Orsolya Kiss: Easy to Read books for minority languages – the case of Tatar in Finland

The writer of the blog: Orsolya Kiss

The concept of Easy Language is primarily applied to languages that are spoken as majority languages (https://easy-to-read.eu/). However, a recently established project has made successful steps in adopting it into a minority language, Tatar. The project is carried out by Bokpil (https://bokpil.eu), a multilingual non-profit Easy to Read book publisher, in cooperation with the Finnish Tatar minority.

In Finland, Tatar is used mainly as a family and community language and different Tatar generations have different reading skills and habits. Creating a new Easy Language is a long and challenging process in every language, but results so far suggest that Easy to Read literature helps to enhance reading skills in this minority language.

Since 2019, Dr. Sabira Ståhlberg’s Pedagogical Easy to Read books are being translated from Finland-Swedish into Tatar. The project aims at developing the minority language speakers’ reading skills. Children who have a high command in their minority language and develop reading skills in all their languages usually manage the school language better, too (Tovar-García & Hèctor Alòs i Font 2017; Ståhlberg 2020a: 2223).

Feedback from the Finnish Tatar community suggests that minority language speakers can develop reading skills in their mother tongue through Easy to Read books. The six recently translated Easy to Read books have been already incorporated among the reading materials of the Tatar Sunday school in Helsinki (Yafay 2021, in print).

Tatar reading skills in Finland

Tatar is a Turkic language spoken as a minority language approximately by seven million people worldwide. The global diaspora is concentrated in the countries of the Baltic Sea region, Australia and USA (Cwiklinski 2016), and in post-Soviet countries, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (Sakurama-Nakamura 2021). There are less than 1,000 Tatar speakers in Finland forming one of the traditional linguistic and cultural minorities of the country (Daher 2016: 95). The ancestors of the Finnish Tatars arrived from Mishar Tatar villages south of Nizhny Novgorod over a century ago (see Leitzinger 2006).

Minorities with immigrant backgrounds usually do not preserve their language for more than three generations (Borbély 2016: 63). However, there are still many Tatar families where the fifth and even the sixth generation acquires Tatar in early childhood. Tatar language in Finland has changed through contact with other languages, mainly Finnish, Swedish, and Turkish. Since the 1990s, Kazan Tatar influences strongly the Tatar literary language in Finland. Finnish Tatar can therefore be considered a variety of Tatar, different from the Mishar dialect spoken in the ancestral villages, and also from literary Tatar spoken in Tatarstan (Nisametdin 2011).

Another important difference is the script. In Finland, the earlier Arabic script has been replaced by Latin script with Turkish orthography, while in Russia, Tatar is written with the Cyrillic script. Unofficially, Latin script is also used in Russia, yet it differs from the orthography in Finland, which has received some Finnish influences (for instance the letter ä).

My recent case study (Kiss 2019) about the Finnish Tatar minority’s sociolinguistic situation shows that there are significant generational differences in reading skills and habits. I conducted semi-structured interviews with 14 persons aged between 19 and 81. The participants evaluated their Tatar speaking, listening, writing and reading skills on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest).

In each generation, Tatar writing skills scored the lowest points. Interestingly, while reading skills scored the highest points among the oldest generation (average 4,6 points), the youngest evaluated their reading skills (average 3,4) as the second-lowest after their writing skills (average 3,1). The younger participants explained this with the fact that they are often unsure about the orthographical rules. Participants from all generations mentioned that there are several words in the orthography that are still controversial among the Tatar community members.

The elderly read more often in Tatar than the younger participants. While those over 60 years read Tatar texts at least once every week, not one below 30 years reported reading Tatar texts more than a few times per month. The text types included: text messages from family and community members, invitation cards to events and the Finnish Tatar magazine Mähallä habärläre, published twice a year, nowadays in Latin script.

Eight informants were also familiar with the Cyrillic Tatar alphabet and they occasionally read literary texts or news on the Tatar language website Azatlıq Radiosı; some found it harder and more time-consuming due to lack of proficiency, dialectal differences with the literary language and Russian-influenced vocabulary. In contrast with the Tatars living in the Russian Federation, Russian is not the second language for Finnish Tatars.

