RFE/RL marked UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day
February 21 with programming highlighting the creative ways speakers are protecting local languages. While UNESCO’s annual observance presents an opportunity to celebrate language diversity, promoting native languages is a year-round mission for RFE/RL, which broadcasts to 21 countries in 28 languages, several of which lack official support in education and other public spheres.
The Belarusian language has earned UNESCO’s “vulnerable” label, meaning the language is still in active use but rarely and not in all social contexts. In the most recent census taken in 2009, only about a quarter of Belarus’s population said they used Belarusian at home.
RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, known locally as Radio Svaboda
, reports that the dwindling use of Belarusian in public life is at least in part caused by the systematic Russification of the education system, which dates back to the Russian Empire and continued after independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. As part of their coverage to mark the day, the Service interviewed the chairman of the Minsk-based Belarusian Language Society, Aleh Trusau, who painted a grim picture.
"This year only about 1,000 university students receive instruction in Belarusian, which is 400 fewer than last year," Trusau said.
Despite the lack of official support for Belarusian instruction in schools, there are concerted efforts on the part of the public to revive the language
. Informal instruction groups have begun popping up in Minsk and advertisers now recognize the growing caché of Belarusian among the country’s educated middle class.
“There's been some evidence of a boom in interest in the Belarusian language, and independently organized Belarusian-language courses are becoming more popular,” said Radio Svaboda’s Deputy Service Director Bohdan Andrusyshyn. He notes that thousands of fans went to Vilnius, Lithuania in November 2013 for a concert of the banned Belarusian band Lapis Trubetskoi, which launched an album with lyrics exclusively in Belarusian.
In order to support this growing interest, the Service last month added a questionnaire
to its daily audio and web language instructional guide. The questionnaire asked readers how they discovered the language, where and how they use it, and what they think are its advantages and disadvantages. The competition invited readers to submit photos, illustrations, and comics that encourage the use of Belarusian.
UNESCO no longer classifies the Tatar language as endangered, citing its widespread use in rural areas of Tartarstan, the small Russian republic on the Volga river. But RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service
Director Rim Gilfanov said that the use of Tatar in the capital Kazan and other urban centers is in steep decline. In cities, Tatar is increasingly viewed as a provincial language lacking in sophistication.
This trend, according to Kazan University professor Iskander Gilazov, could soon mean a return to endangered status
In cooperation with the Tatar Youth Forum, a Kazan-based group that supports Tatar language and culture, the Tatar-Bashkir Service organized a discussion with young Tatars
about the state of their mother tongue. Gilfanov said the majority of participants agreed the prevalence of Tatar is diminishing, and that one of the main causes is Russia’s education system, which allows Tatar language education in public schools but requires high school students to take their final exams in Russian.
“If you study in Tatar, you’ll be afraid you won’t pass these exams, so of course many parents are forced to put their children in Russian schools,” said Gilfanov.
Ildar Gabidullin, a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working with the Service, known locally as Radio Azatliq, researched strategies used by other ethnic groups to preserve their local languages. In a series of articles, Gabidullin looked at the Québécois
, Catalans, and Welsh, who have variously campaigned for bi-lingual public signage and native language protections to be codified into law.
While Kyrgyz holds official language status alongside Russian in Kyrgyzstan, RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service
Director Veneera Djumataeva says that the availability of Kyrgyz language books and other materials is limited. And while most of the country’s primary and secondary schools teach in Kyrgyz, university instruction is largely in Russian.
In an effort to preserve and promote the native language, the Service last year launched a radio series featuring famous public figures -- members of Parliament, actors, and musicians -- reading fairytales in Kyrgyz. The service now boasts a library of over 100 fairytales
read in Kyrgyz on its website.
“It would be helpful for children to hear their language more often,” said Djumataeva. “There are almost no fairytales available in Kyrgyz, and not many good children’s books. I have my own children, so I know how hard it is to find material in Kyrgyz.”