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“The More Languages We Know, the Better”: Local Attitudes Toward Ukraine’s Controversial New Education Law

Hungary Today 2017.11.09.

The Beautiful month of September, full of colors and prolonged sunny days, was already nearing its end when some significant changes to the educational system of Hungary’s neighbor Ukraine emerged. 

A new educational law, along with its language modifications, was signed into law by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on the 25th of September. Its 7th paragraph has triggered a loud debate between two countries and which has been discussed and relitigated in a seemingly endless number of emergency sessions, meetings, interviews, articles and papers ever since.

While Ukrainian side kept trying to explain the necessity for the language changes, in Budapest Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó referred to the law as “a stab in the back of our country.”  Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin, when speaking at a joint news conference, said that not knowing the native language made it hard for minorities to be successful in Ukraine. “Everyone needs the opportunity to fulfill themselves in their country of citizenship…But this is not possible without knowing the language.” Klimkin added that “not a single school” would be closed or “a single teacher” dismissed because of the new language requirement.

Since it would make little sense to proceed with any discussions without a careful reading of the law itself, let us take a look at the exact language of the 7th Paragraph of the new Ukrainian education law:

№ 38-39, p. 380, paragraph №7 (translated from the original Ukrainian)

“… The language of the educational process at schools and colleges is the national language. It is also stipulated that educational institutions, according to the educational program, could teach one or more subjects in two or more languages, namely the national language, English or other official languages of the European Union. Students belonging to the national minorities of Ukraine are guaranteed the right to study in municipal institutions with the use of the language of a respective national minority along with the state language. This right shall be fulfilled through classes (groups) with instruction in the language of the corresponding national minority…”

To clarify the matter for those readers to whom the situation may still remain unclear, it is important to mention that these changes will mainly impact the western region of Transcarpathia, also known as Zakarpatts’ka Oblast’. Representing a very special part of Ukraine, it shares borders with 4 neighboring countries (Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Poland).  Transcarpathia has always been a great example of a unique ethnic mixture. In this territory, more than 38 nationalities have been peacefully living shoulder to shoulder by cooperating in harmony and with mutual understanding toward one another. The place, where nevertheless all historical territory changings, national minorities kept developing their cultures and traditions, continued using their languages and celebrating their national holidays. Living alongside 10,000 Rusins, 32,000 Romanians, 31,000 Russians, approximately 5,600 Slovaks, and a slightly lower number of Germans and Byelorussians are 151,500 Hungarians, who are the largest minority group in Transcarpathia. For this reason, Hungary’s reaction to the new education law has been quite heated.

In this article, we are attempting to approach this controversial issue from a slightly different angle. By asking for opinions of the people, whom the upcoming law effected the most, our aim was to find out local perceptions. Interviewing the representatives of various minorities living within the Transcarpathia region enabled us to collect some enlightening viewpoints on the matter.

Kateryna – student of Lviv National University, of both Hungarian and Ukrainian origin. Born and raised in the city of Berehove (also known as Beregovo or Beregszász), shared her thoughts with us:

“I am against the law, considering that Hungarians, who have been living in Berehove (Beregszász) for more than one generation already (the country kept changing – the population remained to be the same), have the right to study in their native language. If they wish to, they can attend Ukrainian schools. At the same time, however, the Ukrainian language has to be taught and known at least on a spoken level (if that is enough) at Hungarian language enterprises as well…”  

Alexandra – living and working in the city of Uzhgorod (Ungvár), a member of the region’s Russian speaking minority, commented that

“It is simply not the right time for the law to be issued. Ukraine became independent 26 years ago; however, throughout all these years the government did not pay that much attention to the importance of the Ukrainian language. Each national minority has been supported by their communities from different countries. Now, out of the blue, the Ukrainian ministry decides to highlight the significance of the national language, making it mandatory for all the residents of Ukraine. It’s not the right time! So many issues and problems are more important in the country right now. We should be starting with those first…”

We also interviewed another citizen of Hungarian, Yaroslav, a resident of Mukachevo (Munkács). His attitude towards the existing situation was the following:

“The law has been signed, however the facts for today are: no teachers prepared, no materials issued, no teaching methodology created. This evidence speaks for itself. Any qualified educational worker understands that any exact science is easier to be learned in a child’s mother tongue. Such a sharp change will lead to no good, but a decrease in pupils’ learning performance.”

“As a person who was born and raised in Transcarpathia, I can’t fully agree with the paragraph. It is an injustice towards those residents to whom these languages are native and are used on a daily basis. However, this is a two-sided coin. From a jurisprudence point of view, these changes are nothing else but a method to raise national spirit in the country, to make people who own Ukrainian passports love and respect their own country, know its history and culture, and of course speak its language, which is also stated to be the only national language in the Constitution of Ukraine. When going through such uneasy times, we must think pragmatically and responsibly…”– commented Andrey – a graduate from the National University of Kyiv and future lawyer of Ukrainian origin who was born and raised in Tyachiv, Transcarpathia.

A few students of various Budapest universities who were born and raised in Transcarpathia were asked for their opinions as well. Among those – Ella, a master’s student from the city of Khust, shared her thoughts:

“Sometimes, when meeting a person who grew up in Ukraine, I find the fact of them not speaking a word of Ukrainian ridiculous. It is unacceptable! However, I myself completely disagree with the way this law is being implemented! The rights of minorities must be supported, but knowing the national language should become compulsory. The more languages we know the better it is. Establishing bilingual schools and universities can be a fair solution, in my opinion.”

Odri – born and raised in Mukachevo (Munkács), a student from a mixed family (of Ukrainian – Hungarian origin), living in Budapest, added:

“I see the language modifications as one more reason to set local population by the ears, who, due to forces entirely beyond their control, live in the boundaries of one same country. How should the child study at the school using a language he or she does not know? The only possible consequence for them is to decrease in their studying performance and start getting bad grades. I don’t see any political, public, or any other reason to be accepting of this law.”

A very special and interesting fact was mentioned by the majority of the interviewees.  People tended to say that, in the early 2000s, when a Ukraine was young and promising country with relative stability, the Hungarian-speaking population used to sign up their children for Ukrainian schools. This enabled them to learn the language and enter state universities afterwards. As a result, a shortage of students enrolling in Hungarian schools appeared. When the situation in Ukraine started getting worse, more pupils began applying for Hungarian schools.

Also, there was a general feeling among interviewees that signing this law was an attempt to distract the population from much more serious, essential questions in Ukraine.

Olen shared some very thoughtful comments. She is a Russian speaking public worker and a resident of Kiev, of Ukrainian origin. She said that “The possibility of choice should stay with people. Let there be various schools: Russian, Hungarian, English, French, Spanish, Ukrainian etc. Grant every single family the right to which one their child will be enrolled into. Who said that school graduates must be exclusively choosing among Ukrainian universities? Give them the possibility to go for any university around the world. Thank God, we live in the 21st century and not in the era of serfdom.”

In the long run, perhaps the best summary can be found in the following statement:

“… the way we see the perfect situation in Ukraine is when a majority of the young generation with Hungarian origin as well as children from other minorities will be enthusiastic and willful to sign up for bilingual schools. Schools where they will have an opportunity to learn both the language of their grandfathers as well as the one of their country of residence, the country they are willing and inspired to work in, the country they are eager to develop and where they imagine their future. This would be the desired balance, characterizing any civilized and developed country…”



By Polina Avramenko

Images via unian.info and wikimedia commons