Law on the state language: to accept the reality

The Constitution of Ukraine specifies the Ukrainian language as the only official language in Ukraine, so the state is obliged to ensure its development and functioning in all spheres of social life throughout the country, the existence of which no one seems to doubt. Or does anybody doubt? That is, by and large, the draft law on the state language – which is being heatedly debated this week – sets the borders of application and usage of the state language and the mechanisms of implementation  that offer a transition from declarations to realization.

But somehow the issue of language in Ukraine always becomes a political speculation. As we can see, the remnants of political speculators and Soviet propagandists are hastily and nervously singing for their supper, because soon everything will fold up, since the issue of the state language status in Ukraine will be settled and clear cut – just like our borders, our flag, our coat of arms, our anthem and our sovereignty are now.

To avoid misunderstandings, we need to read the draft law thoroughly and calmly. This would give a signal that there is no pig in a poke and the modern Ukrainian political nation has established itself, it is aware of its advantages and deficiencies, it can adequately assess its personality and values, and most importantly – that Ukraine has to become a comfortable and safe state for all its citizens, the state in which the basic human rights and opportunities for individual development are provided.

The most important point: the fact that a separate law determines the status of Ukrainian as the state language does not deny the language rights of national minorities. Moreover, the use of other languages (Russian, Belarusian, Polish, Crimean Tatar, Gagauz, Hungarian, Romanian, etc.) will be mentioned in separate articles of the law on the rights of national minorities, the text of which is already being developed by the working group. Human rights are paramount.

Secondly, the law on the state language is primarily applied to the public sphere – the work of the state apparatus, local government, courts, the spheres of medicine and education, and other spheres of public life. It does not apply (and it could not) to private and religious life.

In addition, the articles of the law concerning the provision of services, envisage that, if necessary, a user can request to choose to communicate in a language other than the state language which would be acceptable for the both parties. However, Ukrainian should be the “default” language of providing services.

Rights and obligations

Proficiency in the official language will become an obligation of citizen. In turn the state guarantees to create all the necessary opportunities for language learning – for those citizens who were not able to do it in the past as well. We mean the creation of a system of courses of the Ukrainian language (like those that have been operating for several years in different cities thanks to the efforts of civil society activists). Thus all we need is a desire.

Apart from the President, deputies, diplomats, officers, employees of law enforcement agencies and all the officials and authorities of all levels, lawyers, notaries, doctors and health care workers, teachers, employees of foster services and other officials and officers of state and municipal enterprises are required to be fluent in Ukrainian  .

The only language of education and science is the official language. The times when a teacher, even using a Russian-language textbook, explains the material in Russian, should become a thing of the past. The educational process in the educational institutions of national minorities is to be carried out in the language of the minority along with the state language. However, the external independent testing (except for the tests in foreign languages) will be passes by all school graduates in Ukrainian.

The law proposes to criminalize the “public humiliation or disrespect” of the Ukrainian language, making it equal to the abuse of state symbols of Ukraine. This “disrespect” is not about surzhik (mixture of Ukrainian and Russian), as many think. This is about sayings something like: “I don’t understand this stupid language”.

Language and culture

Although the law does say that the language of cultural or entertainment events is Ukrainian, this does not mean that politicians are trying to control the language of art and artistic self-expression. After all, the law clearly defines that if the artistic or creative concept intends to use any other language, nobody will be able to restrain the author. The same will also apply to the activities of national minorities.

Foreign language theater performances in state or municipal theaters must be accompanied by Ukrainian subtitles (this is what is now done during performances of classical operas in Italian or French or during festival theater shows).

The requirement to dub foreign films into Ukrainian is no surprise. The law also provides that a part of films screened in cinemas can be shown in the original language with Ukrainian subtitles. There can be no more than 10% of such films from the total number of cinema showings during a month. This will be enough (at least at the beginning) to make Ukrainian viewers familiar with watching at least part of world films in the original. At the same time this will reduce the number of cinema showings of films produced by the aggressor country (because no one dubs Russian-language films, we only have Ukrainian subtitles).

Publishing houses will have to publish books in Ukrainian. However, here there are some exceptions as well. Firstly, along with the Ukrainian version any other can be published – of the same content, scope and design. The only thing is that the Ukrainian edition of the book has to be more numerous. Books for national minorities may be published at the expense of the budget. Foreign languages textbooks, tourist guides, art publications, and so on will be in foreign languages. An exhaustive list of such exceptions will be drawn up by the Ministry of Culture.

Every Ukrainian bookstore (except for those that distribute books exclusively in European languages) must have at least 50% of books published in the state language.

Mass Media

After adoption of the law on quotas for Ukrainian-language songs on the radio, the law on the state language should further strengthen the position of the Ukrainian language in the media. In particular, all TV channels and radio stations, irrespective of the form of ownership, must have their broadcasts in the state language.

Print media will be obliged to either be published in Ukrainian or, at least, to ensure no less than 50% of Ukrainian editions published along with the other language versions. That is, for every thousand copies of a Russian-speaking political weekly newspaper there should be a thousand copies of the same scope and content in Ukrainian. However, these requirements do not apply to such publications as the English-language KyivPost – in some cases the media may be published in one of the EU official languages. This will neither be applicable to the publications issued by national minorities.

