The Struggle to Preserve & Promote the Bosnian Language

The great Italian director Federico Fellini understood the power of language in defining a culture: “A different language is a different vision of life,” he once said. Indeed, every new language is like a gateway to another world. For the migrant children, the switching between the language of their parents and the language of their school sometimes feels like traveling from one cultural universe to another.

Treasure Chest of Languages

According to Stadt Wien, more than 250 different languages are spoken in Vienna, which may even be an understatement – every one of them contributing to the cultural variety of the Austrian capital. 

Unfortunately, though, Austrian politics is still too focused on the issue of migrant children learning German, says Azra Hodžić-Kadić, a Bosnian-born linguist who lives in Vienna. She is currently working on a study of second and third-generation Bosnians in Austria, Germany, and Sweden.

And while German is, of course, the common language of all population groups in Austria, the current political and integration debate completely ignores the significance of the first language for the intellectual development of these children, she says. 

At the same time, linguists and researchers on language acquisition are unanimous: If children in migrant families have a sufficient command of the language of their parents, they can learn the language of their new homeland more easily. Therefore, multilingualism is important both for every individual and for society.   

Until now, few Bosnian linguists had studied how Bosnian is taught and learned by foreigners and supported in the large Bosnian diaspora. Hodžić-Kadić wanted to change that. In cooperation with Austrian colleague Manfred Luimpöck, she has compiled Otkrij bosanski –
Entdecke Bosnisch – Discover Bosnian
the first textbook for learning Bosnian as a foreign language following the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL) published last year.

She describes the textbook as “a necessity,” as the entire discipline of Bosnian as a foreign language has been “totally neglected”. The book has been well received, and it is already used as a basic resource at leading universities in Europe and the USA, including Humboldt University in Berlin, the University of Vienna, and the University of Kansas, in the United States.

Bosnian Language – Inferior or Useful?

The book is just the beginning of a long path to promote the Bosnian language to people of other mother tongues and to children of Bosnian migrants in Europe and beyond. It has been a path full of challenges and obstacles, including insufficient and outdated teaching materials, poor resources within the education system, and its labeling as an inferior language.

And finally, Hodžić-Kadić says, “many [emigrés] do not see Bosnian as their mother tongue at all, because it has become a hereditary language or even a third language.”  

As a result, Bosnian is now considered endangered in the diaspora at all linguistic levels. 

In Austria, where there is a large Bosnian community of 150,000 to 200,000 people, children of migrants live in a German-speaking world eight to eleven hours a day. Their parents often speak to them in Bosnian very rarely or not at all. In many cases, parents are reluctant to speak Bosnian to their children, as they do not want to give away their origin.

“I myself experienced discrimination when using the Bosnian language on public transport,” Hodžić-Kadić says – something that was not the case when she spoke on her mobile phone in French, Spanish or English. “So we need to raise public awareness and achieve equality among all languages.”

Still, there are many other Bosnian parents who recognize the importance of passing on their native language to their children, and the Bosnian Cultural and Educational Center Mostovi (Bridges) in Vienna has organized a Bosnian School that has been in operation since 2012.

“Our goal is to introduce the Bosnian language, culture, and the geography of Bosnia-Herzegovina to children in a creative and entertaining way,” says Eldin Bajrić, the school’s coordinator. In the last nine years, more than 220 children of all the ethnic groups from Bosnia-Herzegovina have participated in this program. 

Scandinavian Role Models

Useful as they are, these programs are still not sufficient to change public opinion on the importance of multilingualism, and many Austrians are still not in favor of supporting migrant mother-tongue languages: “I’ve heard very little about Austrian schools promoting multilingualism,” criticizes Hodžić-Kadić. “I know more about parents taking their children out of public schools, because the other predominant language in the school is, say, Turkish, or Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (BCS).

This says a lot about [the lack of] global awareness and appreciation of multilingualism in the Austrian society. Languages are divided, in effect, into migrant and bourgeois.”  Scandinavian countries, she suggests, could be a role model for dealing with minority and migrant languages, particularly Finland where she saw first hand “how much they contribute to the Finnish education system, which ranks first in Europe.”

Despite an under-privileged position of migrant languages in Austria, Hodžić-Kadić is not giving up on promoting Bosnian as a foreign language in the diaspora. “Discover Bosnian is not just a book, it is a whole project,” she says.

Having finished the A1 textbook, they are planning three more, at A2, B1 and B2 levels, 2 grammar manuals and a textbook for Business Bosnian. Textbooks for Bosnian as a second language for children in the diaspora is much essential if we want the Bosnian language to survive.”