Tongues untied

Most Roma children in Serbia have no formal education in their own language or culture. Photo by Dobri Dejano/flickr.

Most Roma children in Serbia have no formal education in their own language or culture. Photo by Dobri Dejano/flickr.

Sixth-grader Vlada Jovanov wants someday to be a teacher of the Romani language. Vlada, a Rom, is fired up by his own classes in Romani language and culture and has become an evangelist for the cause.

”I want to be a Romani teacher so that I can teach children – just like I’ve been taught, and in the same way get them started absorbing knowledge,” he said while sitting in a tiny classroom in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina.

If Vlada follows through on that childhood dream, it would be welcome news for some organizations in Serbia that have for years pushed for a course in Romani language and culture, only to see their efforts fail in part due to a shortage of people to teach it.

Even by official numbers, which typically undercount Roma, Roma are one of Serbia’s largest minority groups. But unlike the country’s Bulgarians, Bosniaks, or Albanians, Romani children can study their own language only in Vojvodina, an autonomous region of Serbia.

There are several reasons for that: a shortage of teachers, parents’ resistance, a lack of political will to make Romani language education more widespread, and a disagreement over what the Romani language really is.

Still, Serbian education officials are taking baby steps to introduce Romani into the curriculum, announcing it as an elective in 70 schools across the country in the coming school year. They made a similar promise last year that went nowhere, but if they succeed this year, it could be none too soon, as campaigners fear the language is dying out.

Although Serbia is home to probably several hundred thousand (mostly unemployed) Roma, an effort to find 40 people to teach the 8,000 children who signed up last year for the new ”Romani language with elements of national culture” course failed. That is partly due to the Roma’s decades-long history of lagging behind in education.

Yet since the late 1990s, when Romani was introduced as a subject in Vojvodina, the province has been able to find teachers to take it on.

Vitomir Mihajlovic, president of the Roma National Council, said the floundering elsewhere in Serbia reflects a lack of political will to make this happen.

Recognizing that few, if any, of the country’s Roma had achieved the level of education required by Serbia’s teacher certification laws, officials in Vojvodina suspended the requirements.

This year the Education Ministry has decided to do the same for areas outside Vojvodina, allowing Roma who have finished high school to qualify for teaching the Romani language in primary schools. They will be taught teaching skills over the summer.

But finding fully qualified teachers could take some time. Only two institutions in Serbia offer tuition for teachers in the Romani language, and one has few spaces available while the other is expensive, said Dragica Gavrilovic, an official with the Education Ministry.

Gavrilovic hedged on the question of whether Romani classes would actually be rolled out in September, saying it depends on factors outside the ministry’s control, such as parents’ interest, availability of staff, and finances. She said it is up to each school’s parent council to propose Romani as an elective and that usually 15 students would need to sign up for classes to go ahead.

Seca Kolompar, who has been teaching Romani since it was introduced in Vojvodina in 1997, said her charges are usually enthusiastic – it is the parents who take some convincing.

Some parents “reckon that their children already know Romani, and should spend their time in school on learning something else,” she said.

Kolompar said some children have attended her classes without their parents knowing, and continue to do so even after being found out – and in some cases getting a beating for it.

“Roma in this country unfortunately don’t understand the significance of teaching Romani, and in general of Romani making its way into the institutions,” she said.

Mihajlovic acknowledged that some Romani parents have little ambition for their children’s education, including learning Romani. They often have had little formal education themselves and, given the dire conditions many Roma live in, “have more pressing things on their mind.”

“We’re working to get to those parents, too, but it’s a huge job,” he said. 

No More Improvising

Twenty-seven schools in Vojvodina teach Romani language and culture, according to the RTS public broadcaster. Even in this province, though, the subject is offered only in places where Roma make up a significant portion of the population.

Most other minorities in Serbia have much more access to mother-tongue education.

The 2011 census counted almost 148,000 Roma, although Mihajlovic estimates the real number is 450,000 to 600,000 in this country of 7.2 million. By contrast, children among the country’s nearly 19,000 Bulgarians have been taught their mother tongue in Serbian schools for years, with one school teaching all subjects in only Bulgarian.  

The situation is better for Roma in Vojvodina because it is more ethnically mixed, with around 30 minority groups, Mihajlovic said. That is a result of Vojvodina’s complex history: the province saw Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian, Hungarian, and Turkish rulers before becoming part of the Habsburg empire in the 18th century. By giving away land and offering tax privileges, the Habsburgs encouraged colonists from other parts of the empire to move to the area, thus strengthening its border with the Ottoman empire and boosting economic development.

Central Serbia, on the other hand, has few such melting pots.

And though the course has been a success in Vojvodina, teachers have had to improvise, Mihajlovic said, as Romani organizations and researchers have only recently agreed on a standard form of the written language.

Kolompar holds up the textbook she has used since she began teaching the course, by Trifun Dimic, a Romani intellectual and activist from Vojvodina who pioneered Romani teaching in Serbia. In her other hand she holds a pile of papers she has produced with grammar rules and exercises.

”During the first sessions, the pupils were amazed to realize that it was possible to write Romani,” she said. “They’d never seen that before.”

The problem took years to solve because there was no recognized authority that could impose a particular standard, Mihajlovic said.

”In the 1990s, there was no one who could hand a curriculum for the subject ‘the Romani language’ to the Education Ministry, and no institution authorized to determine which teaching materials could be used,” he said. Serbia’s system of elected councils to represent minorities debuted only in 2003.

But in September, after years of work, a group of Romani experts presented a codified version of the language that has become the basis for textbooks.

Mihajlovic said he expects the standard to be accepted by Roma throughout Europe, paving the way for a pan-Roma literary language and textbooks that can be used across borders.

But just as the language is being standardized, its champions fear it is dying, making the push to teach it ever more urgent. Although the census showed a 28 percent rise in the number of Romani native speakers, to around 100,000, from 1991 to 2011, “those numbers don’t reflect reality,” Mihajlovic said.

Instead, Mihajlovic attributed the registered rise to the presence of Roma assistants who accompanied census-takers for the first time for the 2011 count and who encouraged Roma to declare their nationality and language.

But as halting integration starts to take hold in Serbia, the so-called gypsy ghettos that once served as a protective cocoon for the language are being broken up. “And when a Roma family moves into a building with 20 other families, they’ll only speak Serbian, meaning that Romani will be lost,” Mihajlovic said.

In parts of central Serbia, that integration started as early as the 1970s, with the result that in some towns most Roma do not speak their mother tongue, according to Mihajlovic.

But Romani parents’ own ambivalent attitude toward their language could also be helping to drive it into extinction.

Kolompar said the problem is most acute among the children of relatively successful Roma who are ashamed of their roots – and whose children often graduate without knowing the tongue.

“We can’t allow such things. Because, when a language dies, the people dies,” Kolompar said. “Without Romani, there can be no Roma.”

In addition to keeping the language and culture alive in their native soil, Kolompar said her classes have helped them make inroads into the majority culture. Her students put on pageants of their ethnic culture at their own school and others, and she said several non-Roma students have asked if they could take her course. Although it usually doesn’t fit into those students’ schedules, Kolompar said, “They’ve all learned some Romani words, they take part in our shows, and many greet me in Romani when we happen to pass in the corridors.”

Uffe Andersen is a freelance journalist in Smederevo, Serbia. This article was initially published by Transitions Online.


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