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23 June, 2017  ▪  Andriy Holub

Numbers about words

Is Ukrainian society ready for changes in language policy

Despite the constant criticism of the pace of reform following the Revolution of Dignity, MPs have been able to adopt many new laws relating to almost all areas of life. Changes were even made to the Constitution and new law-enforcement authorities were created. However, in one field everything has remained almost the same. Namely, in language policy. The so-called Kolesnichenko-Kivalov Law, adopted back in 2012, has still not been repealed, even though it caused protests five years ago – before the revolution and war. Currently, several bills on language status have been presented to Parliament, but the issue remains fertile ground for speculation across the political spectrum. The Ukrainian Week tried to get to the bottom of the topic with the help of sociologists and researchers of the linguistic environment.

Statistical progress

The Freedom Space NGO carries out yearly reviews of the state of the Ukrainian language. The aim is to track levels of its use in public life. In 2016, they presented their study for the sixth time. According to the movement's coordinator Taras Shamayda, Ukrainian, despite its official status, does not perform a number of functions.

"The Constitution provides that the State shall ensure the comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of public life throughout its territory. However, this provision has not yet been implemented. Because there is no law to guarantee it. Accordingly, it does not function properly as in most European countries. This leads, for example, to the underdeveloped state of certain language-related domestic industries, the vulnerability of the markets linked to these industries and Ukrainian language rights, and in general to the absence of a cohesive cultural and information space," he said.

The Freedom Space reviews are based on official statistics, social studies and the monitoring by activists. In addition to general information about language use, they present specific details such as the number of signs in different languages in ​​commercial establishments and menu language in the food service industry. It turned out that in 2016 Ukrainian signs were present in 40% of monitored locations and Russian in 14%. However, the amount of signage in the Latin alphabet has increased almost threefold over the last five years. "If this continues, then in a year or two they will exceed Ukrainian language signs in number," the study notes. Only 60% of food outlets offer a Ukrainian menu.

"During the last review, the most problems were found in television and radio broadcasting. The situation on the radio was somewhat corrected by the law on quotas for Ukrainian songs. Now at least a quarter of the songs on the air are in that language. The fact that they could not be heard on the radio before is due not to their scarcity, but the policy of treating anything Ukrainian as inferior that was pursued by many radio station owners," Shamayda is convinced.

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He advocates changes to language legislation and supports bill No 5670 "On the State Language". According to the expert, adoption of this document is above all an issue of national security. He states that there are about 4-5 million people in Ukraine who call Ukrainian their native language but admit that they do not speak it at home, let alone in public. "We see this from the West, where the difference is only 2% (when fewer people speak Ukrainian than those who call it their mother tongue – Ed.) to the East and South, where it reaches 20%. Imagine how powerful the pressure and influence had to be for people to ignore the language they consider their mother tongue. This affects not only the older generation, but also children and youth."

Sociologists constantly record a gap between those who call Ukrainian their mother tongue and those who use it. However, they give varying reasons for this. In 2016, the Razumkov Centre published the results of a large-scale study on Ukrainian identity. One of its sections was on language issues. The findings showed that from 2011 to 2016 the proportion of those who choose Ukrainian as their main language for communication at home was almost unchanged: it increased merely from 52% to 55%; Russian was preferred by 45% and 41% of Ukrainians respectively. However, the proportion of those who call Ukrainian their native language changed significantly. In 2011, it was 61% and it is now 69%. However, it is worth noting that the latest study was not conducted in occupied Crimea.

"We can presume that under the influence of socio-political processes [...] in Ukraine in recent years, there have been some changes in the linguistic identity of citizens, but not in language practices, which are more stable," the authors of the study conclude.

In addition, they acknowledge persistent and substantial regional differences: in the West, Centre and South, most respondents called Ukrainian their mother tongue (97%, 86% and 63% respectively). In the East and Donbas, Russian dominates in this respect (52% and 66% respectively).

Activating the language

Another large survey dedicated to the language situation in Ukraine was conducted in early 2017 with the assistance of Volkswagen Stiftung.

Sociologist Hanna Zalizniak, who worked on this project, has been involved in sociolinguistic research in Ukraine since 2000. According to her, language is not only a means of communication for the country’s population, but also an identity marker. "That's why sociologists always record more people who call Ukrainian their mother tongue than those who actually speak it," she says.

The study that Zalizniak participated in consisted of personal interviews with more than 2,000 respondents throughout Ukraine in February 2017 and focus group discussions in four cities: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv and Odesa.

"Many people in the focus groups responded that they see Ukrainian as the language of most everyday communication in the future. Often, however, they added, ‘I won't be able to speak it myself, but my children...’ A change in language practice requires constant work on oneself and leaving one's comfort zone, especially for people who have already established themselves," says Zalizniak.

Accordingly, a change in language legislation should not have direct impact on the way Ukrainians communicate with each other. Other data from the Razumkov Centre study can prove this. The most popular answer to the question "What chiefly determines the choice of the language you speak?" was "I've been speaking this language since childhood". It was given by 41%. Pragmatic reasons for using a language are not very common. Less than 2% of respondents choose a language depending on how widespread access to information or education in it is.

