My silent tongue
Gagauzia: Fighting with themselves for their own language
© Vladimir Soloviev
Gagauzia’s autonomy as part of Moldova topped off a tough confrontation with the central government. Once their goal was achieved, however, the Gagauz people encountered another threat: the danger of extinction is now hovering over their native language, which is an important part of their identity. In their striving to preserve it, they can only defeat themselves.
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Gagauzia, a southern region of Moldova, received autonomy within the country 28 years ago, following several attempts to gain independence, which had led to a serious conflict with the central government. It turned out possible to resolve the problems without bloodshed: on December 23, 1994, the parliament of Moldova passed the law “On the special legal status of Gagauzia (Gagauz Yeri),” which granted the region the rights of an autonomous unit. At present, Gagauzia has its own elected governor (the Bashkan), its own government (the Executive Committee), and its own parliament (the People's Assembly).
In general, looking at the post-Soviet space, Gagauzia presents a rare example of a successful and peaceful resolution of conflicts whose participants were on the verge of a military confrontation, but managed to avoid it after all. Three languages are officially accepted in the autonomy: Moldovan (also called Romanian) as the state language, Gagauz, and Russian.
The Gagauz population in Moldova accounts for a little more than 100 thousand people. In the early 90s, their struggles were motivated not only by the demands of political independence, but also by the impulse to preserve their identity through the development of culture and, certainly, the Gagauz language. Paradoxically, having obtained autonomy, the Gagauz found themselves facing a new problem: the disappearing fruits of their struggle. This is particularly so for the Gagauz language, which belongs to the southwestern (Oghuz) group of the Turkic language family and is closest to the Crimean Tatar, Turkish, and Azerbaijani languages.
The language problem of the Gagauz is a matter of concern even for the central Moldovan authorities, although their relations with the autonomy are far from cloudless and Maia Sandu, the President of Moldova, is not very welcome in the region. During her visit to Comrat (the capital of Gagauzia) in September, she commented on the situation saying, “One of the main tasks of establishing the autonomy in 1994 was the preservation of the linguistic and national identity of the Gagauz, the revival of Gagauz culture. Unfortunately, this task is still not completed.”
Over the long 28 years of autonomy, not a single Gagauz school has been opened in the region. The majority of school subjects are taught in Russian and just four hours per week are allotted for the native language. Meanwhile, according to a survey conducted on the territory of Gagauzia in 2020, as little as 4% of Gagauz people would like their children to study in the Gagauz language. The Gagauz language is included in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
Sounds like a death sentence, indeed.
I was born and raised in Comrat to a family where both parents know the Gagauz language and even speak it to each other. My grandparents, too, speak Gagauz and always use it in the communication with the others, since it is more difficult for them to express their thoughts in Russian.
I went to a school where the Gagauz language was taught starting from elementary school for four hours per week. Certain problems started to raise their head even before I graduated from school. In the ninth grade, in order to prepare for the state exam in Gagauz, I did not find any other way but to take a Turkish language course. This helped me a lot with the grammar, which was the main element of the exam.
Over my school years, I happened to have had three teachers of Gagauz overall. Still, by the end of my 12th grade, my knowledge of the language was limited to listening comprehension, but I was not really able to speak. By the moment of graduation from high school, many of my classmates had a decent level of grammar and no communication skills in their native language.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, Russian is the most popular language in Gagauzia, although Moldovan (or Romanian) and Gagauz are equally accepted as official languages here.
Anna Bochonkina, a Comrat resident, is fluent in the Gagauz language, which is not the case with her two children, though. As she pointed out, she is reluctant to push her sons to speak their native language. “What children study at school in Gagauz is just some easy words, basic vocabulary, names for colors. They hear the language, but they don’t really use it. And I don’t want to put any pressure on my kids to make them study Gagauz,” Anna admits. As she realized, there is no special need for intensive Gagauz studies in the Russian-speaking society.
The Aladov family can serve as a visible illustration of the Gagauz language rapidly fading away in the course of just a few generations. Anna Aladova, the elder of this large family, is 78 years old. She thinks in Gagauz and uses this language for most of her communications. Anna's children speak Gagauz to her, but they prefer to switch to Russian when communicating with their children. Anna's grandchildren do understand their native language, but respond to their grandmother in Russian. When Anna is talking to her great-grandchildren. they already need a translation from Gagauz into Russian.
“My children only speak Russian to their children, although I always try to speak Gagauz with my family. My 23-year-old grandson has no speaking or listening comprehension of Gagauz whatsoever. My granddaughter, who is also 23, has started to study her native language just recently. My great-grandchildren cannot catch any of what we are talking about [in Gagauz],” explains Anna Aladova.
Anna has three children. The eldest daughter, who was born in 1964, did not know any Russian until she started school, as her parents only used Gagauz when speaking to her. “My eldest daughter didn’t go to preschool, we only spoke Gagauz in the family. When our middle son went to preschool, they urged him to speak Russian, and so we had to switch to Russian when speaking in the family, in 1980. The youngest daughter learned Gagauz in Turkey, already as an adult, when she went there to work,” says Anna.
This is quite a typical situation in Gagauz families when the adults speak Gagauz, while their children speak Russian. The number of families who prefer to communicate with their children in Gagauz is dwindling, and so is the number of children who speak their native language.
“There are many families where the 7-year-old eldest child is able to speak Gagauz, but the younger ones no longer know the language. If we lose this younger generation, we will have a generation with no Gagauz,” warns Güllü Karanfil, Doctor of Philology and specialist in the Gagauz language.
