How Learning Languages Is Opening Doors for Migrants and Minorities

IOM - UN Migration

Today, 26 September is European Languages Day and IOM in Kosovo* is promoting two initiatives to celebrate multiculturalism and to foster closer community ties.

To paraphrase the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the limits of language define the limits of our worlds. In Kosovo, language often defines the parameters of social, cultural, economic and political life.

The United Nations in Kosovo, supported by IOM and the British Embassy, recently premiered a documentary on the subject.

With Throat in Strawberries, which references a Serbian expression about ambition that has little logic in any other language, features several language students, among them Semir Ibraimi, a 23-year-old from Kosovo’s minority Gorani community, who details the change in the fortunes of his café in the southern Kosovo municipality of Dragash/Dragaš.

Semir is a young Gorani man who runs a cafe in the village of Dragash/Dragaš. Photo: UNMIK

Two years ago, Semir started learning Albanian so he could more easily communicate with his neighbours — while also attracting new customers.

“Earlier the majority of customers were from the Gorani community, it was around 90 to 10 percent. Since now I can serve customers from the Albanian community better, I think the ratio has changed to 70 to 30 percent. I hope it will continue to change,” Semir says in a short documentary co-produced by IOM and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

Semir also shares the empowering impact of language-learning: “I feel much more comfortable. I am not afraid anymore when I go around Kosovo that I won’t know the language and be able to communicate.”

More than 20 years after the United Nations Security Council called for ensuring the conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants, conflict narratives driven by a deficit of trust continue to fuel mutual suspicion and tension between ethnic groups. Language is often a driver of segregation and exclusion — in a recent survey, 72 per cent of young Kosovo-Albanians said they had never spoken with a Kosovo-Serb and 42 per cent of young Kosovo-Serbs said the same about communication with Kosovo-Albanians.

But change is coming. A language-learning platform, VocUp, supported by IOM, UNMIK and the British Embassy in Pristina, is helping expand worlds and generate social and economic opportunities for a more inclusive society. This multimedia platform provides an opportunity to learn Serbian and Albanian languages that is easily accessible and open to the public and has already attracted more than 22,000 unique users. The platform also includes the first Albanian-Serbian and Serbian-Albanian online dictionary developed jointly by language experts from Pristina and Belgrade — an achievement that represents renewed engagement between academics after more than 30 years.

“Language, our means of expressing ourselves to the world, can be an extremely volatile issue. Yet, it is also important to identify that understanding the language of a certain community is the main pathway towards understanding that culture,” notes Tajma Kurt, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Kosovo. “A language is not merely a set of words and phrases, rather a cultural heritage which is embedded in what is unique about a certain community. Traditions, customs, and emotions are incorporated within a language and understanding these aspects will certainly lead towards mutual respect and recognition.”

Suna Zajmi is a Kosovo Albanian pharmacist who learned Serbian to communicate better with her neighbours and customers. Photo: UNMIK

Suna Zajmi is another beneficiary of VocUp. The Kosovo Albanian mother-of-two moved from Pristina to a small, multi-ethnic municipality of Kamenicë/Kamenica, where Serbian is commonly spoken.

“In our neighbourhood in Pristina there were two neighbours with whom I didn’t spend a lot of time or speak to in Serbian,” Suna shares in the documentary.

“When I moved to Kamenicë/Kamenica, I experienced a lot of changes and difficulties.”

Feeling the need to learn Serbian so she could communicate better with customers at the pharmacy she runs with her husband, Suna took the language course while pregnant — and soon made an impression.

“After the course, the Mayor wanted to meet me. I think he saw my ambition and desire to help this place and community, my dedication to do good to the best of my ability. So, he offered me the position of the Director of Health.”

Another character, Mirjana Zdravković, who grew up in Prizren, Kosovo’s most multilingual city, reflects on the fact young people today are more likely to communicate in the language of social media ‘likes’ rather than the language of their neighbour — and sometimes to the detriment of their own.

Mirjana is an accomplished musician, teacher and multilingualist. Photo: UNMIK

“I think that’s a problem, parents are realising that children are slowly forgetting phrases in their mother tongue.”

A former science teacher, Mirjana has returned to the classroom after 20 years to teach Albanian using VocUp methodology. In Mirjana, we see a woman who has dedicated her life to education and learning, forming meaningful bonds with neighbours irrespective of the divisions of the past.

“I’ve thought about the meaning of my name in Albanian. ‘Mirjana’ means ‘They are good.’”


This story was written by Amanda Fisher, UNMIK.

*This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/99.

IOM - UN Migration

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Official account of IOM, the United Nations Migration Agency.

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