It will be difficult to apply the new law to online media. At least, as long as their status and the issue of state registration are not settled, since a great amount of online media don’t have such registration.

No one is going to ban other languages from TV and radio. National minorities are still going to have programs in their languages: no more than 10% per day on the national channels and stations, and no more than 20% – in the regional ones. It should be noted that the percentages may be the subject of discussion between the first and second readings of the bill.

What is interesting: international broadcasting will be in a foreign language only by 60%. It might seem illogical at first glance. But if we take into account the fact that international broadcasting is service is not only meant for people of other countries, but also for the Ukrainian diaspora, for the residents of the temporary occupied territories, the Crimea, it becomes clear who will watch (or listen to) the remaining 40% of Ukrainian programs. This figure might be debated as well.


Names and surnames of citizens should be written in the official language in accordance with the spelling rules. They are not translated into foreign languages (i.e. Mykhailo can’t become Michael in his passport).

But Anna could be Anna, instead of Hanna, since “a natural person has the right to a transcribed record of his/her name and surname in accordance with their national traditions”.

Trademarks are not going to change their names, so Coca-Cola will remain the same.

Language “office of weights and measures”

To monitor the development of speech, spelling, to develop terminology and test the knowledge of civil servants and future citizens of Ukraine – these will be the duties of a new body – the National Commission on State Language Standards. Something like a language “office of weights and measures”. The Commission will be composed of nine members, whose term of office will last for six years. All of them must be PhDs in Philology. The Commission may engage experts in sign language, philosophers, sociologists, representatives of other sectors to its activities; however, it is obvious and logical that these should be linguists who are going to set language standards. Isn’t it?

This Commission will oversee and coordinate the linguistic processes. For specific tasks it is advisable that it should have some smaller profile units.

The Terminology Centre of the Ukrainian Language will be dealing with new terms, transcription and transliteration standards, Ukrainian sign language, spelling.

The Centre of the Ukrainian Language is supposed to be established as well. It is going to deal exclusively with the development of training materials for the study of the Ukrainian language and organization of tests aimed at determining the level of language proficiency (like TOEFL, IELTS, DELF, TESTDAF). For the first time Ukrainian citizens will be able to pass such a test for free, and the certificate of language proficiency will be valid indefinitely.

“Language Patrol” – as the Language Inspectors Service is jokingly referred to – will operate under the Commissioner for the protection of the state language. This service will not be executing anybody for wrong pronunciation of words. This service will be dealing with and responding to complaints about violation of the law on the state language, which will be received by the Commissioner’s office. The complaints must be reasonable, because otherwise the Commissioner may leave them without consideration. In addition, we consider the possibility to amend the bill in order to give time to eliminate violations by the time fines are imposed.

In recent years, activists have been successfully defending the observance of their language rights in courts. The inspectors will be able to effectively and promptly respond to violations and secure enforcement of the law.

When everything starts

The law will be coming into force gradually. The norms on television and radio, on providing services, on documents and records management will start operating in six months. Starting from September 1, 2018 the Ukrainian language will become the compulsory language of education at all levels. A year later – in the spheres of culture, health, information systems and print media. Two years later, the requirement  on language proficiency examination for receiving citizenship and being appointed to public office will take effect.

Pragmatic outcome

This law might become a cause of mass employment of qualified philologists. Creation of several specialized institutes will let experts conduct topical studies of live speech and influence its development. The public and commercial interest in the promotion of Ukrainian literature, including the translated one, will help book publishers expand the lists of books they can offer to readers. Translators, editors, teachers, development of small business through the provision of services of translation and interpreting, teaching of the state language at different level courses, and so on – all of this means new jobs, salaries, and then – taxes and revenues to the budget.

The requirement for a gradual transition to programs with the Ukrainian interface (not to be confused with programming languages) will be another step towards doing away with pirated software. And if the use of the Ukrainian language in research is carefully monitored, scientists themselves will create the necessary in the Ukrainian language new terms (and these new terms will update textbooks, etc.).

It is important to reiterate that none of the signatories of the bill 5670 has intentions to either narrow down someone else’s rights nor to earn “points” before the election, nor to reinvent a bicycle. The working group, which has been working on the text of the law, was guided by the legislation and experience of European countries; it weighed all arguments and sought compromise. Perhaps the criminal responsibility for abuse of language will seem to be a too harsh measure for our colleagues in the session hall – well, this is what we have time between the first and the second reading for. All points of contention can be discussed, something can be added, something – left out.

We hear appeals stating it is advisable not to use sanctions for infringement of the language law, but to motivate and encourage – mainly by money – those who use the state language. So to speak, to give a carrot to induce loyalty. No problem: the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet of Ministers, Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine – all together and preferably simultaneously have to recognize that the development of the state language is or should be one of the strategic priorities of the state; and this priority should be finally properly funded. To this end, we at least need a framework law and a starting point. Then, we will need amendments to the Budget and Tax Codes and changes in financing principles.

It is important to accept the reality that without resolving the language issue by legislative means Ukraine risks to lose its identity under the pressure of foreign language information field. This time it might be not only its ethnic or national identity, but the state identity altogether.

Iryna Podoliak
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