Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Aug 3 18:43:51 UTC 2004
>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education,
>>From the issue dated May 21, 2004
A Delicate Balancing Act
Former Soviet republics try to re-establish their native languages without
By BRYON MACWILLIAMS
Bone-chilling winds are blowing unkindly from the steppe as students
bundle across the vast concrete square outside Karaganda State University
here. They are ethnic Kazakh, Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, German, and a
good dozen other nationalities, descendants of those who labored here in
the Gulag of the Soviet Union.
While they are varied in ethnic heritage, the university's 21,000 students
are united not only by the country's recent history but also by its lingua
franca. Kazakh is the official language, but Russian is deemed the
"language of interethnic communication." About 95 percent of Kazakhis
To that end, Karaganda State serves both the present and the past. Nearly
every subject is offered in both Kazakh and Russian. That means there are
usually two professors, in two classrooms, for each course. Even so, more
often than not there is only one textbook -- in Russian.
Like most of the other 14 former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan is
struggling to find the money and the qualified young scholars to provide
the necessary high-quality teaching materials to remake its system of
higher education into one grounded in a native language and culture that
were nearly stamped out by Soviet policies.
Hundreds of ethnic groups live in the vast territory of the former Soviet
Union. All are dealing with the effects of seven decades of Communist rule
and policies of "Russification" that trampled their languages, cultures,
and feelings of ethnic consciousness.
The Bolsheviks envisioned the widespread adoption of Russian as voluntary
before they seized power in 1917, and initially they prepared to use
various local languages for schooling and professional life. Soviet
constitutions even affirmed the right, in principle, to a free choice of
languages. But by 1938 Russian was compulsory in all schools, even though
some schools were permitted to teach nontechnical subjects in native
languages. Roman and Arabic scripts were changed to Cyrillic, and Russian
had become the language of science and technology, and the dominant
language of instruction throughout higher education.
Today the dominant ethnic groups in the now-independent states have
elevated their native languages to official status, usually demoting
Russian in the process. Still, for want of resources, many college
textbooks and academic journals continue to be printed in Russian. At the
same time, the ranks of qualified professors in the young nations have
been depleted by the departure of ethnic Russians either unable or
unwilling to teach in the native tongue. Governments from Eastern Europe
through Central Asia are finding that it is not so easy to revitalize
their native culture in regions still steeped in the language of a former
"It is a delicate matter," says Abai S. Masalimov, a vice rector at
Karaganda State. During the Soviet period, he says, Russian-language
skills were literally "a tool for survival" to navigate the social and
professional spheres of life here in the center of Kazakhstan, a
landlocked Central Asian republic about the size of Western Europe.
Mr. Masalimov says the dual-language policy has helped Kazakhstan elude
the types of conflict found in parts of Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe,
where one ethnic group imposes itself on others by pushing the use of a
single language. Minority groups in Kazakhstan accept Kazakh as a logical
choice for a state language.
By and large, the thorny issue of language in higher education is being
resolved peacefully throughout the former Soviet Union, although there are
exceptions. Single-language policies in Latvia have generated street
protests by thousands of ethnic Russians, who object to the mandatory use
of Latvian. Similar polices have all but frozen out minorities in
Turkmenistan, where Turkmen is the language of instruction, making life
difficult for ethnic-Uzbek students, among others.
Weighing the Benefits
The Soviet system of education was part of a totalitarian ideology that
imposed Soviet values and the Russian language on other ethnic identities
and cultures. It also provided a universal, secular, well-financed
education that -- in word, if not always in deed -- served both men and
women equally, regardless of ethnicity.
The governments of the independent states, even as they reduce spending on
education, among other things, have placed among their highest priorities
the introduction of new curricula in their native languages. Still, they
are finding it valuable to retain elements of the old system in order to
keep the peace among different ethnic groups, and to maintain ties both
regionally and internationally.
"The essential issue of the role of language [in the former Soviet Union]
is the balance between communication and identification," says Antonina
Berezovenko, a Ukrainian visiting associate professor at Columbia
University who teaches language development in post-totalitarian
territories. "Do you want to be understandable and communicate with the
rest of the community, or do you want to establish yourself as special, a
separate group? In every post-Soviet country there is a different model of
how to approach the language question."
Most post-Soviet countries -- with the notable exception of Belarus, whose
government has effectively avoided Belarusian in favor of Russian --
require instruction to be provided in the state language. Russian is the
preferred language of translation for contemporary Western textbooks in
Armenia and Azerbaijan, where many institutions do not have money for
desks and blackboards, let alone textbooks in their native languages.
