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Roma in the Czech Republic losing their language, parents not speaking it with children

Prague, 16.2.2014 19:38, (ROMEA)
--ilustrační foto--
--ilustrační foto--

News server iDNES.cz reports that Romani people in the Czech Republic are gradually losing their knowledge of the language of their forebears. Children in particular are not mastering Romanes.

Romani parents prefer to speak Czech with their children because they fear a second language will cause them problems at school. Thanks to the Internet, however, there has been a bit of progress in those who read and write Romanes.

"It's not like it was before. No one is speaking Romanes they way they used to," says Marta Podrazká, a social worker with the Kocero public benefit corporation in Český Krumlov.

Her own children don't know more than a few words of Romanes. "When I was little, our parents spoke Czech in front of us at home. It was only later that I learned to speak fluent Gypsy," the 36-year-old Romani woman says.

Children in particular have the greatest problems with Romanes today. The most precise statistics on the issue come from a six-year-old research project by the Romani Studies Seminar at the Faculty of Philosophy, Charles University in Prague, which involved almost 1 000 primary school pupils.

That study showed that only 30 % of Romani children had really mastered Romanes. Roughly the same number of Romani children could barely speak it at all.

For the time being it seems that adult Roma are using their own language more often than youth do. Pavel Kubaník, a co-author of the research, estimates that at least 60 % of Romani people aged 40 and over are active users of Romanes.

"They grew up in environments where Romanes was used much more as a living language than it is today. However, the research findings indicate that the number of Romanes speakers will decline in future," the scholar told iDNES.cz.

Kubaník believes that all minority languages in the Czech Republic are grappling with similar developments. In the case of Romanes, moreover, the communist regime's pressure on Roma to assimilate made a significant impact.

"Representatives of the regime considered Romani people to be a group whose specific characteristics, including their language, was slowing down their inclusion into society," says the editor-in-chief of the academic journal Romano džaniben. After WWII, Romani people who came to the Bohemian and Moravian parts of Czechoslovakia from Slovakia wanted a better future for their children and heeded the advice of social workers and teachers that their offspring primarily needed to learn Czech.

Concern that the use of Romanes might harm children in school remains with many people to this day, Kubaník believes. Moreover, a significant portion of Romani people, primarily those in socially excluded localities, speak a special linguistic cocktail called the "Romani ethnolect" of Czech by linguists.

While these people do speak Czech, many of their words and other linguistic ingredients are borrowed from Romanes; for example, they accent the penultimate syllable [instead of the first syllable] or shorten what should be long vowels. Since most Romani people in the Czech Republic today have their roots in Slovakia, the influence of Slovak manifests itself in their speech as well.

In the most recent census in 2011, a total of 41 087 people in the Czech Republic listed Romanes as their mother tongue, and of those people, 4 919 chose it as their only language, while 33 351 listed it in combination with Czech and 2 100 people listed in combination with Slovak, but such data evidently does not reflect reality. Only 5 135 people listed their nationality as Romani (those who listed either Czech or Slovak nationality in combination with Romani nationality totaled roughly 13 000), while the actual number of Romani people in the country is estimated at 200 000.

Kubaník believes there is no need to view these discrepancies as a fatal trend, but rather as a natural development. The scholar points out that proficiency in Czech is gradually improving for every succeeding generation of Romani people.

"It is absolutely possible, moreover, that Romani people themselves are going to want to speak 'their own Czech' and that they will automatically pass on that version of it, just as many Bohemians and Moravians intentionally do not speak just conventional Czech, but also their own dialects of it. An example from elsewhere in the world might be Black English in the USA," he said.

Olah Roma, who comprise between 5 and 10 % of the Romani community in the Czech Republic, do not have difficulties with their own language. Compared to other Romani groups, their communities are more closed, have succumbed less to assimilation, and have preserved their own customs and laws.

"For them Romanes remains the main language for intra-group communication, and it is therefore the language which their young children are raised with and surrounded by," Kubaník explains. Moreover, despite the general decline in knowledge of it, Romanes still remains part of many Romani people's identity and an expression of belonging.

Sometimes Romanes fulfills the function of a "secret language" when it is used so that gadje [non-Roma] will not know what is being discussed. In many places in the Czech Republic, moreover, Romani people are doing their best to do something about the current state of Romanes knowledge.

The nonprofit organization from Český Krumlov mentioned above runs a Czech-Romanes dictionary on its website, for example. In Opava there is a plan to introduce Romanes tutoring for young Roma at a community center.

"We have not yet managed to provide that, but there is a need for it. It's their mother tongue and they are forgetting it. Roots need to be maintained," Marek Lévay, chair of the local public benefit corporation Dživipen, told iDNES.cz.

Unlike in the past, Romani people today are reading and writing a bit more in their own language thanks to the Internet and mobile phones. "Romanes used to be a language for purely spoken communication. Now, however, people are doing their best to write in Romanes, for example on Facebook," said Lukáš Houdek of the Kher publishing house, which specializes in Romani literature.

Kher publishes e-books free of charge, in particular literature based on traditional oral folk poetry. Houdek says each of their titles has been downloaded by 1 500 people on average.

Romani people are one of the 14 officially recognized national minorities in the Czech Republic and therefore have the right to education in their own language. According to the Czech Education Ministry, however, no school has yet to meet the criteria for teaching the curriculum entirely in Romanes.

Instruction entirely in a foreign language may take place in communities where at least 10 % of the population claims a national minority identity. There must be at least eight children from that minority in a nursery class, at least 10 children from that minority in a primary school class, and at least 12 children from that minority in a secondary school class for instruction to be provided in their own language.

In recent years there has also existed the option to teach Romanes as an elective subject, which has been the topic of much discussion. Only seven pupils would be required to establish such a class, but as of 30 September 2013 the language was being taught as an elective in only three schools in the entire Czech Republic. 

Jana Holíková of the Education Ministry’s press department told iDNES.cz that Romanes is an elective only at secondary schools offering courses in social services and social work. Instruction in Romanes at primary schools is now being piloted by the Museum of Roma Culture in Brno, which also offered Romanes language courses until last year (most of those interested were non-Roma); after a break due to state budget cuts, director Jana Poláková intends to resume the courses this autumn.

Romanes was also spoken last fall by one of the candidates for the lower house. David Tišer, a Romani activist and actor, conducted a non-traditional bilingual campaign as a Green Party candidate in the Plzeň Region. 

“Responses were good. When people heard me speaking Romanes, they were much more welcoming,” says the native speaker of Romanes, who did not learn Czech until he attended school.

Tišer mainly speaks Romanes today with his family and friends, even though some of them reportedly only know a few words. “My dog understands Romanes only,” he says. “He doesn’t understand orders in Czech.”

iDNES.cz, Jan Jiřička, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Jazyk, Romština, Sčítání lidu 2011, Slovensko



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