On 29 November 2017 the state council of the Republic of Tatarstan, a wealthy autonomous region in Russia, passed a new version of the school curriculum proposed by Moscow. According to this document, the Tatar language may now be studied only with the consent of pupils’ parents and for no more than two hours a week. How did it happen that Russia’s second language (by the number of native speakers) ceased to be obligatory at schools in Tatarstan? And is it just a case of minority language oppression or something more?
The case of Tatar
According to the latest statistics, 53% of the Tatarstan Republic population are Tatars, 40% are Russians. Tatar, which belongs to the Turkic language family, counts as Russia’s second language — both by geographic distribution and number of native speakers. As of 2010, nearly 4.3 million people declared themselves to be Tatar speakers.
During the Soviet time, native languages were actively promoted and courses of these languages were compulsory in every republic. After the USSR collapse in 1991, the situation in each republic differs. In Tatarstan, Russian and Tatar are state languages according to the republican constitution and are mandatory at schools.
Controversy over obligatory Tatar language classes started after Russian President Vladimir Putin said in July 2017 that people must not be forced to learn a language "that is not their mother tongue". He ordered prosecutors to determine whether that was happening. In September 2017, Russia’s central government started to implement the President’s instructions and pushed local governments into abolishing local language courses in the ethnic republics, like Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia etc. The reaction was immediate: Tatarstan’s government ignored the imposed regulations and 16,000 people signed a petition against the new law.
Children in the region's schools will study Tatar for two hours a week on an optional basis and with written parental consent.
To break this pushback, in October, government prosecutors started to investigate local schools to determine whether they had kept compulsory courses on Tatar and to put pressure on schools to abolish them. A month later the Tatarstan state prosecutor reported about the investigations he had performed in Tatar schools and presented the new education bill, which would make local curricula correspond to the new instructions from the Moscow Ministry of Education. The bill stated: Children in the region's schools will study Tatar for two hours a week on an optional basis and with written parental consent.
The societal reaction was predictably daunting: people objected that this change would violate the region's constitution, discourage learning of the language of the indigenous ethnic group, and undermine Tatarstan's cultural identity. But is this case so straightforward? Does everyone agree with these statements?
The other side of the coin in the Tatarstan case
For the last 25 years, studying the Tatar language was not simply the right — but the duty — of every school pupil in Tatarstan from kindergarten till the last year of high school disregarding what their mother tongue is. Out of the overall 35 hours of study a week, six were spent studying Tatar. It was done at the expense of the number of hours devoted to Russian language and literature (Russian is the obligatory state exam subject to enter a university and get a school diploma). This fact led to dissatisfaction and numerous complaints among the parents. However, these complaints were largely ignored by the republic’s authorities and for 25 years the system for teaching Tatar at school remained unchanged.
Young people argued that fluency in Tatar wouldn’t help them to find a good job or enter a university.
According to the results of a sociological study carried out among young people in Tatarstan in 2015, the majority of respondents wanted to learn English (83%), some 62% also named Russian as an attractive language and only 38% voiced support for Tatar. In explaining their choice, young people pointed to the lack of motivation to study Tatar. Having a fluent command of the language wouldn’t help them to find a good job or enter a university.
Reaction and immediate forecast
The reactions to the changes in schools’ curricula were immediate. Religious authorities insisted on the wider use of the national language, opening free courses of Tatar language and culture in mosques and switching all the preaching in Tatarstan mosques from Russian to Tatar. Additionally, the Tatarstan government increased funding of the organizations promoting Tatar language and culture.
Overall, it is obvious that the matter is not as clear and straightforward as it seemed. Not only the rights of the ethnic majority (Tatars, in this particular case) were at stake.
On the one hand, this case is a typical example of a language loss which starts with the introduction of the majority language as the medium of instruction (Ricento, 2016). Tatar is perceived as the key element of the indigenous culture with its literature, mass media, history, traditions and customs. Many citizens of Tatarstan express fears about the future of the Tatar language, that in the long run it may disappear. The future prospects of numerous Tatar language teachers are also insecure. In all likelihood, they will lose their jobs since the demand in learning the language will drop.
On the other hand, it is vital to remember that such decisions have to be made in view of the least possible disruption, and that the rights of all citizens should be respected. Eventually, the children will grow up and will be willing to enter a university, find a job or move to another part of the country. In all these cases the command in Russian is indispensable.
All in all, what is good for the future generations is what really matters.
Inkazan.ru (2017). Is it true that Tatar language is disappearing?
Meshcheryakov, V., Coalson, R. (2017). Language Conflict Flares Up In Russia's Tatarstan
Mukhamedzhanov, B. (2017). Moscow leaves Tatarstan speechless
Rakhmatullin, T. (2018). Reflections on the topic: will the Tatar language survive?
RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service (2017). Tatar Language Classes Now Optional In Tatarstan, Prosecutor Says
Ricento, T. (2006). An Introduction to Language Policy. Theory and Method, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd