One language good, two languages better

I live in a bilingual country, and I work at a bilingual university, where I teach in both languages. But bilingualism isn’t just a personal preference. It is also a political choice, at both a personal and a national level.

With this in mind, I was interested to read two recent articles which discuss how two countries with a significant Russian-speaking population, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, deal with the language issue.

In an article entitled ‘Kazakhstan: Wildflower Rising from the Steppes’, security consultant David Law discusses what he recently saw in Kazakhstan, commenting that:

 If the older generations of Russians did not receive any instruction in Kazakh in their youth, now in both the Kazakh and Russian language schools, the second language is taught. The younger cohort of Kazakhs and Russians is growing up bilingually and often trilingually. This is a testimony to the realisation that increasingly the best opportunities will go to those who can communicate with not only their fellow citizens in their language but also with the internationals who in growing numbers have come to find treasure in Kazakhstan’s booming economy. … Overall, President Nazarbayev, in power since 1989, deserves credit for his stewardship. While promoting Kazakh as the national language, he has been a champion of the country’s diversity. He has systematically defended the notion that Russian, the lingua franca of the Soviet period and still ubiquitous, should serve as the language of inter-ethnic communication.

Nazarbayev is a dictator, and it would be a mistake to idealize his government. In addition, despite impressive economic growth in recent years, Kazakhstan has significant economic and social problems. Law nevertheless notes that Nazarbayev has handled the language issue well.

By contrast, in an article in World Politics Review (subscribers only), American academic Nicolai Petro examines the situation in Ukraine. Recently returned from a year-long sabbatical in Odessa, Petro notes that the country is officially Ukrainian unilingual despite the fact that about 40% of the population speak Russian as their first language. He explains that Western Ukrainians see this as ‘a matter of righting a historical injustice’ and believe that failure to enforce the language monopoly will weaken the Ukrainian national identity. Eastern Ukrainians, however, feel that their culture includes both Ukrainian and Russian strands, and see such ‘Ukrainianization’ as restrictive, as attempting to erase part of their history and to diminish them.

Law describes Kazakhstan as having shown a ‘commitment to unity through respect for diversity.’ Petro urges Ukraine to make the same commitment. If Ukraine wishes to have a stable future, he writes, ‘the two core components of Ukrainian identity will have to learn to coexist on equal terms within one nation. This means recognizing that the Russian language and cultural heritage are integral parts of Ukrainian  identity.’

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