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The conclusion that legislation has little direct impact on the language of everyday communication in Ukraine is, in fact, ambiguous. Above all, if the Ukrainisation of all public space had occurred even 15 years ago, it would have been unlikely to cause protests in society. The situation in film distribution can be given as an example. This is virtually the only industry where monitoring by Freedom Space records the dominance of Ukrainian."The only pragmatic motivation is that if a team leader speaks Ukrainian, the whole team starts to follow. It's the same with Russian," says Hanna Zalizniak.

"The first films dubbed in Ukrainian only started to come out 10 years ago and now nearly every motion picture in cinemas is in Ukrainian. More than 90% of them. Cinema became entirely Ukrainian," says Taras Shamayda.

By now, few remember the disputes caused by the new rule on the compulsory dubbing of films in the state language. Political speculation on this subject has also stopped. What's more, specialised publications report new box office records every year.

Shamayda mentions education as another ambiguous area in terms of the spread of the state language. On the one hand, the number of schools with Ukrainian-language education has increased significantly since independence, but unevenly across the regions. In addition, there are problems with implementing even the current legislation in this field.

"In Kharkiv, Odesa and the towns in the Donbas between one third and the majority of schools have Russian as the language of instruction. Under the Kolesnichenko-Kivalov law, they can prevent subjects other than Ukrainian language and literature from being taught in Ukrainian. This is an explicit provision in that Russifying document. If a child from a Ukrainian family attends such a school because, for instance, it is close to home, they undergo intensive Russification, in addition to the Russification in other public areas. Speaking of Ukrainian-language schools, even in Kyiv, not to mention Eastern Ukraine, there is no normal language regime: teachers sometimes teach parts of certain subjects in Russian, let alone extracurricular activities. The situation is even worse in arts schools. In Kyiv, it is a huge problem to find a music school with Ukrainian instruction where a student can study in the Ukrainian language. The lists of recommended literature include some textbooks in Ukrainian and the rest in Russian, even Soviet literature, as well as pieces of music that are Soviet in content. Children are still studying them today. The language spoken the most there is also Russian, except maybe in Western Ukraine where art schools have developed a culture of teaching in Ukrainian," says Shamayda.

Room for speculation

Those who support the adoption of a new law to bring language policy up to date say that this would not mean imposing Ukrainian, but ensuring the rights of existing speakers.

"It does not deny the protection of national minorities' rights at the level at which they are set out in our Constitution and international agreements ratified by Ukraine. In addition, they will be protected at a level no lower than in other European countries. Bill No. 5670 On the State Language is written in a way that it does not play the languages off against each other or foresee a conflict between Ukrainian and other languages. After all, the nature of protecting Ukrainian as the state language and the nature of protecting minority languages ​​are different things. Therefore, guaranteeing the rights of every citizen to receive information and services in Ukrainian is on a different level and in no way restricts the rights of minorities. It's just that these rights will not be protected at the cost of the state language and the rights of millions of Ukrainians," accents Shamayda.

According to Zalizniak, there is no opposition in society to the majority of proposed provisions in the language bills that caused outcry in the media. Questions on this were asked during an early 2017 survey. It was found that 76% of respondents have a positive or rather positive view on introducing a Ukrainian language exam or certification for civil servants. The introduction of an exam for gaining Ukrainian citizenship is supported or rather supported by 61%. Another 88% have a positive or rather positive opinion about the statement that every citizen is obliged to know Ukrainian as the language of their country; 90% consider the language essential for all civil servants and the heads of medical institutions.

Zalizniak's data shows that support for Ukrainisation of the media is slightly lower, but this view is also shared more than half of respondents. In particular, for the distribution and screening of films in the state language – 63%, for Ukrainian language television and radio broadcasting with the establishment of quotas for minorities – 67%, for the publication of print media in the state language – 68%, and for Ukrainian advertising – 68%.

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However, even if new language legislation is adopted, we should not expect that this issue will leave the playbook of various political camps. It is most likely that speculation will continue, but will take on new forms.

"Politicians will always find something to speculate on. Wherever there is progressive language legislation that protects the language, such as in France or Latvia, there is speculation. It is inevitable. But speculation that destroys national identity is one thing, and speculation that remains speculation while the state develops and moves forward is another. The argument ‘let's not pass a language law, because it will cause speculation’ is essentially frivolous. It's about national security, the identity and unity of the country", says Taras Shamayda.

According to sociologist Zalizniak, linguistic tensions were felt from late Soviet times when the first research on this topic was released. In most cases, the issue was raised by politicians. In everyday communication between themselves, Ukrainians rarely notice pressure put on one language group by another. More precisely, 15% of Russian speakers and 13% of Ukrainian speakers talked about this. Frequent harassment was mentioned by 5-6% of respondents.

There will be no reason for these statistics to get any worse after the introduction of a new language policy. However, it is currently difficult to predict whether public figures will want to move from words to actions.

Translated by Anastasia Leonova

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