Non-governmental organization "Francišak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society"

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Activities — Linguistic Rights Monitoring

A review of language policy in Belarus

2012-04-03 0

An outline of language policy before the 1990s

The Belarusian language is the state language of the Republic of Belarus, along with Russian. It is spoken as a minority language in several countries. Belarusian has official status in several districts of Poland and is a recognized minority language in Ukraine.

The Old Belarusian literary language had been the official language of the Great Duchy of Litva from the 14th till the 18th centuries. Old Belarusian was thus the state language for the ancestors of modern Belarusians, Ukranians and Lithuanians. It was the Golden Age of Old Belarusian literature. Thousands of volumes of legal, religious, social and political as well as fiction texts in Old Belarusian were published. The Bible printed by Franci?ak Skaryna (1490 – 1551), the Belarusian printing pioneer, was the third printed Bible in Europe after the German and the Czech translations.

In 1596 the Great Duchy of Litva and the Kingdom of Poland signed a union treaty. Nevertheless, Belarusian continued to be the state language of the Duchy. However, in 1696 Old Belarusian was replaced by Polish as the official language. The state discrimination of Belarusian speakers of the country started. Nevertheless, Old Belarusian was quite often used in official correspondence into the beginning of the 18th century. It continued to be the mother tongue of the Belarusian people including a part of its nobility. Very few written texts were created in Belarusian the 18th century. On the other hand, oral folklore flourished. It is reported that Belarus disposes of one of the richest collections of folklore in Europe.

First texts written in the New Belarusian language appear in the beginning of the 19th century when Belarus was under the Russian domain. The official policy towards Belarusian was very discriminative at that time. In 1839 it was prohibited to preach in Belarusian. In 1864 Belarusian pupils were banned to speak their mother tongue at educational establishments. In 1867 printing of books in Belarusian was prohibited. It was even forbidden to use the term Belarus while the Belarusian language was declared a dialect of Russian. Still, about 6 million people declared themselves speakers of the Belarusian language according to the 1897 Russian Empire Census.

The Belarusian literary language and culture revitalization began in the 1890s. In the 1920s this process was supported by the Soviet state. The extensive terminology was created for all branches of science and technology. The vast majority of books and newspapers issued in Belarus during that period were in Belarusian as in the language of the titular ethnic group of the Belarusian Soviet Republic. At the same time Belarusian was one of the 4 official languages alongside with Russian, Polish and Yiddish.

However in the 1930s around 85% of Belarusian writers and scientists were subject to repressions. The majority were executed. The russification of the Belarusian language started. It is reported that a great number of phonetic, grammatical and lexical elements were artificially introduced into Belarusian grammar books and dictionaries to make the language look and sound more like Russian. At the same time all Belarusian schools had been closed down in Western Belarus under the Polish domain by 1939.

In the post-war Belarus Belarusian was relegated to a secondary role. Studying of Belarusian at secondary schools was made optional. It remained the language of instruction just at rural schools. The majority of towns lacked a single Belarusian school. In the 1980s just 11% of books were issued in Belarusian. Country people moved to towns and had to gradually switch into a mixture of the two languages. Protests against the plight of Belarusian were either neglected or suppressed.

Landmarks of language policy in the 1990s

The democratic achievements of the 90s enabled Belarusians to freely express their concern for their mother tongue. The Law on Languages was passed in 1990 declaring Belarusian the only state language. It was stipulated that all the laws’ provisions would take course in 10 years. The new policy started to improve the condition of Belarusian rapidly. For instance, 75% of pupils of town schools were taught in Belarusian in 1995, Belarusian learning groups were established at universities.

However, the law doesn’t stipulate any actual liability for its violation. That enabled a number of officials to do nothing to actually implement the laws’ provisions as they were afraid that the newfound independence might be lost. The public opinion was outraged by the disregard of the law. The parliament was presented demands to set a commission on the language policy and to make the lawbreakers liable to administrative responsibility. The demands were not met.

Still, the 1994 Constitution of the independent Republic of Belarus endorsed the status of Belarusian as that of the only state language. It also stipulated that Russian would be used freely as a language of interethnic communication. This specific status of Russian actually undermined the state status of Belarusian.

Attempts to put the question of making Russian the second state language for a referendum failed as it was illegal to put to the vote issues that might violate the right of the people to use its national language. Nevertheless, the referendum initiated by the president was held in 1996. We consider it illegitimate as far as it violated the Law on Referenda that bans conducting plebiscits on such matters as language. What is more, the executive power interfered into the matter; the state-owned media mainly presented the views of the referendum’s initiator. The OSCE declared that the referendum violated all international norms of free and just vote.

The first of the four referendum questions was as follows: “Do you agree with granting the Russian language an equal status with Belarusian?“. 88.3% (which made 53.9% of all the eligible voters) answered in the affirmative. It is reported that “to make Russian the second state language, together with the titular, may seem to be in line with liberal policy. But the continued dominance of the Russian language in Belarus meant that this would not promote equality”, with Belarusian receding and Russian advancing. Consequently, it’s the inequality in favour of Russian that we’re facing today.

Several reasons are reported to be the reasons for this ballot. Some peoples’ idleness and unwillingness to master Belarusian, limitations on the campaigning against the referendum questions, indifference of the majority to the issues of language and culture caused by economic troubles, etc.

In 1998 the Law on Languages was amended. Its provisions now linked the terms “the Belarusian language” and “the Russian language” with conjunctions “or“ and “and (or)”. For instance, the Article 20 stipulates that, the Armed Forces use „the Belarusian and (or) the Russian language.“ The excessive use of the conjunction „or“ in the text paves the way to using either of the languages without the mandatory use of the other.

Linguistic rights’ violations

Consequently, Belarusian citizens’ linguistic rights related to the Belarusian language are constantly violated although they are ensured by the Constitution and by the Law itself. The following rights of linguistic groups are among them:

the right to receive attention in their own language from government bodies and in socioeconomic relations; • the right for laws which concern them to be published in the language proper to the territory; • the right to decide to what extent their language is to be present at all levels of education within their territory; • the right to an equitable presence of their language in the communications media; • the right to receive full oral and written information in his/her own language on the products and services proposed by commercial establishments.

But some of the violations are exemplified below. The majority of them have been triggering constant protests by the BLS, other NGOs and private individuals.

Violations of the rights relating to public administration and official bodies

  • Cases of refusal to accept application forms filled in Belarusian are reported.
  • The majority of Belarusian laws are issued in Russian only.
  • Russian is approved as the only working language of the Belarus-Russia Union.
  • During court proceedings some people were charged for the services of interpreters.

In response to the Belarusian Language Society’s appeals the Court of Constitution passed a judgment on the Law on Languages in 2003. According to the judgment, “the linguistic balance in Belarus is not preserved, which causes justified concern of the Belarusian Language Society”. Therefore The Court of Constitution recommended amending the law. In spite of this recommendation and a number of clear amendments’ proposals made by the Belarusian Language Society and other NGOs, the text of the law is still unchanged.

Violations of the rights relevant to education

A great number of schoolchildren who were initially taught in Belarusian start being taught in Russian after moving up to a certain form.

Belarusian-speaking children are often rejected the right to be taught all subjects in their mother tongue at school.

Some school administrations impede establishing of classes with instruction in Belarusian on parents’ requests.

There is almost no opportunity to receive a higher education exclusively through the medium of the Belarusian language in any field of study.

A Belarusian-speaking child was diagnosed as mentally retarded by a kindergarten speech therapist for not knowing names of several objects in Russian.

The Ministry of Education doesn’t issue textbooks and other educational materials in Belarusian for a number of school subjects.

It deserves mentioning that just 18% of schoolchildren, 12% of kindergarteners and 1% of university students were educated solely through the medium of Belarusian in 2011. 37% of students were instructed in both languages though.

The state program providing for establishing of a school with the Belarusian language of instruction in every town hasn’t been actually implemented.

Violations of the rights related to culture, communications media and new technologies

All the Belarusian TV channels broadcast mainly in Russian in spite of numerous protests of Belarusian speakers.

The absolute majority of state and local administration bodies’ web pages don’t have Belarusian versions.

 Just 8.5% of books have been published in Belarusian in the 2000s. At the same time the First deputy minister of information claimed that the Ministry is not satisfied by this amount.

An attempt to fine a newspaper for using one of the Belarusian spelling’s versions was made.

Violations of the rights relevant to the socioeconomic sphere

Belarusian speakers are often rejected the right to receive attention in their language from authorities and in socioeconomic relations.

Fill-in forms, cheques, contracts, order forms, instructions for use, labels, lists of ingredients, guarantees, etc. are mainly available only in Russian.

The plight of the Belarusian language causes deep concern both in Belarus and abroad. The Austrian Association of Slavists made a statement condemning discrimination against the Belarusian language in 1997. Violations of Belarusian speakers’ rights are mentioned in the 2010 Human Rights in Belarus Report by US Department of State. The “UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages: Europe” (1999) places Belarusian on its List of potentially endangered languages. In UNESCO’s “Atlas of the World Languages in Danger, 2010” Belarusian is marked as vulnerable.

The 2009 Census results concerning the state languages

Linguistic rights’ violations occur despite the fact that Belarusian is the mother tongue of the majority. As shown in Figure 1, according to the 2009 Census, it is the mother tongue of 53.2% of Belarus’ population (of which Belarusians make 84%). Belarusian was declared as the "language usually spoken at home" by 23% of the population. The said figures were 74% and 37% respectively, according to the 1999 Census.

