The Bitter Smack of Belarusian Language

This month an advertising campaign that may puzzle foreign observers was launched in Minsk.  Advertising company “Belzneshreklama” began to advertise the Belarusian language. Their posters show various berries and Belarusian names for them. And what is more unusual - they also decided to display the Russian translation.

The title of the campaign is: “The taste of the Belarusian language”. One would think that Belarusians would know how their language tastes and need no reminders about it. However, a population census in 2009 showed that only 30% of Belarusians speak Belarusian every day.  Understanding the language situation in Belarus is difficult for foreigners.

Coming to Minsk for the first time, one might think that Russian is the only language spoken in the country. Until the newcomer gets lost when he wants to get out at “Oktjabrskaja" underground station and does not understand that he should have done so when “Kastrychnickaja” was announced. Stations are announced only in Belarusian on public transportation which may create difficulties for those who speak only Russian. 

While Belarus has two official languages, Russian dominates in the capital. Belarusian TV is in mainly in Russian (except for a negligible number of programmes), the same is true for print media. Belarusian, or rather a mixture of Russian or Polish and Belarusian called “Trasianka,” is spoken mainly in the countryside, depending on the geographical situation of the village.

Belarusian was the only official language in the country until the referendum in 1995. Since then, the use of the Belarusian language has become a political issue. The pro-Russian government of Lukashenka stigmatized Belarusian-speakers as radical opposition activists. This policy has changed with the cooling down between Russia and Belarus. After the gas conflict in 2007, the authorities cautiously started promoting the Belarusian language as a characteristic of Belarusian national identity.

Still, it appears that in 2011 instead of putting up some posters, a broader approach is needed to foster the use of the Belarusian language. Generations of Belarusians have grown up in a Russian-speaking environment and have been socialized in a russophone educational system. There is only half a generation of young people that have gone to school between 1991 and 1995, when Belarusian was the first language.

However, there seems to be no serious intention to create a Belarusian-speaking environment. Most of the mass media continue to broadcast in Russian - with very few exceptions. It is very difficult to find literature for children in Belarusian. As a result, those few parents who want to raise Belarusian-speaking children buy books for children in Russian and translate them into Belarusian themselves. As a consequence, most children learn Belarusian as a foreign language when they go to school.

These days only 2% of children in Minsk attend a Belarusian-speaking school. In the whole country, only 19% of pupils are taught in Belarusian.  These numbers have decreased significantly since 2001 and it reveals that there is no clear tendency towards promotion of the Belarusian language.

In order to prevent Belarusian from disappearing, more than a small number of activists are needed. A language lives through its speakers. It must come naturally to the Belarusians to speak their beautiful language. The more people speak it - the more often it will be heard in the streets. And one day, people will stop turning their heads in astonishment when they hear a foreigner speak Belarusian in the streets.

Nadine Lashuk



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