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14 Jan

Eva Coronado Alonso (Spain)
Achtung magazine, 26.12.2014

The Belarusian language wants its place

 

Nations without a past are contradictions in terms.

What makes a nation is the past, what justifies one

nation against others is the past, and historians are

the people who produce it.”   Eric Hobsbawm.  


Thanks in Belarusian is dziakuj, whereas in Russian it is spasibo; hello is vitayu and not privyet and how are you? is Jak spravy? not Kak delá. 

Although the two languages share an alphabet, Russian and Belarusian are different languages and the latter is fighting for greater recognition. The future of this Slavic language is not very bright. According to some statistics by independent agencies, only between three and five percent of the population speaks Belarusian. On the other hand, the Government cites this figure at 20%.  One could say that it is comparable with the Gaélic linguistic community in Scotland.  Nowadays, the reality is that more than 72% of the population speaks Russian at home.

Belarus became independent in 1991 and since that moment the use of its language has been diminishing slowly. Then, the official language was Belarusian until the current President Aleksandr Lukashenko came to power in 1994, he does not know how to speak it. Still influenced by its neighbor of the east, Belarus has had two official languages since 1995, Belarusian and Russian. Nowadays, both coexist in daily life, although not at the same level. However, we can find most of the subway lines and the bus-stops in Russian and Belarusian.

In addition, this language has a political component. The Russian-loudspeakers are normally pro-Lukashenko - that is the reason why Belarusian is considered the language of the opposition.

Interestingly, one of the characteristics of the Belarusian alphabet is that it has a unique letter, the short U (Ў, ў) that declines between the U and the Ef. It looks like a U (У) with a short accent and represents /w/.

A subject with a little value 

Many parents want their children to be bilingual; nevertheless, it is a challenge to provide that type of education in a country where approximately only 20% of the students learn Belarusian at school, according to some data from 2006.

Andrus Klikonou is a member of a parents’ group that favours education in their native language. He admits that raising their children in Minsk is not easy. While “the future heir” of Lukashenko, his third son Kolya, most likely held a gold-plated pistol plated at the age of six, The three children of Andrus are in some clandestine groups, transmitted by word of mouth, to improve their native language. “It is also possible to send the children to Poland” he affirms.

In 1996, Lukashenko’s government adopted a resolution to reform the general training centers (schools of general education - SGE-). It aimed to put the education system at the level of the best international models and to increase the prestige of education.

What it wanted to obtain was to optimize the duration of the general education, to adopt new curriculum and to define the central component of the general education, to introduce specialization in the final stage of secondary education, and to modify the structure of secondary education centers.

The reform put an emphasis on these general training centers preparing young people for an active life and to fully participate in society, providing them with the foundation of the national and international culture, and contributing to the “harmonious” development of their personality. In addition, it was introduced to allow the Belarusian education system to be integrated with the Russian one, and of other countries in the Community of Independent States (CIS).

In this education model, there is no space for a Belarusian education.

The general education system, which has been in place for twelve years, is divided into three levels: elementary school (from 6 to 10 years of age), four courses; secondary school (from 10 to 16), six courses; and complete secondary education, composed of two courses. It may be emphasized that Belarus is the only country in Europe that is not within the common European framework for education,the Bologna system. According to some institutions, this system is not adapted to the demands of a global market, and for that reason some institutions have been created following another model, which are much more open. Like, for example “The European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus”, “the Flying University” or “the Belarusian Collegium”.

In the city of Baranovichi, in the region of Brest, two families have decided to fight for their daughters to continue with their education in their maternal language, which is Belarusian. Tatsiana and Aleh Malashchankas, as well as Antanina and Vasil Filipchyks have been in contact with the Ministry of Education to show their displeasure.

In their letter, they explain that this year their daughters Yadviha Malashchanka and Alisa Filipchyk finished their school year in Belarusian at secondary school number 14 and sent a request to a new education center (Gymnasium no. 4) due to a change of address. But the city council and the school deny having a course in Belarusian.