Many other countries are writing new courses, with new textbooks and an
emphasis on native languages and native histories -- without the
distortion of the Soviet lens. Teaching materials are being written from
scratch or translated from English and other widely spoken languages of
Those trends have had a significant impact on students and professors at
Almaty State University, in Kazakhstan. Earlier instruction was almost
entirely in Russian. Now about 60 percent of the 15,000 students have
elected to study in Kazakh. "Everything has changed since 1991," says
Tikmukhamed S. Sadykov, the rector. "We have the real possibility of
teaching our children in the language of our choice, our native language."
Almaty State, founded in 1928, is Kazakhstan's oldest university. It is
located in the southern part of the country, near the border with
Kyrgyzstan. Because most residents thereabouts are ethnic Kazakhis, unlike
the more diverse population around Karaganda, the transition from Russian
has been swifter. Kazakhstan's laws allow the various regions to determine
the pace of change for themselves.
The university requires incoming students to enroll in one of two language
groups, Kazakh or Russian, based on their preference. Students in each
group must amass 240 hours of instruction in the other language during
their first and second years; all remaining courses are taught in the
language the students typically speak at home.
Adapting to Change
Many students in Kazakhstan insist that the role of language in their
education is no big deal, since they can study in the language of their
choice. Such nonchalance might seem improbable to an outsider familiar
with the region's bloodstained history, dating back to the Mongol invasion
in the 13th century. Students sometimes disagree on how fast Kazakh is
resurging, but they do not question the legitimacy of the change, or its
inevitability. Still, some students, both ethnic Russian and Kazakh,
struggle to adapt.
"Now it is suddenly deemed that we should study Kazakh, and I just don't
know how to do it," says Nadin Pyatnitsa, an ethnic-Russian student at
Kazakh-American University, a private institution in Almaty. "The
transition from Russian to Kazakh is too quick. The study materials aren't
even as developed as those available in English."
A classmate, Vladimir Koshelkov, an ethnic Russian who speaks Kazakh with
less proficiency than he does English, hopes that Russian will retain its
prominence. "Kazakhstan is a multiethnic country, and its future depends
on all of us," he says. "We're all part of this country. But the Russian
language is the legacy of the Soviet Union, and it has united us, I think.
Everyone speaks Russian."
"But we don't think we should forget our native language," responds
Augerim Isaeva, a Kazakh classmate. Her education shadows the recent
changes: She studied in a Russian-language school until the seventh grade
but graduated from a Kazakh-language school.
Bill Fierman, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana
University at Bloomington who has studied language policies in that part
of the world for nearly 30 years, says students like Mr. Koshelkov need
"Russian is going to be around for a long time," Mr. Fierman says.
"Translating everything into Kazakh is going to be extremely difficult. .
. . Even the terminology in Kazakh is not unified in a lot of things. So
you have instructors who are strongly encouraged to teach a subject who
are not in communication with each other, and are using different words
for the same concept." Matters of minor linguistic nuances could prove
deadly in an operating room, for example, where surgeons from different
regions may well use different terminology.
In all of the former Soviet republics, the introduction of new textbooks
and curricula in native languages is undercut by a lack of financing as
well as by the loss of qualified instructors to migration and
more-lucrative jobs in the private sector. That process has been hastened
in countries like Latvia, where formerly suppressed ethnic groups have
been particularly hostile toward ethnic Russians. Many ethnic Russians,
believing that they have no place in the new order, are moving to Russia
from republics in which they have spent their entire lives. Even in
Kyrgyzstan, the most democratic of all of the countries in Central Asia,
state universities almost exclusively provide instruction in Kyrgyz.
Belarus is the notable exception. Since the rise to power in the mid-1990s
of the authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, an ethnic Belarusian
who has pursued close ties with Russia, the native language has been
supplanted both in education and in daily life by Russian, despite the
fact that 81 percent of the population is Belarusian.
European Humanities University, a highly regarded private institution in
Minsk, Belarus, has irritated government officials by continuing to offer
courses in other languages, including Belarusian, English, French, and
German. The university has been accused of being too Western-oriented,
among other things, and the Ministry of Education has asked the rector to
resign. He is resisting the suggestion.
