Will minority languages remain in Belarusian schools?

Will minority languages remain in Belarusian schools?

The issue of teaching in the languages of national minorities in Belarus is especially important for the Hrodna region. In ethnic and confessional terms, it is the most heterogeneous region of Belarus. The problem of education in minority languages in Belarus has been raised for the past decade. It has also been consistent with Belarus’ international relations. Particular attention should be paid to possible alternatives of developments in this sphere. An ICELDS expert, historian and cultural expert Andrzej Tichomirow presents his vision of the problem.

Andrzej Tichomirow: The necessity for education in non-state languages in this region has been raised since the late 1980s. Currently there are four full secondary schools with instruction in the languages of national minorities (Polish and Lithuanian) in the region. They work in accordance with state educational standards. Languages are taught as compulsory or elective classes; there are also various forms of education provided by public and private organizations, and lectures in high educational institutions. Interest in the learning of languages (primarily Polish) in the region is growing not only because of the growing awareness of minority representatives, but also due to economic and social reasons, including labor migration, as well as the development of cooperation with neighboring states. In addition to Polish and Lithuanian, Georgian, Armenian, Hebrew, and several other languages are taught in the region.

The forms of teaching of minority languages have been changing over the past 20 years from the desire of public organizations to have secondary education in the minority language to the gradual minimization of these demands in which the focus is made on the actual embracement of language, and elements of history and culture. Basically, the state is little interested in expansion of education in minority languages. This position is mainly supported by the argument that there is little demand for this form of education among students and their parents. Additional financial investments in teaching manuals, programs and equipment are also needed. Attempts have been made to redesign existing schools, such as for example proposals to create Russian-language classes in schools with the Polish language of instruction, as well as proposals to teach some school subjects in one of the state languages. Some media have linked the dependence of the existence of schools of national minority schools with the current state of Belarusian-Polish relations.

Education in minority languages will depend on the wish of students and their parents, the activity of public organizations, as well as on the political and economic situation in the region. The involvement of the state in this domain is primarily situational: the problems are being solved almost exclusively as they are articulated by the organizations which usually do not go beyond the issues of cultural and linguistic self-expression. There has been a pronounced tendency of cutting education in minority languages in public schools in recent years, whereas the number of civil and private initiatives in this sphere is growing. Nonetheless, the state expresses no interest in expansion of the education in minority languages. It rather strives to maintain the existing situation or even to reduce this education.

There are three possible scenarios for the development of the education in the minority  languages in the Hrodna region:

    1. Maintaining of the existing trend will lead to a reduction of the education in minority languages in the state educational institutions. Education in minority languages won’t completely vanish, but will be minimized. Due to possible critics from the outside, Belarusian authorities will maintain the necessary minimum of courses primarily to maintain the image of the development and preservation of national minorities’ cultures. In parallel with teaching in public schools, the number of private initiatives (adult courses) will grow. Their offering will be focused on the Polish language and culture courses. The main target group of these activities will be those who wish to obtain the Pole’s Card (Karta Polaka). Perhaps, the creation of these courses will also be reduced in the long term due to decrease in demand, because a significant part of those wishing to receive the Pole’s Card have already done so. Such courses mean a certain competition for public organizations of the Polish minority which offer evening courses and weekend schools. They offer a higher level of language and culture teaching, designed primarily for schoolchildren and students. However, the education forms beyond public schools are subjected to strong commercialization, which foresees obtaining a fairly quick profit; courses are usually designed for two or three months. In the case of public organizations’ courses an important element is their stable program. They are designed for several years of education and have a certain tradition of teaching. This scenario seems the most realistic nowadays.
    2. Expansion of education in the national minority languages in public schools. In this case one could expect an increasing number of classes where it would be possible to learn minority languages as a compulsory or elective subject, as well as to preserve the curriculum in schools with minority languages of instruction and to stop attempts to switch them into the state languages (primarily Russian). This scenario seems less likely than the first one, as it is linked with significant financial investments into the education system. The state has recently cut funding for education and the situation would unlikely change.
    3. The complete cessation of educational courses in minority languages in public schools under various pretexts, for example from an alleged “lack of demand” or a reluctance to finance “unprofitable programs”. This scenario seems to be the least likely as it can provoke public protests as well as critics from other states. Moreover, this scenario might significantly deteriorate the image of the country which positions itself as tolerant and free from any kind of ethnic and religious conflicts.

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