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Make English a regional language in Kyiv

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July 16, 2012, 1:41 p.m. | Op-ed — by Katya Gorchinskaya

Ukrainian officials should be pushed to learn English, using the new law that so far has only caused trouble.
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Katya Gorchinskaya

Katya Gorchinskaya has been the Kyiv Post's deputy chief editor since 2009 and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @kgorchinskaya.

If you can't change the wind, adjust your sails. And that's exactly what I think Kyivans should do, with the backing of the Kyiv Post, about the new law on languages. They should use it to make English a regional language.

The law was designed by the pro-presidential Party of Regions to upgrade the status of Russian language in Ukraine on the eve of the parliamentary election. But there is no reason why we can't use it to our advantage and upgrade the status of English in at least one region – Ukraine’s capital city.

In a nutshell, I suggest launching a campaign to grant English official status if the minority language law signed into law by President Viktor Yanukovych. This law states that people in Ukraine are allowed to choose their language of communication. Under this law, they are generously granted the right to use any language in their social and private lives. We might as well use this right for English.

There is more! The law claims that the state facilitates the development of multi-linguism, learning the languages of international communication – particularly those which are official in the United Nations and other international organizations. Of course, English is one of them.

There are two main obstacles to making this campaign work, as far as the text of the law goes – but neither is insurmountable, lawyers say.

Obstacle 1

The law states that 10 percent of people have to speak the language for it to become regional. But typically for Ukrainian legislation, a loophole exists that bypasses this requirement.

If 10 percent of the residents of a particular territory sign a petition that they want a certain language to become regional, and then the local council votes to support the petition, the language comes into use as regional.

But actually, even less than 10 percent is ok if the local council supports such a decision anyway.

But even if it turns out that making English a regional language in Kyiv is too ambitious a goal, it's possible to make it work on a smaller territory, such as an individual district in Kyiv. My vote goes for the Pechersk district, where most central government organs are located.

It's possible to apply the law this way because it gives no definition “territory” where “a regional language” can be introduced. So, any community can become such a territory, in theory. Even if the residents of my house that has 10 flats in it decide to proclaim themselves as such a territory, they can.

Obstacle 2

The other problem is that the law defines 18 languages that can become regional. Some of them are far more exotic for much of Ukraine's population than even English (like Gagauz or Ruthenian languages).

These are the languages that automatically got onto the list because of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which Ukraine signed up to. The treaty is designed to protect minority languages that are not official in a particular country.

But the law gives no explicit prohibition of using another language for the purpose, so English can be made a regional language if residents of a territory choose to do so. Bingo!

Advantages

The law allows for parallel use of the regional language in all spheres of life along with and sometime instead of the national language. It also requires that the officials living and working on the territory where a regional language is used have to speak the language.

For any reader of this article, there is no reason to explain how fantastic it would be for officials in Kyiv to be legally obliged to speak and conduct their business in English.

Of course, it would be wishful thinking to expect that one would be able to write their applications and file their tax declarations in English, but a legal requirement like that, followed by pressure from the citizens, can eventually change the hiring policy in the rigid Ukrainian government. In other words, it would eventually help to modernize government by bringing a younger, new English-speaking generation to power. This alone is reason enough to make English a regional language throughout Ukraine!

Looking further into the future, English will have to become available at schools as the language of teaching, even if small groups of parents start to demand it for their children.

The threat of Russian taking over Ukraine as a language would vanish. Activists and patriots would, hopefully, keep Ukrainian alive. The country would change within a generation.

Kyiv Post editor Katya Gorchinskaya can be reached at gorchinskaya@kyivpost.com.

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