Tatsiana Malashchanka explains that “The Constitution, the Law on the equality of the two official languages and the Code of the Republic of Belarus on education provide us with the right to choose the language of education in any educational institution of the country. Therefore, it is unclear why we have had to struggle for it with state and school officials for almost five months so far. All negative responses to our requests about the wish to learn in Belarusian are similar, as if written by one person. At first the officials referred to the average number of pupils in a form, then – to the results of interviews with other parents. Now they speak about creating ‘favorable’ conditions for participating in extracurricular activities... which provide for... communication in the Belarusian language...in the delineated framework. We are asking for education in Belarusian, but instead are offered some ‘communication in the Belarusian language’ in a ‘Russian world’. As a result, the bureaucratic red tape is firmly in place, and there is no education in our mother tongue. That is why we appealed to the Minister of Education”.  

Different languages for one State 

In a press conference in 2009 President Lukashenko explained in reference to the [Belarusian] language that “it does not follow any model of extortion or autocracy”.

The president justified the recognition of both languages by the State, due to the proximity that the country has had historically with Russia.

On the other hand, the opposition sees it as a state-like a community mono-lingua, an education mostly in Russian language. From its perspective, the Belarusian perspective of the country wishes to become part of Europe. The followers of this model affirm that there is a lack of support for the Belarusian language on the side of the authorities. They assert that having two state languages provides little progress for the geopolitical future of the country.

There is a middle ground. Some intellectuals have been able to overcome that polarization of the language and perceive their country as “a nation bridge”. For them it is important that the identity of the country can be guaranteed without despising other cultures that also coexist in the territory.

This concept foresees an open State in terms of languages and cultures, but it differs with the official ideology on some points, for instance it does not promote being very close to Russia. The idea of a multilingual Belarus shows its neighbor as a normal country without preferences, and does not promote “exclusive proximity” with Russia. In addition, this idea of a multilingual Belarus would mean that their great neighbor is considered as a plus.

According to the survey of Identity and Belarusian Language that the Novak laboratory carried out in 2012 when it asked the citizens to indicate their maternal language (respondents could answer up to two), 52. 4% named Belarusian and 78.7% Russian. 35% responded that they had two maternal languages. They see Russian not as a foreign agent of influence but as a language that is part of its legacy and its tradition like town.

Even so, this multilingual concept has not brought solutions to avoid the Belarusian language disappearing from public life.

In late June, the secretary of the Belarusian Language Society, named after Frantsysk Skaryna, appealed with a proposal to the House of Representatives for the language of the country to be returned to national legislation.

“At the moment almost all the laws of the country are only in Russian, and there is no official translation into Belarusian, which is an infringement of the present constitution of the Republic of Belarus” the appeal declares.

Against this background and examining articles 1, 2 and 5 of the law of “Languages in the Republic of Belarus”, the secretary of the Belarusian Language Society suggests adopting all the laws and other legal normative transactions of the National Assembly in both state languages. It was announced that the above-mentioned rules would be adopted starting on 1st of September of 2014, and that there would be an official translation of the adopted rules.

Trasianka: the hybrid 

Trasianka or Trasyanka (in Belarusian: трасянка) is a mixture of Russian and Belarusian at the time of speaking. Both contain elements and structures of these two languages. In Ukraine, surzhyk is a similar example.

The origin of this hybrid comes from the fast urbanization of the Soviet Belarus; in fact, the first generation of speakers of this language were emigrants who arrived from the field to the city. Somehow it is “the rural code of the emigrants” filling therefore the emptiness of an oral culture in the cities.

The use of Trasianka has changed from generation to generation, or at least this is what several studies point . In 2010 a study showed that more than 80% of the survey respondents admitted using a mixture of languages occasionally. What attracts more attention is the fact that the third generation of these urban immigrants continues speaking Trasianka, something that cannot be explained simply by a lack of Russian knowledge or Belarusian. Some studies also show that approximately two third of Belarusians see Trasianka as their “maternal language” or use expressions alongside another maternal language.

