Friday, 13 July 2012 00:24
Laas Leivat - Estonian Life No. 28 2012
Debate over language as cultural integrity has been intense and even violent in the last few months. The language referendum in Latvia (lost by promoters of Russian) extended the argument into the halls of the European Union parliament. The pre-vote debates in the Ukrainian parliament on the same question (granting the Russian language a constitutionally guaranteed official status) deteriorated into physical violence between the opposing sides.
A generation of citizens have now been born and bred in countries that gained their total independence from Soviet captivity. Yet the Moscow-initiated policy of Russification driven by attempted manipulations of the language policies of previously Soviet controlled states has not lost all of its chauvinistic momentum.
Two years ago it was an academic from Kazakhstan who made some very blunt comments about the Estonian language policies, which in his estimation have been too lenient. Mõrzatai Sergalijev pointed out that any teacher or government official in Kazakhstan, who doesn't speak the Kazakh language or doesn't wish to converse in it should be summarily fired.
The observations were made at a conference on the development of the Kazahk language where Sergalijey and others were expecting to agree on policies to save a language from second class status. This, in a country where the Russification process had advanced much further than Estonia during the years of occupation. The Intention was to have Kazahk as the language of politics, business and culture.
Kazakhstan's ministry of culture had presented a language development program for 2011-2020, that would have a fully 95% of the population speaking Kazakh, a Turkic language. Currently, in the country of 16 million, some 64% speak the Kazakh language. Russians make up 30% of the population.
Kazakhstan is unique in that its people, the Kazakhs, did not form the majority of the population upon independence in 1991. Even though Kazakh is designated as the state language, Russian also holds "official" status. Legislation demands that government officials be fluent in Kazakh and an exam be successfully completed to affirm this competency by an individual. In every day practice actual exam results are ignored. Passing grades are routinely issued, a certificate as proof of fluency is presented and thereafter Russian language use at a government post remains as the norm. This lax enforcement of language policy has caused major concern for those that want to see Kazakh flourish as an indigenous language of the country and people.
The Kazakhs in 1991 suffered a more severe handicap than Estonians. Upon gaining independence the majority of Kazakhstani officials were Russian, not Kazakhs, a situation which led to interethnic confrontation both before and after the Soviet collapse. An example: It would be unthinkable for a presidential candidate in Estonia to consider campaigning if his Estonian language skills are weak. In Kazakhstan during the 2011 presidential elections, candidates were tested on their language skills by writing an essay, reading a Kazakh text out loud and delivering a 15 minute speech. It was expected that some non-Kazakh speakers would vie for the presidential post. Some candidates actually failed the test.
Observers indicate that Kazakh has become increasingly popular, especially amongst the youth. They say it's the result of the government taking determined steps to raise the language's profile.
The Human Rights Institute of Estonia has just recently stated that the curriculum of Russian language schools in Estonia does not provide the same opportunities for graduates in pursuing higher education or career choices when compared to graduates from Estonian language schools. Only half of the Russian language school graduates achieve the required standard. Although the Institute says that this is a basic violation of human rights, many see this as a result of an overly cautious and timid approach of all previous and current Estonian governments. Namely, they have been deliberately reticent in enforcing legislated language policies which would have made mandatory that the language of instruction be Estonian for a substantial portion of topics to be taught. Delays in policy implementation have been stretched over a decade. Constantly demanding exemptions and postponements of policy implementation has been the Edgar Savisaar-controlled municipal government of Tallinn and various Russian-controlled school boards.
Advocates of the Kazakh language in Kazakhstan, stress the importance of a native language in a simplified yet persuasive way: The knowledge of a nation's language is not just a sound bite. It means that the speakers will also know the history of the country, the passions of the native people. This will help unify and consolidate the people and boost mutual understanding in every day life.