Education: Students Need to Be Taught Their Native Language in School

It seems obvious.  But to get people to acknowledge this natural right can at times be very difficult.  Millions of people in Europe speak the Romani language, but only a very few of them study or have studied the language in formal educational settings such as elementary schools, universities, or training academies.  For more than a thousand years, this language has lived almost exclusively among the Roma, transferred from parents to children, preserving the history and culture of a people, but remaining oral, little-studied, closed off. 

And in fact it is only because of the Romani language, which preserves within itself echoes of all of those countries and dialects that were encountered by the Roma in their long journey across Eurasia, were we able to reconstruct this people’s origin and history.  It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of the Romani language in the Roma’s definition of themselves, the role it plays in preserving their cultural traditions and in the socio-culturological survival of a people who have been able to maintain their uniqueness through hundreds of years of travel and persecution, slavery in Romania, forced assimilation in Hungary, the Nazi genocide, the Decree on Compulsory Settlement of 1956 in the USSR (and the subsequent, analogous decrees in other countries throughout the Eastern Bloc), and all of the other prohibitions and limitations that have been imposed upon them in the last few decades.  The Romani language is unique in that it is diverse but at the same time still maintains a unified character.  Dozens of dialects have absorbed the linguistic specificities of those countries in which one or another group of Roma have lived for long periods of time. Linguistic borrowings and the influence of other languages have played a role in the development of each unique dialect of Romani—Caldarari (which arose in Romania), Lovari (in Hungary), Russian Romani, Finnish, Swedish, Polish, and many others.  And all Roma from each of these different countries are able to talk to one another without translation, can understand a fellow Roma from Greece or Finland, France or Romania, Poland or the Czech Republic, Bulgaria or Serbia, because each of the Romani dialects of Europe shares a single origin.

This cultural wealth and great benefit offered to the Roma by knowledge of their own language should be preserved and developed.  Roma children who attend school should be given the opportunity to study their native language on a level that is equal to their study of the language of the country in which they are residing:  they should be able write in Romani and expand upon their vocabulary, moving away from just a knowledge of everyday vocabulary and getting closer to the communicative needs of the modern world.  Moreover, measures should be taken to preserve the legacy of the Romani language—songs and sayings, stories and ballads—which have, through the centuries, retained descriptions of long-held traditions and a way of life that is already becoming a thing of the past.  This is not just important for historians and ethnographers; memories of the past have value for everyone, including linguistic memories.  Modern, educated children read stories about a spindle that caused a beautiful girl to fall into a deep sleep, and they understand what is being described, despite the fact that even their grandmothers, for the most part, have never seen such a thing in real life.  It is not important that there are no longer large fairs where the Roma trade horses or forge horseshoes; it is important that people remember about this and know the old words which give name to the activities and things that were so important to their forebears.  A language should maintain all of its variety, finding new words for new things but not losing the old words that were given to us by our ancestors.  The Romani language has a long history, a striking present, and, one can assume, an interesting future.  For it is in our current era that Romani has begun to move into uncharted territory—the language has entered into the political sphere, has been heard on the radio and television in several European countries, has become a part of educational programs, and not only in a few elementary schools, but also in universities.

Unfortunately, only a few countries support the education of Roma children in their native language.  However, some experience has already been gained and is certainly of interest.  In November 2008, a group of Roma activists and educators who teach in elementary schools where Roma children study were given a unique opportunity to go to Sweden and become acquainted with the Swedish experience in educating Roma children.  Only a few tens of thousands of Roma live in this northerly country, and they all belong to different groups—Swedish Roma, Finnish, Lovari, Caldarari, Russian and Polish Roma, Roma refugees from the former Yugoslavia.  Nevertheless, in Sweden the importance of educating children in their native language is understood, and particular emphasis is placed upon it.  It must be said that Roma children’s knowledge of their language differs:  some speak in Romani better than in any other language, and for some, Swedish has become the primary language, and understanding conversations in the language of their forefathers is becoming ever-more difficult.

Moreover, the level of education within any given family and the related desire to ensure the education of one’s own children varies greatly.  Families that include educators are one thing: in these families, the children themselves strive to attend college, and their parents support them.  Refugee families are an entirely different story: parents in these families are at times poorly educated, more often than not unemployed and very poor… In some poor neighbourhoods, whose residents have only recently moved to Sweden, up to half of the Roma children still do not attend school. This is a problem.  But it is good that the problem has been recognized by the government, which considers it to be its duty, at the very least, to know about the real state of affairs, not hide its anxiety, and to attract experts to help in the resolution of the problem.  Hopefully the Swedish society will find a means through which all of its children will be able to attend school, and other countries will begin the resolution of their own problems using Sweden’s example, first admitting that there are children who do not attend school, then collecting information about these children, and then developing a plan to gradually overcome the divide that exists between the levels of education held by Roma and non-Roma.