It appears that the Belarusian language is losing its stigma. Now the great majority of Belarusians adapt Russian to their linguistic necessities. For that reason, many intellectuals point at a growth in the Belarusian version of the Russian language.

The radio, in Belarusian 

For many citizens, the press does not help to further implant the Belarusian language. Nowadays, most of the state TV channels and newspapers are in Russian. However, the state radio mainly broadcasts in Belarusian.

Internet is present in the lives of most of the country’s population. According to several agencies, out of the one hundred most visited portals in Belarus, 41 domains are generic (.com .org…), thirty are under the domain .ru and 28 are under the domain Belarus (by). If we were to add a domain of another country, it would be mobile.de (Germany) which specializes in new and used cars.

Among the one hundred most excellent portals are ones covering news, sports and communication. In terms of popularity, the leader is media, followed by social networks, search engines, and electronic commerce portals.

When we speak about media, the ranking begins with the domain .by followed by .ru. However, the most outstanding portals on economic news are under the domain.ru. The leading portal in Belarus is Google.com. The second portal in importance is the Google search engine in Belarusian; the third one is tut.by, a directory portal with the news and most outstanding products that it selects from domain .by; and the fourth is the Belarusian version of yandex. The countries with the most influence in Belarus according to these results would be Russia and Ukraine, followed by Holland, Germany, China and the United States.

Projects for a participatory citizenship

Every day, more and more people decide to join their forces and fight for a greater recognition of their country’s language. One of the most recent initiatives is the well-known “Heta project svajo” which promotes the use of the Belarusian language with Latin characters, instead of using the Cyrillic alphabet.

This young group has promoted a series of videos with several ideas about the subject on Youtube and other digital platforms. One of the intentions of these videos is to explain to the society the long history that the Latin version of Belarusian has and how there have always been writers and politicians who have been using this way to communicate. The videos run for one or two minutes, and some have received over a thousand visits.

One of the first organizations to actively promote the Belarusian language is Ў Gallery. Much more than an art gallery, this artistic platform which began  in 2009 has a cafeteria, a store with accessories and design crafts, a bookstore (in which most of the books are in Belarusian, published by Logvinov publishing house), a publicity office and a design agency.

Ana Chistoserdova, the art director of the gallery explains the origin of the name: “Ў makes reference to the visible symbol of our own national and cultural identity. And it is that, as explained above, which is the only letter of the alphabet that is unique to Belarusian”.

“I believe that to say that people want to speak Belarusian just because they are again Lukashenko is to simplify too much. Many citizens have this language in their roots. It has nothing to do with their political opinion, although for some peoples it does. After the riots in Ukraine last year, a new wave of people appeared searching for their national identity” explains Ana.

The Gallery is located in the center of Minsk, and every Monday for a year now “Movananova” a private and free of charge initiative, has taken place there, attracting more than 300 students who go  to learn Belarusian. Housewives, children, businessmen etc. It is a very varied mix with a common aim, to know a language with which they coexist but they do not know.

One of the most important activities of Ў Gallery is the education. They organize and carry out seminars, round tables and other cultural events in the field of the arts with the participation of expertsfrom the country and foreigners. “We want to create an atmosphere of critical analysis in all our activities. The Belarusian language impregnates everything, it is our working language. We want to show visitors that it is not the language of a minority, although most education in this country is in Russian”, the art director adds.

Concerning the use of the Latin alphabet in the Belarusian language, she explains, “It is an historical question, at the outset it was used but nowadays it is much easier to write in Cyrillic, people understand it better and there isonly a minority who wants to use the Latin alphabet”.

Originally published: http://www.achtungmag.com/bielorrusia-internacional-lengua-revista-achtung/