I have been in the Balkans since early February of this bitterly and dangerously cold winter. This trip is my third time in the region, but it constitutes my first visits to Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Previously I had only spent time in Croatia and Slovenia. I’m here completing a semester abroad. I came from Toronto to study Peace and Conflict Studies through a Vermont-based university called the School of International Training. For most of the past three months I have been based in Belgrade with a group of American students whose majors range from Philosophy and History to International Relations and Women’s Studies.
I study International Studies and French Language and Literature at York University in Toronto, which leads me to the purpose of my presence in Prishtina. The program I am here with places an exceptionally high value on experiential learning and independence. For the last month of the program its students disperse around the region to conduct small-scale independent research projects on focused topics. In designing this project, I sought to marry my interest in languages with Peace and Conflict Studies. I am researching Serbian/Albanian bilingualism within the Albanian community in Kosovo. Kosovo is a post-conflict society where language can divide, rather than unite, because of an inherent aspect of linguistic diversity that exists. It is interesting to consider how the relationship between languages can be reflective of the relationship between Serbian and Albanian communities. Language is something closely linked to identity, both personal and collective. It is through language that we express ourselves, make connections, and engage in communication with others—as social beings the latter is one of our most fundamentally human activities.
How does one then react if, historically, one’s language has been treated as inferior? In the former Yugoslavia Serbo-Croatian was dominant, even in the relatively homogenously Albanian autonomous province of Kosovo. Post-independence, Serbian and Albanian languages are nominally equal on the federal level. Yet through sheer numbers of speakers, let alone any other considerations, the Albanian language is dominant. This is an enormous shift or inversion in the hierarchy of power between the two languages. What does it then mean to speak Albanian, arguably a language of resistance, or liberation, or power, fluently today? What does it mean to speak Serbian, arguably a language of historical oppression, or the bygone state of Yugoslavia, fluently today? What does it mean to speak both? Or, more to the point, to be an individual able to speak both and who must choose when and where to use one instead of the other?
It is always tricky to be a researcher from outside; I imagine that precisely this difficulty is a learning experience. In reality, if I want to talk about power relations than I need not look further than the dynamic of power between researcher and the researched community. It is an issue that is intensely present, usually uncomfortable, that is related to a myriad of ethical considerations, and not spoken about enough. I do not want to fall into the trap of so-called Balkan exceptionalism, the idea that somehow this region and its people are fundamentally different from people anywhere and everywhere else. To do that is to construct an image of an alien Other and to deny a common humanity. The issue of language as an expression of power or politics is not something confined to Kosovo, or to the Balkans. The countries of the Maghreb have this dynamic, Israel/Palestine has this dynamic, and Canada has this dynamic too. As a native Canadian English speaker who is French/English bilingual, it is a dynamic that I experience daily. As a naïve young researcher (even that label of researcher feels odd), I think it is important to think in terms of learning from a community instead of learning about it, since the latter implies treating that community like an object, a Petri dish in a laboratory. Personally, I would rather and I think it is more fair to live in Prishtina and consider the community as my teachers, rather than to look in from outside and consider the community as subjects.
The article was originally written in English.
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