Fifth Annual Conference of the International Association of Languages Commissioners (IALC)
Encouraging learning official languages through education: challenges and opportunities
Dukagjin Pupovci, Kosovo Education Centre
Allow me to extend my gratitude to the organizer for invitation to be part of the panel. I consider myself as an expert in education, but not an expert in learning languages. However, I would like to share with you a personal experience, which, hopefully, will help me describe the complexity of learning languages in use in our surroundings. I belong to those generations that learned the Serbo-Croatian language, as it was called back then, in schools, streets and from the media of then.
In 1981, when I enrolled in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Prishtina, I was surprised by the fact that the overwhelming majority of professors recommended Russian literature, which was not difficult to be found. The Soviet publishers constantly published quality books in the field of mathematics, and they even translated the best English books into Russian. All of these books were sold to the Socialist bloc countries at exceptionally affordable prices. Possessing good knowledge of Serbo-Croatian language, there were no difficulties for my generation to utilize Russian literature and this has helped us a lot during our studies.
Four years later, when I engaged as a professor at the same Faculty that I graduated from. I started to apply my professors' practices, thus, recommending books in Russian, and such practise continued until 1991, respectively until we were expelled from the university premises. At that time, the university split into two: the Albanian university operating outside the premises and which was persecuted by the then regime, and the Serbian university which continued to operate within the official premises of the University. Even after such split, both universities pursued identical programs, with the only difference that the Albanian university had no longer a Serbo-Croatian language program, and the Serbian university had no Albanian language program. Since 1991, Albanians decided to no longer learn the Serbian-Croatian language, whereas, to be sincere, the Serbs decided to drop learning Albanian language much earlier.
Refusal to learn each other's language was part of the national identity of both sides. Put simply, it was considered unpatriotic for an Albanian to learn Serbian or for a Serb to learn Albanian. The collateral damage behind such story was the Russian language program in the Albanian part of the University of Prishtina, which ceased after 2-3 years as no one was willing to learn the language of a country supporting Serbia. Thus, the history of Russian language books came to an end.
The post-war period lead to an even greater distancing between Albanians and Serbs, respectively the people that spoke others language preferred to communicate in English. For the last 19 years, there has been no serious initiative for young people in Kosovo to learn others language. As a rule, those Albanians that spoke Serbian or those Serbs who spoke Albanian cannot be younger than 32 years. Based on the census data, only 2.1% of non-Serb youth aged 22-26 declare to speak Serbian, while amongst people aged 27-31, this percentage is 5%. Meanwhile, 40.7 % of the age group 22-26 and 36.4% of the age group 27-31 declared to speak English language.
Thus, the coming generations possess scarce knowledge of the Serbian language, but they know English, although when it comes to quality of speaking English it is a question-mark to be discussed. After 27 years of interrupting communication in the Serbian language, it will be very difficult to have the same level of speaking others language as in the 80s of the past century. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should give up on encouraging young people to learn the spoken languages in our surroundings. After all, the European Union strongly recommends that everyone should be able to speak at least two other languages other than the native language.
Let me quote a distinguished education expert, Dr Alen Glenn, who says: “The biggest obstacle to school change is our memories.” I understand this that we, as people, as members of certain ethnic communities, have our memories and prejudices. In addition to the so-called “national pride”, an exhausted argument for not learning the languages has been the risk of assimilation. Nowadays no one can assimilate anyone. Everyone has their own identity, and the path that we all together are moving forward is the globalization, which is somehow a type of assimilation towards a global world.
Regardless how difficult it seems, we, as a society, as a new country, should seek ways for our citizens to learn others language. It is in interest of the Albanian community to learn Serbian or Bosnian because since we live in a region where Slavic languages are spoken to a great extent. Same argument can be attached to Turkish language, which has about 90 million speakers, without counting those who speak languages of the same family. Learning the Albanian language for the Serb, Bosnian, Turkish, and other minority communities is a necessity to their integration into society.
It is in the interest of the Republic of Kosovo to have as many bilingual citizens as possible, excluding here the knowledge of globally used languages. An advantage for us is the fact that a considerable number of Kosovo's citizens can learn these languages in areas where those languages are in use id daily basis. After all, we should think about the time when all the Balkan countries will be part of the European Union and our languages will be official European languages.
In practical terms, the process of learning others languages of surrounding areas can start with pilot projects in multi-ethnic areas, respectively in higher education institutions that offer programs in the field of linguistics. Also, State institutions may also encourage its officials to learn the languages of the surrounding areas. I believe that over time, this process will be seen as a necessity.