Latvia, by contrast, has pushed Russian to the sidelines. The law in that
Baltic country mandates that Latvian be the language of instruction in all
state institutions. (Private institutions are exempt.) The government
views the law as a matter of preservation of the Latvian state; some 30
percent of its 2.3 million people are ethnic Russian, including about 60
percent of those in the capital, Riga. Native Russian speakers -- commonly
referred to by native Latvians as "occupiers" -- almost unanimously regard
the Latvian-first law as discriminatory, but officials are unapologetic.
"We say to those who are studying in Russian secondary schools that they
have to learn Latvian well enough; otherwise they are creating
difficulties in their future," says Ivars Knets, rector of Riga Technical
University, which has 17,000 students. "They are living now for more than
13 years in an independent Latvia."
Those residents who do not speak Latvian can enroll in a state university
but must complete courses that will enable them to speak the language
within three years, says Janis Cakste, minister of education.
Ms. Berezovenko, the visiting professor at Columbia, says such policies
could undercut the very system of education the government is trying to
prop up. "It's clear that Latvians have a full right to establish their
language as the state language, as the language of instruction," she says.
"But to what degree is that language functional? If you are looking at the
process objectively, you should keep in mind that the desire of Russian
people to be Russian is as important as the desire of Latvian people to be
Ethnic Russians in Latvia and elsewhere frequently turn to private
universities or enroll in institutions in Russia and Ukraine, where the
Russian and Ukrainian languages coexist with less animosity.
The Baltic republic of Estonia, where 28 percent of the 1.3 million
citizens are ethnic Russian, has pursued a more moderate language policy.
Under national law, college students have the right to obtain an education
in Estonian. But universities may still offer courses in another language
-- usually Russian or English -- if the affected students are in favor.
"We haven't been as radical as the Latvians have been," says Jaak
Aaviksoo, rector of the University of Tartu, a prestigious, 370-year-old
institution. "We have gradually moved away from Russian courses, but we
have kept some because we have graduates of Russian schools who are
enrolled in transitional programs."
Turning to English
A number of former Soviet republics are looking toward English as a third
option for their students. Already the international lingua franca of
higher education, English does not carry the historical baggage in these
countries that Russian does. What's more, English-language materials for
teaching and study are almost always superior to, and more plentiful than,
those in the native languages of any of the former republics.
Tartu, where 17 percent of the student body is ethnic Russian, plans to
broaden instruction in English to 30 percent of all subjects by 2015. "We
have, I think, a very wise political balance," says Mr. Aaviksoo. "They
have to be trilingual, essentially."
In the Caucasian republic of Georgia, the second language after Georgian
is increasingly likely to be English instead of Russian.
In fact, the popularity of English across post-Soviet territories has
risen so sharply as to make learning it essential for many college
graduates hoping to contend for well-paying jobs. Interviews with students
have shown that this is the case in all of the former Soviet republics,
with the near-exception of Russia, where Russian is uncompromisingly
The Russian Federation, which is quick to criticize other former republics
for emphasizing their native languages at the expense of Russian, is
nonetheless unyielding in its efforts to prevent university-level
instruction in the languages of its own 100-plus ethnic groups. The only
occasional exception is English.
In the leafy park adjacent to the campus of Almaty State, ethnic-Kazakh
students line up at tents to sing karaoke to the organ-heavy melodies of
popular Russian songs, subtitled in Ukrainian. They can be heard using
two, sometimes three languages in one sentence. For them, language is less
about ethnic identity than about utility.
Still, there will come a day, maybe decades away, when most of their
textbooks are in Kazakh, and when other languages, among them Russian,
have less relevance.
"You have to look in the very long term, certainly not year to year, and
not even in five years. You can't even say that the times of the USSR have
fully ended," says Saule Dautova, dean of the department of Kazakh
linguistics at Almaty State. "We need to go in the direction were going,
but slowly, in baby steps."
POST-SOVIET LANGUAGE POLICIES
Most post-Soviet countries -- with the notable exception of Belarus, whose
government has effectively eschewed Belarusian in favor of Russian --
require instruction at public universities to be provided in their
In Estonia, Latvia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, among other countries,
courses at public universities are now taught almost exclusively in their
respective native ethnic languages. In others, such as Armenia and
Azerbaijan, instruction is often carried out in the native languages, but
Russian has retained its importance as the language of study materials and
of contemporary textbooks.
Kazakhstan offers courses in both Kazakh and Russian. In Ukraine, where
the official language is Ukrainian, institutions in the western portion
usually teach in the state language, while institutions in the eastern
areas usually teach in Russian.
Volume 50, Issue 37, Page A39
Copyright 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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