October 13, 2017

Language and education

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On September 5 Ukraine’s Parliament, by a vote of 255 for and 20 against, passed a new law on education, and on September 25 President Petro Poroshenko signed the law. Among its provisions is one that has generated some controversy: the mandate that Ukrainian be the language of instruction in Ukraine’s schools beginning in the fifth grade.

Three of Ukraine’s neighbors, Russia, Hungary and Romania, seized on that provision to argue that the law is discriminatory and adversely affects the national minorities in Ukraine who speak their languages. Russia went as far as calling the new law “ethnocide” of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, Hungary has asked the European Union to review its Association Agreement with Ukraine, and the Romanian president cancelled a scheduled trip to Kyiv in protest.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry sent the law on education for review to the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe that comprises independent experts in constitutional law. The council’s secretary general, Thorbjorn Jagland, was quoted by the ZIK information agency on October 6 as saying that, “As a rule, the minorities in Europe must speak freely the state language of the country they live in. This is vitally important for their full participation in the life of the country. Therefore, the state must use all it takes to ensure the minorities know the state language of their country.”

Interfax reported that Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze commented in an interview with Channel 5 on October 11: “I suspect that not all steam will be let off even if we receive the Venice Commission’s opinion in December. I am convinced that there will be further attempts to inflate this story from one side or the other.”

Clearly there is much noise and political coloration surrounding this issue, and that is why our Kyiv correspondent Mark Raczkiewycz tackled the matter in his front-page story last week. And what did we learn that wasn’t widely reported in other news media in the West? That elementary school students will still be able to attend schools where instruction is in their native language and Ukrainian is taught as a subject. That students of higher grades will be able to continue learning their native language as a subject in Ukrainian-language schools. That the law doesn’t prevent additional schooling in minority languages on a private level, whether the initiative is parental, funded by foreign governments or through non-profit groups (think of our own schools of Ukrainian studies here in the U.S.). That the law provides for a three-year transition period until 2020 to allow for implementation, like finding Ukrainian-language teachers for schools affected by the change. And that the law, as underscored by the Presidential Administration, “raises the role of the official Ukrainian language in the learning process” and emphasizes the “importance of steadfast observance during education of the humanitarian rights of national minorities who live on the territory of Ukraine.”

What’s more, the new law aims to be inclusive. Oleksandr Sushko, research director at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, told our correspondent that existing policies prevented minorities from “effectively integrating into Ukrainian society and advancing their education and careers.” In fact, experts have noted that those who graduate from schools where Ukrainian is not the language of instruction do poorly when applying to higher educational institutions, e.g. universities, where Ukrainian is the sole language of instruction. The new law aims to remedy the situation by giving all an equal opportunity in education and in their careers, where knowledge of the state language is a necessity.

Bottom line: Ukraine is right that its students should know the state language. The new education law promotes consolidation of the Ukrainian nation. And students who learn the state language only stand to benefit.

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