Updated at 13:53,16-05-2022

OPINION: Census 2019 Or What Is Wrong With The Mother Tongue Question

Vital Voranau, BelarusFeed

OPINION: Census 2019 Or What Is Wrong With The Mother Tongue Question
Photo: TUT
The third national census in Belarus is coming to an end in a few days, on 30 October. A surprisingly high number of participants chose an online way of filling the questionnaire. Other options are census stations and face-to-face questioning by interviewers visiting people at their homes.

Those who have already undergone the process, report somewhat funny questions such as: “Do you grow potatoes?” or “Are you planning to have children?” However, nothing compares to and stirs so much public debate as to the most controversial question about people’s native language.

Even the president’s office commented on the issue, saying that President Alexander Lukashenko filled the survey at home, in its Russian version (Belarusian one is available too), however, chose Belarusian as his mother tongue.

Rodnaja mova is a Belarusian term for the mother tongue. For years, even in Soviet times, Belarusian has always been almost a synonym of the mother tongue, even for those who spoke Russian at home.

Maybe that is why during the first censuses organized in Belarusian there were two questions regarding language preferences of the people: 1. What is your mother tongue? and 2. What’s the language you speak with your family? This type of division gave an actual picture of people’s practices.

It allowed to understand what’s the actual number of those who declare Belarusian as their native tongue and the number of those who actually use it on a daily basis. However, the family element or context was somewhat misleading as well. People might not speak Belarusian at home but use it in public sphere or at work and the other way around.

Some people even don’t have a family. However, the answer to these questions was a good indicator of linguistic tendencies, gradual decrease of Belarusian as a mother tongue, and increase of Russian as the language spoken with the relatives. In 1999, 73% declared Belarusian as their mother tongue, and ten years later only 53%.

It was a good argument for organizations like TMB (Belarusian Language Society) to press public institutions for more support of Belarusian in public communication and TV broadcasting for example.

Over time the term ‘mother tongue’ started to be redefined through a small, though, a critical additional question which appeared in the second census, in 2009. 1. What is your mother tongue – that is the language acquired as the first in your childhood? This undoubtedly was constructed to work in favor of Russian, and in order to justify the politics of integration with Russia.

Alongside with real language changes, it lowered the number of Belarusian as a mother tongue by 20% in 10 years time. This addition to the question also remained in the third census, even though, the policies of the authorities have changed in favor of Belarusian. Not greatly, but a little bit.

And how should Belarusian people answer this question these days? All linguists agree that bilingual kids don’t acquire a single language until the age of 4-5. Until that, they speak a mixture of languages and don’t have the concept of a separate language. Therefore, what is the first language acquired in childhood? What’s childhood in such a case? Before 4 or after 4 years old. In all cases, this is very misleading.

Our grandparents, born before WWII were predominantly speaking Belarusian, all censuses carried during the Soviet times show that. Their children were intensively forced to speak Russian in the process of education and career. So what’s the mother tongue of their grandchildren? Isn’t it Belarusian, even if both parents speak Russian on a daily basis?

By the way, the language parents acquired as the first one in childhood was certainly Belarusian, not Russian. It was admitted even by Belarus’ president, whose attitude toward language politics have been heavily criticized by those advocating a revival of Belarusian.

Linguistics as a branch of science is divided to prescriptive and descriptive, the former being more about how people should use their grammar correctly, and the latter just describing how it’s used in reality. Being brutally forced to abandon our mother tongue, it seems that Belarus as a nation should rather go the first way, at least if we don’t want to lose our mother tongue for good.

Text by Vital Voranau. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff.