[lg policy] blog: Language policy is not for the faint of heart

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jun 13 19:11:41 UTC 2012

Language policy is not for the faint of heart

12 Tuesday Jun 2012

Posted by polyglossic in languages	

≈ Leave a Comment

Kurdish, language, language policy, languages, Russia, Russian,
Turkey, Ukraine, Ukrainian

I’m on an e-mail listserve about language policy.  If this is a topic
you never really thought about, you might think this listserve is
probably rather dry, if not downright boring, and I guess you might be
right, sometimes.  But sometimes, language policy looks like this:

Photo credit: AP Photo/Maks Levin [Photo of Ukrainians coming to blows
over language policy vote]

While the mechanics of language policy can be pretty academic,
actually implementing such a policy tends to get, as you can see,
fairly heated.  This photo is from a few weeks ago when the Ukrainian
parliament was debating a bill that would recognize Russian as a
co-official regional languages in areas of the Ukraine with high
populations of Russian speakers.  While some commentators call for
cooler heads, stressing that the bill keeps Ukrainian as the one
official state language for the entire nation, and proponents say that
it is merely a step towards offering language services to all
linguistic minority communities, opposition parliamentarians and
activists have staged protests in Kiev and all across Europe, claiming
the bill is a threat to the Ukrainian language and a move by powerful
players to bring the nation even more under the sway of Russia itself.
 Tensions ran so high that parliament had to shut down after a
fistfight broke out in the middle of deliberations.

I’ll refrain from taking sides in this one.  I have a degree in
Eastern European and Russian studies, and obviously I also have an
interest in languages and language policy, so I can see things from
both sides.  Which is why I’ve been avoiding discussing it :)  But I
wanted to bring it up to show just how tangled and tangible official
policies about languages can be.  Ukraine’s politics are complicated,
but so are politics everywhere, and it’s usually safe to assume that
policies often have to do with factors outside of the policies
themselves.  Language policies are almost always closely connected to
issues of power, inequality, and disenfranchisement (or hegemony).
And of course, our languages are very close to our hearts, a fact made
even more apparent when we perceive them to be under threat.
Ukrainian expats in Europe protested holding signs which read
“Language lives – Ukraine will live!”  Language policy, like language
itself, touches on identity, community, family, power, history, all of
those intensely human and intensely emotional things.

But this doesn’t mean, of course, that these kinds of things always
have to end up in a fistfight.  Al-Jazeera today reported that Turkey
has announced it will lift a ban on teaching Kurdish language in
Turkish schools, a policy step taken in the hopes of reconciling with
the large Kurdish minority within that country.  It’s a small step,
and many Kurdish activists underscored that it doesn’t go far enough
in addressing all of the problems between the majority and minorities
in Turkey.  But it is an important step, and an interesting one.  And
as the Ukrainians would remind us: language policy matters quite a


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