March 16, 2001

Language use and teaching in the countries of the former Soviet Union and its satellites are politically charged.

"Educators worldwide believe in the importance of the native language for concept formation in childhood," says James Muckle, special professor of comparative education at the University of Nottingham, "but there is also a need for individuals to communicate with the wider community. Unfortunately, in many cases, the language of the majority is perceived by the minority as the language of oppression."

Rachel Walker, senior lecturer in government at Essex University, takes the argument further. "Language is a clear marker of national identity, both in the sense of statehood and of ethnicity. Language has become a major issue and a potential source of conflict -particularly in countries that are redefining themselves."

Dominic Lieven, professor of Russian government at the London School of Economics, agrees. "Language defines who is part of the nation and who is not; it defines who gets jobs; it defines status."

Such debates are not confined to countries emerging from communism. "It is a general phenomenon of the end of empires," Professor Lieven says.

The concept of linguistic rights is evident in the discourse of international politics, and countries wishing for membership of organisations such as the European Union or Nato can find themselves under pressure to put their linguistic house in order.

But what constitutes a language? Academics dealing with the former Yugoslavia have a particular problem. Celia Hawskworth, senior lecturer in Serbian and Croatian Studies at London University's School of Slavonic and East Europe Studies, says: "We have to deal with three official languages - Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, essentially variants of the same language, although politicians and philologists are working to make them different.

"We used to teach Serbo-Croat, but now we teach Serbian and Croatian and try to ensure that our students are exposed to and aware of the differences."

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