I was recently back in the former Yugoslavia as an election observer in Macedonia and was pleasantly surprised at how I was able to use Serbo-Croatian to communicate with various people: a Slovenian diplomat, an ethnic Albanian woman in Macedonia and a Macedonian man. When the Slovenian diplomat and I started speaking to our ethnic Albanian interpreter and our Macedonian driver in Serbo-Croatian, we were feeling uneasy about the Albanian’s reaction since she might link Serbo-Croatian to the former Yugoslavian government and its actions against the Kosovar Albanians. (We were in Tetovo, Macedonia, where there were ethnic clashes between Albanians and Macedonians in 2001. So, the topic of ethnic violence was quite relevant.) But, she was fine with our speaking in Serbo-Croatian and responded to us in English or Macedonian.
The language surpassed political barriers. The former Yugoslavs reminisced about Yugoslavian sports teams and music groups that existed before the fall of the former Yugoslavia.
The Slovenian diplomat told me that children in Slovenia no longer learn Serbo-Croatian and focus only on English and German. Since Slovenia broke apart from the former Yugoslavia and joined the European Union, the country is concentrating on being European and not maintaining strong links with its former co-Yugoslavs. Though I understand the political reasonings for focusing on teaching English and German in Slovenian schools, there’s no reason not to learn Serbo-Croatian. Why should the young generations of Slovenes not be able to communicate in another Slavic language with their Southern neighbors? They still have business ties to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia and would have better relationships if they spoke to those people in their languages rather than English.
The same goes for former Soviet countries, especially in the Baltics, who also don’t mandate learning Russian in schools. Yes, I am very aware of the bad things that the former Soviet Union did in the Baltics and why people in the Baltics may not embrace Russia as their best friend, but they can’t deny the huge neighbor next to them. Wouldn’t it be better to negotiate with one’s neighbor in their language rather than using a third language like English or an interpreter?
Having lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain, I am intimately aware of political barriers. It’s because of my personal history that I see how vital it is for people to learn foreign languages and communicate directly. It pains me to see how political changes can effect educational policy.
Incidentally, if it weren’t for my being able to resurrect my rusty Serbo-Croatian from when I lived in Bosnia in 2000-2001, I would have been in trouble. I got very sick while in Macedonia and my local election coordinators called for an ethnic Albanian doctor to come to my hotel room to examine me. Everyone else in our group left for a party and I didn’t want to bother the interpreter who was resting. The doctor and I communicated in Serbo-Croatian. Even though I was sick and not very strong, I was still able to talk to the good doctor and explain myself. Here I was, a Slavic woman originally from Russia, speaking to a Muslim Albanian man in his third language, Serbo-Croatian. According to political fault lines, we probably should not have been communicating. But he was a doctor doing his job and I was sick and needed assistance.
There were no political barriers between us.
Language is language. Politics are politics. Don’t confuse them.