April 1, 2009

Political barriers shouldn’t be linguistic barriers

Since this blog focuses on learning languages and forming a community around languages, I am bringing up the topic of why politicians change foreign language education policy to put new political alliances.

I was recently in the former Yugoslavia as an election observer in Macedonia and was pleasantly surprised at how I was able to use Serbo-Croatian to communicate with various people: a Slovenian diplomat, an ethnic Albanian woman in Macedonia and a Macedonian man. The Slovenian diplomat and I started speaking to our ethnic Albanian interpreter and our Macedonian driver in Serbo-Croatian. We felt uneasy about the ethnic Albanian’s reaction since she might link the Serbo-Croatian language to the former Yugoslavian government and its actions against the Kosovar Albanians. (We were in Tetovo, Macedonia, where there were ethnic clashes between Albanians and Macedonians in 2001. So, the topic of ethnic violence was quite relevant.) But, she was fine with our speaking in Serbo-Croatian and responded to us in English or Macedonian.

The language surpassed political barriers. The former Yugoslavs used the Serbo-Croatian language to reminisce about Yugoslavian sports teams and music groups that existed before the fall of the former Yugoslavia. I listened along while awakening my own knowledge of the language. (I hadn’t spoken much Serbo-Croatian in over eight years. I understood almost everything, but I was sometimes searching for my words.)

The Slovenian diplomat told me that children in Slovenia no longer learn Serbo-Croatian and focus only on English and German. Since Slovenia broke apart from the former Yugoslavia and joined the European Union, the country is concentrating on being more aligned with the European Union and becoming more Western Europe focused. Though I understand the political reasonings for focusing on teaching English and German in Slovenian schools, there’s no reason not to learn Serbo-Croatian. Why should the young generations of Slovenes not be able to communicate in another Slavic language with their Southern neighbors? They still have business ties to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia and would have better relationships if they spoke to those people in the language that used to unite all of them rather than using English.

The same goes for former Soviet countries who also don’t mandate learning Russian in schools. Let’s take the Baltic countries as an example. Yes, I am very aware of the bad things that the former Soviet Union did in the Baltics and why people in the Baltics may not embrace Russia as their best friend, but they can’t deny the huge neighbor next to them. Wouldn’t it be better to negotiate with one’s neighbor in their language rather than using a third language like English or communicating via an interpreter?

Having lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain, I am intimately aware of political barriers. It’s because of my personal history that I see how vital it is for people to learn foreign languages and communicate directly. It pains me to see how political changes can effect educational policy.

Incidentally, if it weren’t for my being able to resurrect my rusty Serbo-Croatian from when I lived in Bosnia in 2000-2001, I would have been in trouble. I got very sick while in Macedonia and my local election coordinators called for an ethnic Albanian doctor to come to my hotel room to examine me. Everyone else in our group left for a party and I didn’t want to bother the interpreter who was resting. The doctor and I communicated in Serbo-Croatian. Even though I was sick and not very strong, I was still able to talk to the good doctor and explain myself. Here I was, a Slavic woman originally from Russia, speaking to a Muslim Albanian man in his third language, Serbo-Croatian. According to political fault lines, we probably should not have been communicating. But he was a doctor doing his job and I was sick and needed assistance.

There were no political barriers between the doctor and I.

Language is language. Politics are politics. Don’t confuse them.

As you are working to create the world’s social dictionary, also keep in mind the societal implications of language education. You may not be creating only a collaborative dictionary, but you may be stepping on the toes of politicians who may not want you to communicate with someone else. Go ahead and step all over those false demarcations between people! Those barriers need to be removed.

Susanna Zaraysky is the author of the Create Your World Book Series.
Read Language is Music for free at www.createyourworldbooks.com until April 5, 2009. You can contribute tips to the book and enter to be published in the book and win prizes from contest co-sponsors.

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