For those children in Sweden who have already been so assimilated as to have begun to forget their native Romani language, textbooks are being developed that will help teachers educate the children in Romani grammar and lexicon, each in their own native dialect—Lovari-Roma children are being taught Romani with their own textbooks, and the Caldarari with their own.  With financial assistance from the government, books of fairytales in Romani and collections of sayings and songs are also being published.  Certified teachers are being trained in the Romani language and are also being prepared to teach other subjects in Romani.  In Stockholm there are functioning schools for Caldarari children in which all of the subjects for half of the day are taught in their children’s language (including mathematics, physics, chemistry, and computer science), and in the second half of the day, the subjects are taught in Swedish, the knowledge of which is certainly necessary for any educated citizen of the country.

However, the state of affairs in the highly developed, wealthy Sweden, where, after all, there are not that many linguistic and ethnic minorities, is much better than in the poor countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where hundreds of thousands, and in some cases even millions, of Roma live, many of whom to this day do not have access even to the most basic levels of education.  Illiteracy is a tragedy for children in the 21st century:  it is difficult to imagine how people who do not know any alphabet whatsoever, who cannot write or read in any language including their own, will be able to live in the coming decades.

The first thing that needs to change with respect to the question of education is the problem of access to it.  All children should be able to go to school.  All children should be able to finish their education.  The governments of countries in which Roma communities live need to work to create all necessary conditions to ensure that this happens.  It is not helpful for the blame to endlessly be shifted from these countries’ governments to their citizens and residents; it is not helpful to calm oneself and others down with arguments along the lines of “the Roma are to blame themselves” (not having necessary identification documentation, not being able to buy the items necessary for school, not being able to get medical release forms, etc.).  Immigrant children, living with their families in temporary, mobile forms of housing (cars, tents, caravans) should also be given the opportunity to study.  This is not just the children’s right, but it is also the responsibility of the country in which these children live, regardless of the children’s legal status.

Of course, it is difficult to figure out how to educate children in such a complicated situation.  A whole number of problems inevitably arise:  where to get the necessary textbooks for those who do not know the language of the country in which they are living; where to find teachers who are capable of teaching children in their native languages; what to do with those who for one personal reason or another were not able to start school on time or were forced to stop attending classes temporarily, who consequently are not unable to attend class in the same grade as other children of their age; how to begin a dialogue with parents…

Finding answers to these questions is difficult, but it is possible.  It is necessary to understand the situation for what it is, not just wait until it changes on its own.  Clearly, for many government bureaucrats the ideal school child should be well-prepared, equipped with all that is necessary—from boots, to portfolios, to filled-in medical release forms from the doctor and Form 9 (housing registration)—should have mastery of the state language, and get support from parents and grandparents, who are always ready to spend the evening helping their children with homework.  It is time to realize that not all children are like this.  Some do not speak the state language and only speak in their native language, sometimes even in a Romani dialect that is not well known.  Some are not prepared for school:  they have not attended kindergarten; they do not know how to color; they are not able to immediately distinguish numbers and letters.  But they are capable, more likely than not, of a number of other things—

Taking care of children, working with metal, stoking fires, and tending after animals.  If these fairly insignificant circumstances become the cause of such serious a misfortune as illiteracy, then the government needs to take corrective steps.  Help needs to be given with respect to acquiring necessary identification documentation; securing access to educational materials, school uniforms, and transportation; and with learning the non-native local language and developing the native one.

This last task—the study of the native language—demands particularly serious and well-thought out efforts.  The Romani language, for hundreds of years predominantly an oral language, in our time is also turning into a written language.  Books and newspapers are being printed, websites are being published on the internet in Romani, business correspondence is taking place, literary works are being written.  The knowledge of such a language should become for the Roma a bridge to international exchange, an outlet for vast amounts of interesting information, an opportunity for the exchange of ideas with people from various countries and continents.  It is essential that children be supported in their interest towards their native language, that they be taught to use it in its written form as well as spoken, that they become acquainted with it as a language of books and other printed materials.  In order to achieve this it is necessary, first of all, to find teachers, and, secondly, textbooks.

It is necessary that Roma intellectuals be supported and that Roma youth receive higher education so as to transmit their knowledge to other children.  Programs for the support of students are also needed.  A staffing policy in schools that aims to foster the education of Roma children should be developed.  Financing for the preparation and publication of relevant course materials is also essential.

All of this is possible.  The Council of Europe, which has paid particular attention to the question of overcoming discrimination against the Roma (including, but not limited to, in the sphere of education), has worked out a number of valuable suggestions.  Among the recommendations of the participating countries, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe calls for attention to be paid to the experience of non-governmental organizations, many of which have already begun to take steps to correct the situation with Roma education.  It is indeed non-governmental funds which have begun to give stipends to Romani university students, to support the publication of textbooks in Romani, to research the problem of illiteracy (and lack of education) among children, to overcome racial segregation in schools, and to work with Roma parents and teachers.

It goes without saying that the time has come for governmental structures to support and develop all of these initiatives.  Millions of citizens of the European Union and hundreds of thousands of Russians should receive an adequate education, or, as people used to say, “the admission ticket for living a full life.”

Stephania Kulaeva

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