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MOTHER TONGUE

IISEPS surveys of the languages which Belarusians use for communication usually provoked much criticism. In particular, they claimed that answers to the questionnaire might reflect only external side of language behavior which was coercive. In the opinion of critics, it would be more correct to ask respondents about their aspirations and about the language they would like to speak as their mother tongue. We assume that in this case critics extrapolated onto the whole society their personal life experience or experience of the people in their circle for whom preservation of the Belarusian language or conversion from Russian to Belarusian language were the result of a deliberate spiritual choice.

We deeply respect their choice, but we would like to note that language behavior of overwhelming majority of people springs out from different motives which is proved in the data of opinion poll conducted by independent sociologists in October of 2006.

Table 1. Distribution of answers to the question: “Why do you speak the language you speak?” (more than one answer is possible)

Variant of answer

%

I speak this language from my childhood

63.7

This is the most common language in the place where I live

25.3

This is the language of my people and my homeland

13.0

As the Table 1 shows, only 13% of the polled explained their language behavior with top values of the nation and the country. Respondents could choose several variants of answer when answering to this question, and it has turned out that, apart from these 13%, the majority of respondents feel that motivation “because this is the language of my people and my homeland” is just alien to them.

At the same time overwhelming majority – nearly two thirds – explained their choice of language of communication with a much more natural reason – “this is the language I speak from childhood.” In a sense, this motivation is also based on values, yet it is based on the values not of the nation but of the family.

It is worth to compare data in Table 1 with the result of a recent opinion poll conducted by Center of Economic and Political Studies of A. Razumkov in Ukraine (see http://www.zerkalo-nedeli.com/nn/show/610/54246/). In accordance with their research, natural motivation of language behavior (“I speak this language from my childhood”) won absolute and relative majority in all regions of Ukraine – from 47% in the west of the country to 62% in its east. Value-based motivation (“This is the language of my people and my homeland”) is the most popular in the west of Ukraine – 43%, and it makes 22% in the center, 11% in the east and 8% in the south of the country.

Dominance of natural motivation for language behavior in Belarus (as well as in Ukraine) reveals that the majority speaks in mother’s language proper – this is exactly the language their parents taught them in childhood. The problem is what languages and to what extent are mother tongues for Belarusians. This situation is reflected in Table 2.

This is not new that Belarusian-speaking citizens make the minority while Russian-speaking – the majority in Belarus. Unexpected is that almost three quarters of Russian speakers chose natural motivation for their language behavior and said that the Russian language is exactly their mother’s language. What’s more, this motivation appeared the most popular among Russian-speaking respondents only as compared to other language groups.

The number of Russian-speaking citizens defining natural motivation for their language behavior makes 38.1% (52.3 х 72.9 : 100) of all respondents. Taking into account that, according to the population census of 1991, 81% of citizens are ethnic Belarusians in this country, at least a half of these 38% are Belarusians by blood.

Table 2. Connection between answers to the question “What language do you mainly use in everyday communication?” and “Why do you speak the language you speak?”*, %

Language of everyday communication:

Why do you speak the language you speak?

I speak this language from my childhood (63.7)

This is the most usual language in the place where I live (25.3)

This is the language of my people and my homeland (13)

Belarusian (7.8)

57.3

16.3

27.4

Russian (52.3)

72.9

17.2

9.7

Russian and Belarusian (16.1)

53.0

33.4

23.0

Crude mixture (23.0)

53.2

41.9

8.9

* Table is read across

Value-based motivation “because this is the language of my people and my homeland” is little characteristic of this group as compared to others. In this sense Belarus appears similar to Ukraine. According to the data of Razumkov’s Center, there is a close connection between prevalence of the Ukrainian language in the region and popularity of value orientation: 43% of respondents in the Ukrainian-speaking west and 8% – in the Russian-speaking south point out to this.

However, this ratio is different in Belarus: popularity of value-based orientation among Belarusian-speaking population stands at the level of Ukraine’s center and among Russian-speaking population – at the level of Ukraine’s east. Although value-based motivation is less characteristic of Russian-speaking citizens than of Belarusian-speaking and the bilingual, in absolute expression Russian speakers with value-based orientation are larger in number than representatives of other language groups with the same motivation. Thus, Russian speakers with value-based motivation make 5% of the total number of respondents, Belarusian speakers – 2%, bilingual citizens – 3.7% and those speaking crude mixture of the two languages – 2%.

The above 5% are probably constituted from ethnic Russians who mean Russia and the Russians by “my homeland” and “my people” as well as from representatives of various nations considering that Russian is the language of Belarus and Belarusians.

It is obvious that very few stick to this viewpoint. Russian-speaking respondents almost to the same little extent as Belarusian-speaking respondents are inclined to explain their language behavior with any pragmatic reasons or with influence of environment – “this is the most common language in the place where I live.” This reason is the most popular in transition groups and especially among those who speak crude mixture of the two languages. Native speakers of the crude mixture most likely understand that they speak incorrect language, so reference to the pragmatic reason is a kind of self-approval: we are normal people who speak like anyone else around us.

Data in Tables 1 and 2 break several outstanding myths. In particular, it goes from these tables that attitude to the use of this or that language as a deliberate choice based on national values is peculiar of a very small part of Belarusian citizens. Furthermore, definition of Russian-speaking Belarusians as those who gave up their mother tongue may be correct in a generally philosophical sense but is absolutely incorrect in a literal sense: in their majority, they learned the language they speak from their mothers.

On the other hand, the fact that Russian-speaking citizens are the least inclined to take the language of their communication for the communication language of Belarus and Belarusians reveals certain self-restriction of this language group. This opens up opportunities to strive for a worthier place for the Belarusian language in the society as compared to its current place.