As Karanfil believes, the local authorities could provide a good role model. In fact, however, the Gagauz officials deliver most of their public speeches in Russian. The Executive Committee and the People's Assembly of Gagauzia hold their meetings in Russian. “Everyone notices what language the higher-ups speak. The language spoken by the upstairs people is the language of choice in the families,” Karanfil notes.
This general trend is clearly reflected in the Gagauz school and kindergarten educational practices. Recently, some school subjects have started to be taught in Gagauz, as an attempt to boost the expansion of the language. In particular, art education, handicraft courses, and physical training in many schools are conducted in Gagauz. At the same time, all routine communications in schools and kindergartens in Gagauzia are still happening predominantly in Russian.
According to experts, the Gagauz language went endangered during the Soviet era. The first primary school classes in Gagauz were opened as late as in 1959, but three years later, the state prohibited the study of the language in schools: since then, it was strongly recommended to speak with children only in Russian.
“The period of 60s-70s can be considered a turning point in the development of the Gagauz language and the reason why today’s children under 10 years old, even in rural areas, no longer speak Gagauz,” Karanfil states.
A movement to recover the Gagauz language began in 1986. At that time, the language study [in school] was optional; 3-4 years later, some Gagauz textbook were published, after which Gagauz was introduced as a school subject.
The situation, however, is complicated by the fact that the Gagauz textbooks were designed for the children who are expected to have already known the language. The school curriculum is, therefore, too sophisticated, which does not match the real level of student knowledge. “The Gagauz language program is set up by the model that was originally designed for the language of instruction. But the language of instruction in our schools is Russian, and so the program turned out to be very difficult. Our children, starting 10thgrade, have to take some courses that fit the master's program level,” explains Irina Konstantinova, director of a research center.
According to Natalia Kristeva, head of the Central Department of Education of Gagauzia, the department is currently trying to simplify the program and is working on the changes to be made in the pedagogical methods of Gagauz language teaching in schools. “Last year, we developed a new curriculum for the first and fourth grades, which is focused on communicative competence. Our primary goal is communicative skills; we need to teach children how to speak first thing,” says Kristeva.
As Kristeva noted, the new curriculum has already been introduced in five educational institutions of Gagauzia. If it works well, the authorities will solicit for changes in language pedagogy at the national level. Tentatively, the first four years of studies should put more emphasis on conversational Gagauz, followed by more systematic grammar training. The experiment has just started and it should take a few years before the results will be visible.
A path to salvation
There have been legislative attempts to introduce a range of measures across the region to preserve the Gagauz language. The discussions around this subject gave birth to the law “On expanding the scope of the Gagauz language” approved by the People's Assembly of Gagauzia (regional parliament of the autonomy). The law provides additional funding allocations toward local theaters, the education system, the science center, and regional television. Besides this, the parliament demanded that state officials speak publicly in their native language.
“”Why do we need to study Gagauz, where is it going to take our children?” This question had not been topical until the autonomy was established. The reason why the language problem emerged is that, since the very beginning of the autonomy, Gagauz has never been subject to language policy. This resulted in Gagauz growing into nearly a foreign language,” says Ekaterina Zhekova, one of the authors of the law.
The preparation of the law took about a year. It was adopted after lengthy discussions and entered into force on October 26, 2018. According to Zhekova, it has become the first and the only law that provides for funding allocation aimed at the development of a language; all institutions of the autonomy are strongly recommended to popularize the Gagauz language in every possible way.
Among other measures, the law provides for the financing of Gagauz theaters. Actors should be paid a bonus of at least 100% of their fixed official salary, while theaters, in turn, should make a commitment to put on stage at least two shows per year in the Gagauz language and to perform in all residential communities of the autonomy.
The law concerns educational institutions to a greater extent. Thus, two school subjects should be taught in the Gagauz language. The choice from the following list is at the discretion of the school: “Physical Education,” “Musical Education,” “Technological Education,” and “Fine Arts.” Instructors teaching in their native language should also be paid a wage supplement.
The law provides for the creation of a fund with the purpose to recover the Gagauz language. At least 2% of Gagauzia's own income should be allocated toward this fund. Following the adoption of the law, however, the authorities have not given enough money or proposed some funding reduction. For instance, as discussed on the Gagauz web-portal laf.md, in 2022, the local authorities were originally planning to spend on the Gagauz language recovery as little as 800 thousand lei (38.8 thousand euros) from the budget of the autonomy, then the allocated sum was increased up to 5.7 million lei (276.3 thousand euros), which is the minimum determined by the law.
Now that four years have passed since the enactment of the law, the language situation is easily seen with a naked eye: Gagauz in Gagauzia is far from being a dominating language, in either written or oral form. Street names in cities, towns, and villages are written in Russian or Romanian; advertising billboards and posters are also published in Russian and Romanian.
GRT, the public television and radio broadcasting company of Gagauzia, operate in the three official languages, although the law requires to allot 70% of broadcasting to the Gagauz language. The content of GRT’s website is available in two languages: Russian and Gagauz. Besides this, the only online news source in the Gagauz language is the website of the monthly newspaper Ana Sözü (“Native Word”). The rest of the online information services in Gagauzia operate in Russian.
Language is a subject that pertains not only to the humanitarian field. “We created the autonomy to develop and preserve the language, but our children will no longer speak Gagauz with their children. This way, the language may disappear – and then, 20 years later, the autonomy may disappear as well,” says Gullu Karanfil.
Ekaterina Zhekova agrees with the philologist: “The autonomy only makes sense as a framework for the language, the development of Gagauz culture and Gagauz identity. If there is no language, there will be no autonomy either, and we need to be fully aware of it.”
In their conflict with Chisinau, the Gagauz people were struggling for a special status of their region within Moldova. Today, 28 years later, in order to preserve their native language, they have to fight with themselves – and this kind of fight often proves to be the most difficult one.