In the Tatar language education in Finland, materials published in the literary language are often used. The participants saw these materials as inadequate, as the teachers had to “translate” or retell the materials in Mishar Tatar to the pupils. In 2018, the Finnish Tatar community tried to solve the problem by publishing Tatar grammar course books with Latin script.

Easy Tatar project

In 2019, a translation project of Easy to Read books into Tatar was launched by Bokpil and the Tatar communities in Helsinki and Tampere. The SelkoTatar (Easy Language Tatar) team consists of writer and scholar Dr. Sabira Ståhlberg and translator Fazile Nasretdin, who has published several translations both in Tatar and Finnish, editors and a dozen test readers (Ståhlberg 2020b; Ståhlberg & Nasretdin 2021, in print).

The goals are to create easily understandable and more modern Tatar reading materials in Latin script and to support minority language development and vocabulary acquisition. Sabira Ståhlberg’s Pedagogical Easy to Read (a concept developed by the international Bokpil team, see https://bokpil.eu/en/pedagogical/) books are reported to be especially useful for this aim, as the books contain several content and three language levels (https://bokpil.eu/en/easy-read/levels/). At this moment there are five books published in Tatar on the easiest level and one book in the easier level.

The Easy to Read books discuss current and important topics such as climate change, pollution, bullying and coping with different kinds of situations. Reading books with modern vocabulary and topics young readers also encounter at school can support their language skills both in their home and school languages, and this supports their learning and multilingualism (Ståhlberg & Nasretdin 2021, in print).

Easy Language is different in every language and the rules must be adapted to each specific structure. As this is the first Easy to Read project in Tatar globally, the team had to develop the Easy Tatar Language. The main guidelines come from general Easy Language rules: shorter, easier words and sentences and more accessible grammatical structures. Yet there is a difference: these books aim mainly at improving reading skills in a language the readers chiefly speak. Certainly, the books are also helpful for readers with reading difficulties or language learners (Ståhlberg & Nasretdin 2021, in print).

When working with Easy Language, it is crucial to know the skills and interests of the target group (Leskelä 2019). The first goal in this project was to develop Easy Language for Finnish Tatar speakers, using the Mishar dialect. After a survey, the SelkoTatar team decided to make the first step toward an international Easy Tatar Language. This language form uses words and expressions, which are understandable both for Tatars in Russia and in the diaspora (Ståhlberg & Nasretdin 2021, in print). Feedback from the Tatar-language school in Helsinki shows that the books are read with fluency and they increase motivation to read more in Tatar among the young readers (Yafay 2021, in print).

Conclusion and other perspectives

Several recent publications about this project (Ståhlberg 2020b; Ståhlberg & Nasretdin 2021, in print; Yafay 2021, in print) suggest that translating Pedagogical Easy to Read books into a minority language and using them as reading materials can increase the speakers’ language skills, vocabulary and motivation to read and write in the minority language.

In addition, I propose that such translation projects might be especially beneficial for minority language communities who lack stable orthographical rules. Translating and testing the books enable a broader discussion about orthography and offer an opportunity for stabilization of the rules. Communities who lack time or resources to create Tatar language materials in Latin script, for instance the Estonian Tatar minority (see: Iqbal 2021, in print), could also profit from these books in minority language education.

It is also important to create easily accessible language materials for both  minority language speakers and learners. The Tatar-language books published are available free of charge on the Villa Bokpil website (https://villa.bokpil.eu/tt/) . In my case study (Kiss 2019), two participants had passive proficiency in Tatar, but both of them reported reading in Tatar. One of them even read Tatar texts every week because she wanted to learn the language, but she struggled to find Tatar language materials representing the language variety of her Tatar relatives. Therefore, I argue that Easy to Read translations support language revitalization for members wishing to learn their relatives’ language by offering more up-to-date materials.

