Learning in the Mother Tongue

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Aug 3 18:42:13 UTC 2004

>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education,

>>From the issue dated May 21, 2004


Learning in the Mother Tongue

The fall of the Soviet bloc has led to the blooming of higher education in
minority languages -- but some, especially ethnic Russians, are unhappy


The collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe not only
allowed the removal of an ideological straitjacket from university
admissions procedures and study programs. It also made possible the
development of higher education in minority languages.

It's not that the Soviet authorities were against the use of minority
languages. With scores of such languages widely used in public schools
during the Communist era, the Soviet approach often compared favorably
with language policies in the West. But whether by fiat or as a natural
consequence of modernization, Russian became the predominant tongue of
both interethnic communication and higher education.

The breakup of the Soviet Union, in 1991, freed the smaller 14 republics
from the domination of Russia. Most of them have embarked on programs to
shift at least part of their university instruction to their national

The end of Communism has also allowed two large minorities in Eastern
Europe to press their demands. Ethnic Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia,
and ethnic Albanians in the former Yugoslavia, now have, or will soon
have, universities that teach in those people's languages. For the
Albanians in Kosovo, it took a guerrilla war and NATO bombing to make that
possible. Elsewhere, Western Europe has been a powerful ally to
minorities, giving quiet but insistent support to arguments that their low
college-enrollment rates have much to do with their not being able to
study in their mother tongues.

In many cases the change of language is proving difficult. In the
now-independent former Soviet republics, teaching materials in languages
other than Russian are often scarce. And the change has caused hardship
and anger among the large Russian minorities living in some of the
republics, most of whose members have never learned the local languages.

In Eastern Europe, the Albanians' victory in Kosovo has left a bad taste
in some mouths, since it came at the expense of the minority ethnic Serbs

In all these cases -- which are detailed in the articles that follow --
new study programs and new institutions face the formidable task of
ensuring quality at a time when many national budgets are shrinking.

Section: International
Volume 50, Issue 37, Page A39

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