I’m on an e-mail listserve about language policy. If this is a topic you never really thought about, you might think this listserve is probably rather dry, if not downright boring, and I guess you might be right, sometimes. But sometimes, language policy looks like this:
While the mechanics of language policy can be pretty academic, actually implementing such a policy tends to get, as you can see, fairly heated. This photo is from a few weeks ago when the Ukrainian parliament was debating a bill that would recognize Russian as a co-official regional languages in areas of Ukraine with high populations of Russian speakers. While some commentators call for cooler heads, stressing that the bill keeps Ukrainian as the one official state language for the entire nation, and proponents say that it is merely a step towards offering language services to all linguistic minority communities, opposition parliamentarians and activists have staged protests in Kiev and all across Europe, claiming the bill is a threat to the Ukrainian language and a move by powerful players to bring the nation even more under the sway of Russia itself. Tensions ran so high that parliament had to shut down after a fistfight broke out in the middle of deliberations.
I’ll refrain from taking sides in this one. I have a degree in Eastern European and Russian studies, and obviously I also have an interest in languages and language policy, so I can see things from both sides. Which is why I’ve been avoiding discussing it 🙂 But I wanted to bring it up to show just how tangled and tangible official policies about languages can be. Ukraine’s politics are complicated, but so are politics everywhere, and it’s usually safe to assume that policies often have to do with factors outside of the policies themselves. Language policies are almost always closely connected to issues of power, inequality, and disenfranchisement (or hegemony). And of course, our languages are very close to our hearts, a fact made even more apparent when we perceive them to be under threat. Ukrainian expats in Europe protested holding signs which read “Language lives – Ukraine will live!” Language policy, like language itself, touches on identity, community, family, power, history, all of those intensely human and intensely emotional things.
But this doesn’t mean, of course, that these kinds of things always have to end up in a fistfight. Al-Jazeera today reported that Turkey has announced it will lift a ban on teaching Kurdish language in Turkish schools, a policy step taken in the hopes of reconciling with the large Kurdish minority within that country. It’s a small step, and many Kurdish activists underscored that it doesn’t go far enough in addressing all of the problems between the majority and minorities in Turkey. But it is an important step, and an interesting one. And as the Ukrainians would remind us: language policy matters quite a lot.