Figure 1

The Censuses of 1999 and 2009

The decrease may be due to the state language policy. Still, there may be actually more people regarding Belarusian as their mother tongue today. In 1999 the wording of the question about the mother tongue was as follows: “Your mother tongue is…”. In 2009 the question’s formula was: “Your mother tongue (the first language acquired in early childhood) is…”. This provides reason to think that not all the people who consider Belarusian to be their mother tongue, though it is not their first language, chose “Belarusian” as the answer to this question in 2009.

Some authors believe that people were prompted the definition of “mother tongue” in order to obtain a lower percentage for the Belarusian language and thus to advocate the state linguistic policy.

What complicates matters is the fact that a large (maybe a major) share of the population speaks neither Belarusian nor Russian but a mixture of both popularly called “trasjanka”. We assume that many people can’t precisely define the language they speak.

In 2009 13.5% answered that they have a good command of Belarusian though it’s neither their mother tongue nor the language spoken at home.

Language attitudes and preferences in Belarus

Several surveys of language attitudes and preferences in Belarus have been undertaken. Some of their findings’ validity may be disputed. Still, there are both encouraging and worrying indications.

The attitude to the Belarusian language as to the national treasure worth respect and care is the most widespread.

The general attitude to Belarusian speakers is very respectful.

One survey of 2009 showed that 96% of the respondents can understand spoken Belarusian while about one third can write and speak it fluently.

The majority advocate compulsory usage of both the state languages at public institutions. Another poll showed that a significant minority believe that Belarusian should dominate there.

A research conducted by Samsung showed that advertisements in Belarusian are more effective than in Russian.

As shown in Figure 2, 46% use Belarusian at least occasionally, however, just about 6 % use it all the time.

Figure 2

The 2009 Novak BISS survey
How often do You use Belarusian?

On the other hand, the proportion of Belarusian speakers among the youth and among the population of the biggest cities is reported to be the lowest.

A poll held in 2009 showed that on the average 6,5% generally speak Belarusian. Figure 3 reveals results of another poll which revealed that 3.2% of the respondents mainly use Belarusian, 15% – Belarusian and Russian, 22,5% – a mixture of both, while 57% use Russian.

  On the average 24% of the respondents would like to draw documents, to be educated, watch more TV programs, etc. in Belarusian.

The general evaluation of the language policy

The positive attitudes and the most recent trend in the state language policy give grounds for cautious optimism about the future of the Belarusian language. Recently some high-ranked officials have voiced concern about the Belarusian language. Plans to establish a university with Belarusian as the medium of instruction and a TV channel broadcasting in Belarusian have been aired.

What is more, Belarusian is being extensively used in some fields with some state institutions and private companies seeking its promotion. For instance, Belarusian is the working language of the Ministry of Culture, inscriptions on Belarusian stamps have always been only in Belarusian, etc.

However, the current state language policy as well as language policy of private companies toward the Belarusian language is still conflicting, disrespectful and to a certain extent discriminatory. A considerable number of people show reluctance as to everyday use of Belarusian and as to real care about it. This situation urges patient efforts of NGOs and concerned citizens aimed at linguistic rights’ protection and at promotion of the Belarusian language use.

Activities and breakthroughs

Some of our NGO’s and other organizations’ activities and recent breakthroughs will be exemplified below.

  • In response to our long-term appeals, the “Law on Private and Legal Persons’ Appeals” has been amended Now it secures applicants’ right to be answered in their mother tongue. The new Law on Place Names requires that new settlements should be named in Belarusian.
  • Quite a number of Belarusian-language schools and classes with Belarusian as the medium of instruction have been established in response to our appeals. The Belarusian language was restored in TV news blocks, railroad and subway announcements, etc. We have collected about 60.000 signatures under the demand to establish a university providing education in Belarusian.
  • A lot of application software, the army rules, the road regulations, etc. have been translated into Belarusian. The first Belarusian spellchecker has been created.
  • Our society initiated establishing of the first Belarusian non-government satellite TV channel “BelSat”.
  • We have worked out draft amendments to the Law on Languages that provide for real equality between the two official languages. Our bill on “The Belarusian Language State Support” stipulates functions and obligations of public offices concerning the language support.
  • Such companies as Samsung, Adidas, Ford, etc. make some of their advertisements in Belarusian. The annual Festival of advertizing and communication in Belarusian takes place. A number of ambassadors make speeches in Belarusian.

Campaigns for promoting the Belarusian language and culture by means of publications, exhibitions and festivities are recently in progress. The annual Whole-national dictation on the occasion of the Mother tongue day organized by our society is one example. Another example is “Budzma” campaign.

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