UMD Generation M Virtual Hour: Keeping the Macedonian Language Alive in the Diaspora

Summary by UMD Fellow Lauren Krotz

On June 22, 2020, UMD’s Generation M hosted a virtual hour on Keeping the Macedonian Language Alive in the Diaspora with Kristina Kramer, Professor Emerita in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Toronto. In 1999, Professor Kramer authored Macedonian: A Course for Beginning and Intermediate Students which later received the 2006 book award from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages for “Best Contribution to Language Pedagogy”. The discussion was moderated by UMD President Metodija A. Koloski.

Professor Kramer began her conversation by reading from a paper to help viewers begin thinking about language and diaspora. She notes that in order to promote, expand, and educate others on the language of interest, we must first think about “what is the language that we are talking about and what it is we’re trying to achieve.” To best accomplish this, Kramer tells viewers it is necessary to understand language ecology, which is the way that languages interact, and the relationship between standard languages and dialects. A quick, formal overview of these issues and Professor Kramer’s current thinking on them is then given.

Professor Kramer begins with the question, “what is a standard language, and why can it be contested?” To contextualize this given the recent and ongoing attacks on the legitimacy of Macedonia and its history, most recently by Bulgaria, a quick discussion of the standard language is a good place to start. In light of Covid-19, Bulgaria has revisited claims of Macedonian not being a language or one that was invented in the 1940s. Professor Kramer notes these claims ignore the complexities of how languages and dialects emerge over the course of time in different historical or political moments. The Bulgarian and Macedonian languages date back to a common Slavic language and unified clusters of dialects, but history has seen them separate and develops individually. Therefore, Bulgarian claims of Macedonian being an early 20th-century language are false and based on dogma about Macedonia. Kramer notes that standard languages involve human agency which creates and expands them.

Macedonian was standardized later than the languages of neighboring territories, but this does not make the standardization any less real. In fact, the awareness of Macedonian differences and recognition of Macedonian as a separate language was already noticeable in the 1870s. Kramer notes that Macedonians were historically forced to speak and write in languages other than Macedonian, which is why claims of Macedonian not existing until the 20th century exist. In her work at the University of Toronto, Professor Kramer considered the desired outcome was to produce proficient speakers and writers of the Macedonian language, as well as those who had a deep understanding of the culture. Furthermore, she also shares that many of her students have talked about their struggles in speaking a heritage language in an English speaking diaspora. According to Kramer, some language is better than no language, meaning that any word learned in the heritage language is a stepping stone to a full understanding of the language and culture. Furthermore, familial connections and mentoring can also be an integral part of learning the Macedonian language, especially for those who live in English speaking areas.

Professor Kramer emphasizes the importance of community support when it comes to learning languages. Community partnerships can help provide students with the resources necessary to build their language skills. Given the current environment, virtual learning can also provide opportunities for networking that otherwise may have not been available.

When asked about her advice in preserving the Macedonian language and culture among those who are first-generation immigrants or similar circumstances, Professor Kramer again revisits her advice of using the language and culture because “any piece is better than no piece”. Studies show that early bilingualism is extremely beneficial, but there is never a wrong time to learn the language. There are several resources, especially for young learners, when it comes to learning the Macedonian language. There is an abundance of tutorials on the internet and sites such as Youtube. Cultural activities that provide language context are also an excellent way for young learners to pick up the language.

Natural inter-generational transfer of language is the best way to teach a language, but certain historical events have broken this opportunity for many. Helping children to understand the importance of knowing a second language can help to raise awareness for early bilingualism. Absorbing the language throw television or other media can also be an easy way to keep language learners engaged. Additionally, Professor Kramer also mentions that if people can be bilingual, they can also be bidialectal. Appreciating different dialects can also help to make language more fun.

When asked about how she was able to author such a wide-spread Macedonian textbook, she told viewers her story was unique. Her book “zoomed into print” with the University of Wisconsin Press, and was later refined in the second and third editions. Another question dealt with self-study and how to navigate a language on one’s own. Professor Kramer says that learning a language takes self-discipline and recommends finding someone who you can talk with periodically to build upon your language skills. Making small, and attainable goals are the best way to find success. New platforms are available for learning Macedonian, but it is going to take private and public sponsorships to make these resources as beneficial as they can be.

The session ends with a call to action from Professor Kramer. She urges viewers to think outside the box in imagining a cost-effective course that will encourage learners to study the Macedonian language. This, of course, includes furthering the language abroad and promoting the teaching of Macedonian to younger generations within Macedonia itself.