27 March 2014

Fighting Over Language: Russian and Ukrainian

Language is supposed to be a huge issue in Ukraine, at least the question of making Russian an official language there. As I follow Ukrainian television via the internet, I am amazed at how well most Ukrainians seem to speak or at least understand both Russian and Ukrainian. I wonder if the same is true in Catalonia, for Spanish and Catalan, also somewhat similar languages.

In Canada, only a minority of people are comfortable in both of the official languages of Canada.  As to the question of official status, although English and French have official status in Canada, only one of the ten provinces is officially bilingual, New Brunswick. Quebec is unilingual French and the other provinces are officially unilingual English. Only federal institutions need to offer bi-lingual services.

Ukraine is a unitary, not a federal state, so I don’t know how they can solve their language issues. It appears to be a burning issue politically, but not a big issue in real life.

5 Comments

  1. a passer-by Pole
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    AFAIK the reason is because education is divided half half languagewise. Also your Ukrainian and Russian abilities are probably distributed not in an equal manner, central with Kiev etc. Ukraine people probably know both best, whereas Lviv and others in the west mostly only Ukrainian, and Khariv et al in the east mostly only Russian.
    The understanding part isn’t that big of a deal though, it’s just the linguistical proximity of the languages. I too am able to understand Ukrainian pretty well thanks to my native Polish, but Russian, which is more distand, not so.
    I went to Kiev last year, heard barely any Ukrainian, although often signs or instructions were bilingual or even slightly more Ukrainian than Russian (but commercials, esp. the expensive stuff were mostly Russian). Then again, only a week long stay, would be glad to hear some people who ‘ve been longer or even some who’ve been born and are still living in the country :)

  2. Manuel
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I live near Valencia (on the East coast of Spain). I’m bilingual in Catalan and Spanish. There is some controversy as to whether we should use the term Valencian or Catalan (http://bit.ly/1ckS67p) but as far as I know, they’re two names for the same language (Catalan used in Catalonia and Valencian used in the Valencian Community). As far as I know, most people in Catalonia speak and understand Spanish, but I’m not sure to what extent this could change in the future. According to a 2009 study, a 99% of people understand Spanish in Catalonia (http://bit.ly/1i1JarM).

    I think Spanish (and Spanish culture) forms part of Catalonia, but I’m not sure how it will end, on account of the interest of some Catalan people to become independent (http://bit.ly/1ckS67p). I feel perfectly fine using both languages. What is curious is how languages separate people. Have you ever wondered were borders are in Europe? And why are they there? Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece, etc. It looks like countries are divided more because of the language than by their culture. We we think about newly created countries, often times they want to become independent because they speak a different language. I know what I’m saying is highly controversial, since one could also argue that borders have to do both with culture and language – but it’s curious nonetheless. Although I find “culture” difficult to define, I’d say that Catalonia shares much culture with Spain. Why would they want to be independent? Other than financial issues (“Spain steals from us”), the language is an asset that I think the Catalan Government is skillfully using.

    On the other hand, it would be curious to study where borders started. After all, early human beings must have shared the same culture. What I think must have divided them is language, but I’m just speaking as a layman in this subject. Of course there are exceptions. When you take a look at South America, I often wonder how they can divided when they share culture and speak the same language. Wouldn’t it be better if they formed something like the United States of South America?

    • Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      I think that in the old days, wars, local lords, kings and other things had a lot to do with it. Thus there are Catalans in France, and others in Spain. Arragon was largely a Catalan power which was then united with Castille through Royal marriage. There different countries that share the same language, and history and the growth of different institutions make them different, even if culturally they are not so different.

  3. Saim Inayatullah
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    The problem with “bilingualism” is that as far as sociolinguistics is concerned, social bilingualism (i.e. bilingualism spread throughout an entire society or language community) is just evidence of a language conflict, i.e. one stage in language shift. In that sense, perfect “bilingualism” doesn’t really exist. There is always a dominant and a receding language in social bilingualism – in Ukraine the dominant language is clearly Russian and in Catalonia it is clearly Spanish. You can get by with Russian in Ukraine and Spanish in Catalonia better than you can get by with just Ukrainian in Ukraine or just Catalan in Catalonia. And let’s not even mention Ukrainian in Russia or Catalan in ethnically Spanish parts of Spain – not only would people not understand you, many of them would go out of their way not to understand you. Catalan-Spanish and Ukrainian-Russian bilingualism, thus, are just transitory phases in a process of -monolinguisation- towards Spanish and Russian. If you don’t believe me, check out the devestating effects the intrusion of Russian and Spanish has had in Belarus and Aragon, respectively, where the autochtonous languages are totally absent from public life and mainly present among older speakers in familiar settings in some rural areas.

    Only the minorities ever have this “bilingualism” foisted upon them – the only really bilingual populations in Canada are the Acadians (minoritised and having to switch to English to communicate with most other inhabitants of the Maritimes) and indigenous people (whose marginalisation is undeniable). The Anglo-Canadians and Quebecois, on the other hand, are predominantly monolingual societies. All this goes to show that bilingualism is just a stage of language shift, and that it either leads to normalisation of the minority language (I can’t think of many examples of this, unfortunately) or its elimination and replacement by the invasive language.

  4. Posted May 19, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    It was really pathetic to know that people are fighting for languages. It’s really shameful.

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