The first steps have been encouraging. However, to create guidelines for Easy Language is a great task and a long process for every language (Leskelä & Kulkki-Nimenien 2015: 2556). In the case of Tatar, due to the widespread diaspora and many language variations, the geographical, linguistic and sociolinguistic challenges are enormous, not only for the translators, editors and test readers, but also for researchers. Several important questions and topics should be investigated:

    • What grammatical structures and which words are perceived as easy by Tatar speakers in the translations, and why? Are they also easy for Tatar speakers outside Finland?
    • What grammatical structures and words belong to the three different language levels? Why are these perceived to be easy?
    • How does reading Easy to Read books in a minority language influence vocabulary acquisition?
    • How do Easy to Read books in Tatar help multilingual Tatars with dyslexia or reading difficulties?
    • How could other text types, such as news, be created in Easy Tatar? How would it differ from the Pedagogical Easy to Read books?

About the writer: Orsolya Kiss is a Master student at the University of Tartu, Estonia. She writes her master thesis about the address forms used in Estonian and Finnish Tatar and is interested in the Tatar Easy Language project.


 Online resources

Easy to Read: https://easy-to-read.eu/

Bokpil (multilingual): https://bokpil.eu



Tatar-language Easy to Read books: https://villa.bokpil.eu/tt/


Borbély A. (2016). Fenntartható kétnyelvűség. Magyar Nyelv 112.

Cwiklinski, S. (2016). Introduction. In I. Svanberg & D. Westerlund (Eds.), Muslim Tatar Minorities in the Baltic Sea Region. (pp. 1–18). Leiden/Boston: Brill.

Daher, O. (2016). Tatar minority – Fully integrated into society. In O. Daher, L. Hannikainen, K. Heikinheimo-Pérez. National Minorities in Finland. Richness of Cultures and Languages. (pp. 95–104). Riga: Minority Rights Group Finland.

Iqbal, M. (2021) (in print). Families of Estonian Tatars navigating between four languages. Journal of Endangered Languages, 11(19).

Kiss, O. (2019). A finnországi tatár kisebbség mint kétnyelvű közösség (The Tatar minority of Finland as a bilingual community) [Bachelor thesis, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary]

Leitzinger, A. (2006). Suomen tataarit: vuosina 1868-1944 muodostuneen muslimiyhteisön menestystarina. East-West Books Helsinki.

Leskelä, L., & Kulkki-Nieminen, A. (2015). Selkokirjoittajan tekstilajit. Kehitysvammaliitto.

Leskelä, L. (2019). Helppoa vai vaativampaa selkokieltä – selkokielen mittaaminen ja vaikeustasot. Puhe Ja Kieli, 4, 367–393. https://doi.org/10.23997/pk.75679

Nisametdin, F. (2011). Havaintoja Suomen tataarien kielestä. In: K. Bedretdin (Eds.), Tugan tel-kirjoituksia Suomen tataareista. (pp. 303-315). Helsinki: Suomen itämainen seura.

Sakurama-Nakamura, M. A (2021). ディアスポラの⾔語選択−ウズベキスタン、カザフスタン、タジキスタンを事例として − 博⼠論⽂の要約/Language preservation in diaspora – the example of the modern Tatar diasporas in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan – Summary of Doctoral Dissertation [Doctoral dissertation, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba Japan] Retrived from: https://researchmap.jp/mizuki_sakurama/published_papers/31549789/attachment_file.pdf

Ståhlberg, S. & Nasretdin, F. 2021 (in print). Tatar Easy to Read: language learning, reading development and support for endangered languages. Journal of Endangered Languages, 11(19).

Ståhlberg, S. (2020a). Multicoloured language. Helsinki: Bokpil. https://villa.bokpil.eu/en/multicoloured-language/

Ståhlberg, S. (2020b). Easy to Read books — a method for developing literacy in endangered languages. http://www.el-blog.org/easy-to-read-books-a-method-for-developing-literacy-in-endangered-languages/

Tovar-García, E. D., & Alòs i Font, H. (2017). Bilingualism and educational achievements: the impact of the language used at home by Tatar school students in Tatarstan, Russia. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 38(6), 545–557. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2016.1213847

Yafay, K. (2021) (in print). Tatar diline kazandırılmış “Ciñel tel” projesi. Journal of Endangered Languages, 11(19).