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Ukraine: Nation Tests Native-Language Skills

Dictation has spread out of schools and onto the airwaves (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, November 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine is a pioneer of dictation in the former Soviet Union -- but that doesn't mean other ex-Soviet states are lagging behind. Most of them have developed their own contests aimed at promoting their native language following decades of Russian linguistic domination.

This month, Ukrainians had another chance to take part in an unusual contest -- the sixth nationwide dictation intended to test their knowledge of the Ukrainian language.

As in previous years, it was broadcast on radio and participants were invited to send their transcriptions to the radio's office. Those who were able to successfully avoid all the spelling pitfalls were rewarded with prizes.

Mastering A Common Language

This year, the dictation's text was inspired by the life of a famous 18th-century Ukrainian traveler:

"He was 25 years old when he set out from Kyiv to distant shores. The name of the wanderer was Vasyl Hryhorovich-Barsky. As a student of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, he decided to visit many countries in the world to gain knowledge, for the benefit of his motherland and for himself."

"There is no need for contests and other such measures. All we need is for 5,000 families belonging to the vertical of power to start speaking Ukrainian. It would create an avalanche that would immediately prompt servants and would-be lords to start speaking Ukrainian."

The dictation takes place every year on November 9 to mark Ukraine's annual Language Day.

Ukraine remains split between its Ukrainian-speaking population in the West and Russian-speakers in the East. The nationwide dictation is part of effort forge a national identity and to bridge the language gap that emerged after the Soviet collapse.

Its title -- "Dictation Of National Unity" -- could hardly be more explicit.

But the contest's impact so far has been modest, laments Mykhaylo Slaboshpytsky, the director of the League of Ukrainian Patrons -- one of the groups organizing the event.

An informal survey conducted by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on the streets of Kyiv showed that the vast majority of respondents had never heard of the dictation.

Slaboshpytsky says officials, on the other hand, could make a colossal contribution to promoting Ukrainian by actually speaking Ukrainian -- instead of Russian -- during public appearances.

"There is no need for contests and other such measures," he said. "All we need is for 5,000 families belonging to the vertical of power to start speaking Ukrainian. It would create an avalanche that would immediately prompt servants and would-be lords to start speaking Ukrainian."

Setting An Example

One solution could be to follow the example of Poland, where lawmakers in February vied for the title of "Zero-Fault Parliamentary Group" in a dictation competition broadcast live on Polish television.

The conservative Law and Justice party won the title, but all participants were provided with a diploma and a dictionary.

Although the concept of national dictation has yet to gain a firm foothold in former Soviet countries, language-related contests and festivals have sprouted across the region over the past 15 years.

Most have launched language days to counter the erosion of their native language and culture caused by decades of Soviet rule.

In some countries, individual regions also have their own language day. Russia's Tatarstan Republic, 800 kilometers east of Moscow, even has two.

Tatarstan's Language Day, celebrated every year on February 21, was initiated by UNESCO in 1999.

Firaya Shaykhiyeva, the head of Tatarstan's state Culture and Languages Committee, says the event aims to revive not only Tatar, but also languages spoken by the myriad ethnic minorities living in the region.

"Since 2001, this day is very widely celebrated," Shaykhiyeva said. "Actually, the whole of February has become a 'month of languages' in our republic. This is a time when activities promoting the respect, the attention and the development of languages are at their peak. And this concerns not only the Tatar and Russian language -- these events also take place in schools teaching in other languages such as Chuvash, Marii, and Udmurt."

Two months later, on April 26, the republic celebrates Native Language Day. On this day, which commemorates Tatarstan's cult poet, Gabdulla Tuqay, prizes are awarded to local literary talents writing in Tatar.

This year's poetry prizewinner was Marsel Galiyev, who said, "We are honored to receive a prize named after such a great man. May God never take away from us the key to our native language."

Central Asian Languages

Language days can also be found in Central Asia.

Kyrgyz children singing traditional songs (RFE/RL file photo)

Kyrgyzstan, for instance, holds an annual State Language Day on September 23. It marks the date when, in 1989, Kyrgyz was made the country's sole official language and Kyrgyz language classes became compulsory in all schools.

In Kyrgyzstan, Language Day has a distinct musical flavor. Traditional concerts and dances are staged across the country, and ethnic minorities are strongly encouraged to display their knowledge of the Kyrgyz language, culture and, of course, music.

This year, the country staged a Kyrgyz music competition exclusively for non-natives living in Kyrgyzstan.

A Japanese band called "Sakhna Giuliu," which in Kyrgyz means "flower of the stage," took the victory.

One of the seven Japanese musicians forming the band is Yumiko, a young woman who teaches music in the remote mountainous town of Naryn, in the country's north.

During the competition, Yumiko drew applause from the audience for her flawless Kyrgyz when she said:

"Hello, dear guests! Our group's name is Sakhna Giuliu. We come from Japan. We are very much interested in Kyrgyz music. Today we will perform the melodies 'Kermetoo' and 'Chaikama.' Now, please enjoy the music!"

While governments in former Soviet countries are actively supporting campaigns to restore the prestige of native languages and, in some regions, rescue them from oblivion, one country stands out as a glaring exception.

Forgotten Belarusian

In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has displayed little interest in encouraging the use of Belarusian.

In conformity with his pro-Russia policy, Lukashenka gives his speeches only in Russian.

At times, he has not refrained from pouring scorn on Belarusian.

"People who speak Belarusian can't do anything other than speak Belarusian, because it's impossible to express anything great in Belarusian," he once famously said. "Belarusian is a poor language. There are only two great languages in the world: Russian and English."

As a result, the Belarusian language has actually receded over the past 10 years. The number of schoolchildren who are taught in Belarusian has dropped from 70 percent in 1995 to 20 percent today.

In Tune With Central Asia

In Tune With Central Asia

Music On Film, Film On Music

CENTRAL EUROPE MEETS CENTRAL ASIA: A Prague-based festival featuring nearly 100 films about music from around the world placed a spotlight on the musical culture of Central Asia -- still one of the world's best-kept secrets. Films gave a glimpse into the lives of musicians in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was on hand for a live musical performance.


View a short RFE/RL video presentation of the event (about 90 seconds). RealVideo