IT’S not easy being a multilingual country. But that is no excuse for making it harder on yourself. Shortly after taking power following the ousting of Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s new government made the unforced error of revoking a 2012 law which granted the Russian language an official status (alongside Ukrianian) in regions where Russian-speakers predominate.
That was rash and unnecessary. There were already unsavoury right-wing goons alongside more decent Ukrainian nationalists calling for an end to Russian domination. The abrupt change in the language law—one of the interim government’s first acts—gave Vladimir Putin a convenient propaganda point: fascists are bent on eliminating all traces of Russian people, language and culture from Ukraine! This outrageous exaggeration was more effective for having a grain of truth to it. The next thing Ukraine knew, Russia was invading under the cover of protecting fellow Russians. Russian-speaking Crimea is now in Russian hands, and all eyes are on eastern Ukraine, where Russian also predominates. Russia assembled troops near the border before pulling them back recently.
Multilingual countries have it tough. GDP per person is roughly correlated with the proportion of a country’s citizens that speak the predominant language. With a few outliers, you’re more likely to be rich if your country lacks what is sometimes known as a “stateness” problem: the Icelands and Japans of the world have a very clear identity and a dominant language. If your country’s citizens feel comfortable in its borders, your country is stable. If it is stable, it is more likely to be a functioning democracy, and if it is a decent democracy, it is more likely to be rich.
This is all correlation. It is not clear which way the causation runs. It is possible that as a country industrialises and gets richer, the benefits flow to the biggest national/ethnic/language group, to the eventual cost (and perhaps even to the death) of other languages through assimilation. Or it could be that it is simply easier for a country to become a wealthy, stable democracy with just one language. At any rate, there are outliers on either side: mutilingual countries run from rich to poor (say Switzerland to India), as do monolingual countries (say Iceland to Haiti).
Regardless of which way the causation arrow runs, and as much as everyone might like to live in a country with only their linguistic fellows, it won’t do these days to let the majority simply trample the minority. The list of countries that have done so and created enduringly resentful minorities is sadly long: Franco’s Spain and Kemalist Turkey, just to name two examples in modern European history. Back to the post-Soviet region, Latvia’s language law has privileged Latvian, but has been criticised for alienating the country’s large Russian-speaking minority.
It is legitimate for a newly independent country with a good claim on nation-statehood to promote its language. Many such countries come out of multiethnic states where their language was repressed. To build the language up, making it official, requiring its teaching in schools, subsidising radio and television and so forth—these are all a part of healthy nation-building.
The problems happen when this looks zero-sum, and a large minority speaking another language is told, in effect, to get with the programme or get out. Many people cannot or will not move to a friendlier country. And easy partition is rare: there’s a reason most people can name only one “velvet divorce” (Czechosolovakia) in which a multiethnic country peacefully becomes two monoethnic ones. National splits are usually much uglier.
There are three ways to handle multilingualism besides squashing minority languages or splitting the country. The first is generous national multilingualism. Canadian politicians routinely switch between English and French, and in Brussels absolutely everything is in both Dutch and French. This can be expensive and unwieldy: the visitor to Brussels must know that Rue de la Science is also Wetensscaapsstraat. But without this policy, Wallonia and Flanders would have long since gone separate ways. (They may yet.)
The second method is linguistic federalism, also seen in Belgium, as well as Switzerland, India, Canada and today’s Spain. Local territories should be allowed latitude to make locally dominant languages official, for teaching, broadcasting, dealing with the local authorities and so forth. There is no sure-fire solution to language conflict: sometimes local authorities (Quebec and Catalonia come to mind) promote the regional language so aggressively that those that speak the national-majority but regional-miniority language (English and Spanish, in these examples) have their own cause for grievance. But done decently, linguistic federalism gives minorities in big and diverse countries a stake in the status quo.
There is only one truly non-zero-sum way to ease the conflict between languages: to encourage, celebrate and teach multilingualism. Johnson has beaten this drum before, and also acknowledged its cost. It reduces the zero-sum nature of conflict between languages, but is zero-sum with other educational priorities. So be it. The solutions here can all be cumbersome and costly. But compare them with the cost of instability or partition, and they start to look a bargain.