha went to school in Moscow, it was still a part of the Soviet Union. Sasha’s last name, ‘Aikhenvald’, is not a Russian name, so it was clear from the beginning that she would never be more than an outsider in her home country.

Still, Sasha’s parents sought to make her a proper Russian, and thought it wise not to teach their daughter Yiddish, the family’s ancestral family language. But Sasha has always been her own person, and this included a keen interest in learning languages. So, at some point she decided to learn Yiddish even without her parents’ permission.

Do some languages have more prestige than others?

“When I got into Yiddish quite seriously, my mother was very upset,” Sasha says. “My mother was fully Jewish — it was her heritage. Still, she said, ‘oh, you spoil your German’.” For Sasha’s mother, Yiddish was not even a proper language, but rather a German dialect, and not even a good one at that.

Sasha sees it as a major problem that people tend to rank some languages as better — or worse — than others. “Some people think, ‘oh well, what is it good for? It’s not really a language, and it will drag me down in life’,” Sasha says. “It's a big issue for the survival of these minor languages, and not only for Yiddish.”

Studying linguistics in the USSR

Their Jewish family name was a major obstacle for Sasha’s parents when it came to finding a good school for their daughter. It was also an issue when she applied to study at the Department of Classical Studies at the Moscow State University. The university didn’t want a Jewish woman to do classical studies, but they did accept her in the linguistics department.

Sasha wasn’t allowed to travel outside the Soviet Union, but learning languages allowed her mind to travel to foreign countries and even back in time, to long lost civilisations. As well as other languages, Sasha studied the languages of the Akkadians and the Hittites who lived in modern day Iraq and Turkey, respectively, around the same time as the Pharaohs ruled Egypt.

Alexandra Aikhenvald
Multi language street sign
Sasha Aikhenvald (left), multi-language street sign in Jerusalem (right)

From Russia to the Brazilian rainforests

In 1989, when Russia opened its borders and the Berlin Wall fell, Sasha was finally able to travel the world. Brazilian Portuguese wasn’t one of the many languages she had learned so far, but this didn’t deter her from going to Brazil when she was offered a job there. “I left Russia as soon as I could, because it was just not the country I wanted to live in,” Sasha says.

Moving from Russia’s capital, Moscow, to the remote Brazilian rainforests was a big step. She learned Portuguese from the people in the streets, as well as the Tariana language in the rainforest villages along the Vaupés River near the Colombian border. Today, Tariana is only spoken by around one hundred people. With Sasha’s help, the people are trying to preserve their language for future generations.

Tariana – a very special language

For Sasha, every language is special. “There are some things that you can say in no other language. How would you say schadenfreude in English?” she says, thinking about the German word for the dark feeling of self-satisfaction that some people experience when they hear about or see other people’s misfortunes.

Tariana, the language she learned at the Vaupés River in Brazil, is one of her favourite languages. “It's a wonderful language,” Sasha says. “What I really love about Tariana is that in every sentence, you have to say how you know things: whether you saw it, or you heard it, or if somebody told you about it, or you inferred it, or it's just common knowledge.” Still, the Tariana people aren’t more honest than other people around the world. “It doesn't mean that you can't tell a lie. You still can, you just have to be very clever,” Sasha says.

A nomadic rainforest people

Originally, the people who speak Tariana came from the deep rainforests of the Brazilian-Colombian border. Sasha suspects that the German explorer and botanist Carl von Martius might have made contact with them when he travelled through remote Brazil between 1817 and 1820. That was when the Tariana were still a nomadic people.

“When the missionaries came in the 1920s, they established schools and dormitories,” Sasha says. “So, to be closer to their children they moved out of the rainforest and lived on the river banks.”

Names only for useful plants

Rainforests are places of rich biodiversity, and the people of the rainforest know their plants very well. However, there are still some plants that don’t have a name in Tariana. “There are many terms for flora and fauna, but only for flora that is useful,” Sasha says.

“I remember I was trying to get some terms for flowers, and they were saying, ‘this flower, it’s useless’. A plant is only important and worthy of a name if it’s edible or if you can do something with it. Maybe you can weave something or you can cook them or you can make an ornament out of them. That is fine.”

Mother’s Day in Santa Terezinha, Brazil

One occasion, which Sasha remembers well, is Mother’s Day in Santa Terezinha, Brazil. Sasha was planning to visit the village to study the local Tariana dialect. “We travelled about five hours from a coach transmission centre, in the rain, to get to Santa Terezinha,” Sasha says. “It’s really in the jungle, and this settlement is not on regular maps of Brazil, but it is on some indigenous maps.”

Sasha says the people in Santa Terezinha usually get up at 6am. However, that Mother’s Day, the women had to get up even earlier. “They woke us up about maybe five o’clock, and they were singing songs in Portuguese,” she says. “Then they did something which was quite unusual for them. The men prepared a meal for the women. Normally it’s the other way around, and normally the men eat first and the women eat the leftovers. We had this big table, and here are some of these mothers and they were just having fun and eating. They were enjoying themselves.”

But in the end, it wasn’t really a breakfast. “It was more sort of brunch, I would say, because the men were so lazy,” Sasha says. At least on that day, her studies of the local dialect had to wait a little, because everybody was celebrating and drinking pineapple wine — even the children.

Studying languages in Santa Terezinha Brazil
Beatriz from Santa Terezinha Brazil
Sasha Aikhenvald learning the local language (left), Mother's Day in Santa Terezinha (right)

Why preserving the mother language is important

Sasha lived in Brazil as a language researcher for three years before moving to Australia, so she could  study Indigenous languages of Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG). However, she says that the languages in Brazil are most in danger, because the Portuguese culture is still trying to colonise Indigenous communities.

“It is so important that people preserve their mother language and any other language that they identify with,” Sasha says. “It helps them maintain their identity. It gives them something to hold on to.”

Learning a language helps to see the world in a different light

“The more languages people know, the more they can see how diverse the world is,” Sasha says. “They will know different terminologies for relatives, they will know different ways of looking at things. For instance, they will know that not everyone distinguishes the colours green and blue. Their intellectual potential will be improved.”

Sasha warns that people should not try to ignore their mother language because another language might have more prestige, no matter if that other language is English, Brazilian Portuguese or PNG’s Tok Pisin. “They lament it themselves, those people who have lost their mother language,” Sasha says.

Reclaiming the ancestral language

However, in some parts of the world there are people who are making an effort to rediscover their lost mother language. “There are people on the island of Hispaniola (Haiti or the Dominican Republic) who were first contacted by Columbus in 1492, that I know,” Sasha says. Their ancestral language disappeared around the year 1600.

“People who live in Haiti or the Dominican Republic, they need something to hold on to,” Sasha says. “They are reviving the language. They are trying to speak it, and they sing songs. They create this sort of new identity, and this shows you how important the mother language is.”

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