As a Romani child growing up in 1980s in Slovakia, I did not get to choose my identities. They were clearly given and being Roma was not one of them. We were gypsies – with low g. And gypsies were not supposed to have culture, history or even language. At least not one worth preserving. In many countries across Europe the situation was no different. And for most of the 12-million European Roma minority it still does not.
To promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, on February 21 the United Nations annually observe the International Mother Language Day. It could have had a nicer name, to remind the world that parents’ equality in bringing up their children is worth fighting for, too. However, be it the language of mothers or fathers, little is Romani language appreciated in formal education.
In the cases of most children whose first language is Romani, their knowledge is ignored. In some cases, it is used by Romani assistants as a transit to language of instruction. A child with parents from different groups may be speaking two different languages (e.g. Vlax Romani and Rumungri Romani) and will still be perceived as mute by the vast majority of schools. Some systems would place this child into a special school for children with disabilities, where Romani children are regularly overrepresented.
Be it 30 years ago or today, Romani children are guided into losing their language, part of their identity. Often, parents make the choice in advance and do not even speak Romani with their children. As Roma and Travellers we are taught – directly or indirectly – to neglect our identity. We are eager to blend into the mainstream society. As a result, we gradually lose the language and all of its dialects, generation by generation. What is worse – we do not get anything in exchange, our children still end up with a second-class education, sidetracked to Roma-only schools and special education for children with mental disabilities.
It may be difficult to build on a language which is not unified across communities, especially if dialects vary from community to community. But we at Romani Early Years Network do not seek for easy solutions. We promote linguistic and cultural diversity every day in a year, including the International Day of Mother Language, or ‘first language’ as we would prefer it to be called. We at ISSA and REYN – Rromane Xurde Berśengi Drakhin – highly value Romani language, all of its dialects and all other languages Roma, Travellers and other groups speak around the world.
Celebrate with us, join the movement, #join_reyn today.