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Linguistic Initiatives Conquer Belarus

It starts at the moment of passport control on the Belarusian side. A disbelief and suspicion on the border officer’s face when hearing a foreigner replying in Belarusian to routine questioning in Russian is priceless. Soon it becomes apparent that this is a state bilingualism à la Belarus.

April 29, 2014 - Paula Borowska - Articles and Commentary

29.04.2014 Untitled1

Photo:Paula Borowska

Whereas Russian remains predominantly the language of politics, education and the media, Belarusian appears in Minsk underground, some TV advertisements, street names and the Catholic Church. Certainly, the vast majority of Belarusians are bilingual, but Russian remains today the lingua franca for almost all of them. That happens with a tacit support from the authorities, state institutions and most electronic state-controlled media.

On April 22nd 2014, Alexander Lukashenka said that without the Belarusian language the nation would not survive. But in practice the state is paying little interest to the promotion of Belarusian and civil society activists took the matter into their own hands. They came up with a few interesting initiatives of teaching Belarusian in a form of free group language courses. Mova ci kava and Mova nanova have ushered in a new era for the popularisation of Belarusian and respond to an increasing demand for the language.

The Minsk-based Art Siadziba has also recently launched the Heta svajo campaign. It aims at the promotion of the Latin rather than Cyrillic script of Belarusian and targets primarily youths. Another initiative, Smak bielaruskaj movy (“A Taste of the Belarusian Language”), albeit launched a few years ago by an advertising company, still remains present in the busy parts of Minsk.

Who speaks Belarusian and where

Data from Population Census 2009 shows that 60.8 per cent of Belarusians declare Belarusian as their native language. That is significantly less than compared with 1999, when 85 per cent people indicated Belarusian.

Fewer people also speak Belarusian at home. In 2009, only 26 per cent of them stated that used the language at home, against 41 per cent of people who declared it in 1999.

A few factors cause this phenomenon. Today young Belarusians have fewer opportunities to learn their native language at state schools. First, the number of fully Belarusian-language schools have dropped over the last years. The Russian language remains predominant also in higher education. Although the decision on the language belongs to lecturers, they usually opt for Russian. Not a single fully Belarusian-language university operates in Belarus.

The media also are responsible for setting a certain trend, and the language of entertainment, politics, news, and discussions regarding the society remains Russian. State television and newspapers address predominantly the Russian-speaking audience and readership, with the exception of state radio stations, which broadcast primarily in Belarusian.

Kachańnie or Liubov 

Belarusian activists have tried various creative approaches to appeal Belarusians to get to know their native language.

In 2011, Minsk’s inhabitants were astonished to see the intriguing banners that mushroomed in all the busy parts of the city. That was the beginning of the civil campaign “A Taste of the Belarusian Language” (Smak biełaruskaj movy). The banners presented an illustration with its meaning in Belarusian and Russian (see photo).


Recently, a group of young Belarusians started to promote use of Latin Belarusian. The Heta svajo project primarily addresses young people and presents a series of videos posted on the internet. The project’s managers try to demonstrate that the Latin version of Belarusian has a long history and was used by a number of prominent Belarusian writers, political activists and historical figures.

Free group courses of Belarusian

The organisers of another initiative, Mova ci kava (“Language or Coffee”), went even further to accommodate those wishing to learn they Belarusian language. In January 2013 they began free informal Belarusian language courses on a bigger scale. Initially, the classes took place in Moscow, but a similar project appeared also in Minsk.

It soon turned out to be a successful initiative and was enthusiastically welcomed mainly by Belarusians. Today, Mova ci kava continues to give lessons in Moscow and Minsk, and each class attracts dozens of people keen on spending their free time on learning the language.

In January 2014 Alesia Litivinouskaja and Hleb Labadzienka, previously involved in Mova ci kava, launched a competing project Mova nanova (“Language Once Again”). In additional to free Belarusian language courses, the organisers created a web site with learning materials and exercises to do at home. Mova nanova pioneered its classes throughout the whole country, not only Minsk and the big cities. They attracted people by offering a non-academic form of teaching with a number of interesting interactive exercises enriched with use of multimedia.

Alesia Litvinouskaja from Mova nanova classes says that over 300 people attended the first class. That surpassed expectations of the organisers. Now each class attracts around 200-260 participants, people representing different age and social groups, but also families with children and relatives.


A demand for the Belarusian language


The Mova nanova and Mova ci kava courses became hits. The idea of both initiatives seems trivial: people gather in one place, a café or another public space, and practice their native language with lecturers. The simple, noncommittal form of the courses, now organised not only in Minsk but throughout Belarus, offers something new and interesting.

The courses also play a social role: they enable people to meet others in an informal setting, make new friends, entertain and get involve other families’ members. They make people feel part of a community.

As a result of the state’s policy, the language became to a large extent marginalised and people predominantly use it passively. In the opinion of Litvinouskaja, even those Belarusians who consider Belarusian to be their native language cannot it well.

The popularity of Mova nanova demonstrates an increasing demand for the language among Belarusians. Even the initial problems with facilities, like a shortage of chairs for all students who signed up for the first class, did not daunt people from participation. On the contrary, it motivated them to deal with the difficulty on their own. With time, the organisers also with support from their students, equipped the room where the classes took place.

The initiative belongs to everyone

Veranika Famina joined the course ‘Mova nanova’ when she realised that could no longer freely communicate in Belarusian. “It was an unpleasant surprise for me to discover this, so I started looking for the opportunities to improve my knowledge and communication skills since,” she explains her motivations to join the courses Mova nanova.

When asked how to convince more people to learn and speak Belarusian, Veranika replies that no one should be persuaded. In her opinion the choice remains a matter of one’s conscience. “I would like the Belarusians to be real Belarusians. And the language is the only thing that differs us from others, makes us distinct,” she adds. In her opinion, the group courses of Belarusian give a chance not only to make new friends, but also meet with interesting Belarusian artists, musicians and poets who attend the course as guest speakers.

Alesia Litvinouskaja points out that everyone can organise the Mova nanova course in his or her hometown. “Hleb (the second co-organiser-author – author’s note) and I are ready to come and teach how to lecture, and then share all our materials,” she states. The classes have already taken place throughout the country, in Babrujsk, Hrodna, Baranovichy and Niasvizh, but also in Kraków, Poland.

Both the projects ‘Mova ci kava’ and ‘Mova nanova’ are active on social media networks, allowing people to follow the most recent activities and get updates on the future meetings.

Grass-roots projects that require human commitment

The success of the linguistic initiatives, such as Mova nanova, Mova ci kava and Heta svajo, proves that there is a niche for the Belarusian language, which is filled in by the civil society activists. Alesia Litvinouskaja states that teaching in the courses became her hobby, but at the same time a civil duty to fulfil.

These low-budget initiatives on language courses prove also that their organisers have a sense of responsibility for the Belarusian society. Unlike many other alternative projects, the organisers and participants of these initiatives do not need support from western donors and do not position themselves as victims of the regime. This is why these initiatives remain viable and attractive to a wider circle of Belarusians.

The courses also set positive linguistic trends themselves. It is becoming fashionable to learn and use Belarusian in the country where state bilingualism sanctions predominantly use of Russian.

Paula Borowska is a contributor to Belarus Digest and an analyst with the Centre for Transition Studies in London. She completed an internship at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw where her work primarily focused on Belarus. She also runs a blog about Belarus: borowska.by.


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