Watch Your Tongue: Language Issues

Latvia Russian language victory day

A flag in Russian language celebrating Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. Latvian flags in the background. flickr/payorivero

Now it is possible to name our modern world as the era of bilingualism. It is assumed that a qualified graduate should know at least one foreign language. That is because in the XXI century not a single country can develop in isolation. Those times have passed. The growing role of mass media, technological advance, a global network of the Internet, international companies that operate across the world, expansion of scientific ties, business connections and cultural contacts – all of this have lead to the fact that knowledge of the foreign language is a necessity. However, among new benefits there are new challenges, primarily connected to language and cultural divide.

Today it is not obligatory to live and work at one place, in one country. Geopolitical conflicts have caused unprecedented migration and a medley of races. The number of refugees, migrants and just employees, who are going to another country to earn more money, is constantly increasing. That is why the notion of language and cultural conflict is spreading and becoming more significant. Now it is an important part of our information society.

According to A. Genes, bilingualism is the first lesson of democracy. Indeed, any shop sign in two languages gives an example of tolerance. There are more than seven thousands of languages in the world, which is why it is impossible to say that English language is more logical than French, and French is more beautiful than German. Meanwhile, both logic and beauty are expressed differently in language; correspondingly people’s attitude towards these notions varies.

The main aim of language is communication, its efficiency. Therefore, we use mother tongue and/or foreign language to speak to each other. Aside from that, both of them store cultural patterns behind the letters, attitude towards different objects of real world (such as time, distance, velocity etc.). This is the reason why cultural and political challenges are being associated with a language conflict.

Learning of a foreign language helps us to view a culture from a different perspective. It gives us new information regarding “alien” culture; moreover, it gives us understanding of it. In other words, to learn a language means to learn its culture.

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For instance, Ter-Minasova defines “time” as a notion that is culturally and linguistically different. This distinction becomes obvious when comparing attitudes towards time and measures of time. Although almost every nation recognizes a day as a period of 24 hours, an hour as 60 minutes and so on; length of morning, afternoon, evening and night differs.

Consequently, time greetings will be very distinctive among languages. In English language parts of the day are strictly defined. A starting point is “morning”, which is according to the dictionary “the part of the day from 12 o’clock at night until 12 o’clock in the middle of the day”. That is why at 11.59 a.m. it will be “good morning” but at 12.03 p.m. – “good afternoon”. This accuracy reflects British or American precision.

In comparison, in Russian language parts of the day have blurry borders, because it depends on light and dark. Moreover, daylight in Russia fluctuates according to a geographical position and the season of the year. To this extent it is different from Europe, which is geographically smaller. So, as David Wansbrough, (an Australian poet and writer) once said: “When are you going home late at night [in Russia], in the West it would be early in the morning”. In Russian language a person says “добрый день” (literally good day) at 7 p.m. in summer (because it’s not dark) or “добрый вечер” (good evening) at the same time in winter (because it’s already dark). This distinction is clearly shown in attitude towards time. Russian people are never in hurry and they are usually late. Thus, bilingualism helps us to view the same concept from different sides.

However, as appealing as it is, linguistic diversity is not always encouraged within one country. Sometimes a situation escalates when one of the languages is dominant: it is more widespread, it is used more often etc. Europe regularly faces this problem. In Italy, for instance, apart from Italian language there are plenty of dialects and independent languages (like Venetian language). In Spain there is not only well-known Spanish language, but also Catalan, Basque and others.

Likewise, it can happen with absolutely different languages that belong to different nations. There are many examples in history when after the war a language of a conqueror was imposed on conquered people. In this way a conquered language was being pushed out from all the spheres of life. The conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 brought French language. It soon became a language of the noble class. English was considered as the language of peasants. Thus, those who used English or did not use the official were easily identified among others and were treated differently because of it. That is why a dominating language usually has negative connotations.

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There are other examples of language conflicts that are lasting for years. The collapse of the USSR left nearly no monolingual countries; consequently, it became more difficult to accommodate the minorities. In Latvia, according to statistics, around 61% of the population is Latvians; the Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russian make approximately 32%. Since Latvia gained independence, Russian language is still common. Moreover, still many people do not know Latvian language and feel comfortable in the country. Obviously, it is understandable that the Latvian government wants to strengthen national language. By doing so, they are stabilizing the society. But the language conflict became even more intense after events in Ukraine in the beginning of 2014.

It is undeniable that a language factor may influence the political situation in the country. It can be even supported by the parties to provoke further conflicts.

In the beginning of 2015 the Centre of the National Language urged their citizens to speak only Latvian language at the workplaces and even at breaks. Obviously, they are trying to limit the usage of Russian language, yet it would influence other languages as well. In the perspective people might even get fined for it. By pressing a particular language on everyone, by limiting the ability to speak mother tongue, all of it might inflame and provoke serious conflicts, like it happened in Kosovo.

That is why language conflicts are usually parallel to political ones. More often they are the results of the political issues, as the language clashes are based on the cultural clashes. One can say that a language controversy is a so-called tinderbox. Attempts to banish one language may result in ethnocentricity.

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Yet, Latvia has been tightening national language policy for a long time. They did not use careful approach by providing people with facilities or means to learn Latvian language, as it was the case in England when they were teaching English language immigrants for free. However, now it seems too late for that. Many Russian-speaking people simply do not want to learn the official language anymore; they are satisfied with basic knowledge of it.

Such concern over the national language is understandable and there is nothing wrong with it, but this also reflects the unwillingness of the government to accept bilingualism of the country. Considering that Russian is a world language, would not it be only a benefit to make it official? On the one hand, it would definitely improve economics by attracting more companies and clients. On the other hand, it might endanger the national language, as it is not so widespread as Russian. Moreover, due to the current political situation in the world, Latvia is trying to ensure its safety, and making Russian language official would attract many Russian-speaking people.

It is also important to note that a negative attitude towards a particular language causes dislike of the people who speak it and its culture. It is common that judging by language one would presume people’s nationality. However, in the framework of globalizing world even these notions are shifting.

To sum up, it is important to say that since each language contains unique ethnic and national representation, it is a significant characteristic of every nation. On the other hand, the main goal of language, that is communication, makes language conflicts pointless. Yet, it arises many disputes. Currently language is used in all kinds of way: for political purposes, for self-identification etc.

Although the principle of “one country – one nation – one language” is common and popular, it is rather controversial. In some cases it contradicts with the complex reality. As in Austria people speak German language, but most of the people do not consider themselves German. Why it is not an issue there?

Language issues prove to be the hardest and the most sensitive in modern politics. Pursuing the right to speak one’s mother tongue may be a way of expressing cultural and social grievances.

Alexandra Goman
Specialist in global security and nuclear disarmament. Excited about international relations, curious about cognitive, psycho- & neuro-linguistics. A complete traveller.