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Use Language for Inclusion, Not Exclusion

At this year’s Barker Lecture, Jennifer Bown shared research on the cultural attitudes toward the Russian language in three Baltic states.

Jennifer Bown - middle age woman with pixie cut silver hair.
Photo by David John Arnett

The way we talk—through our language, accent, or dialect—can serve as a powerful connection to our cultural heritage and identity. It follows that the way we talk can also affect our positioning and privilege in society. At this year’s Barker Lecture on October 26, 2023, Professor Jennifer Bown (Russian Linguistics and Pedagogy) explored the relationships between language, identity, and power and how they play into the tensions between Russian and non-Russian speaking populations in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Bown began to notice and understand the connection between identity and language as a teenager. After she lost her native Southern accent while attending a boarding school, she went to visit her grandfather, only to discover his disappointment with her use of “Northern talk.” In his eyes, she had weakened her connection to her Southern heritage. Bown still regrets the loss of her accent sometimes, and said, “Now I feel that my accent identifies me as being from anywhere, and thus maybe nowhere, United States. There's no sense of place and no history in my accent.”

Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Bown served her mission in the Baltic states speaking Lithuanian; however, because she had already spent six years studying Russian, she also spent several months working with Russian-speaking populations. There she witnessed the tensions between those who spoke Russian and those who didn’t. To the Lithuanians and Estonians, the small, Russian-speaking communities who still lived in those Baltic states represented the Lithuanian’s and Estonian’s oppression under the USSR. Bown’s experiences navigating both groups there started her on the path to studying these issues.

Today, Bown’s research seeks to better understand how identity and ethnic group affiliation in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia affects language use and how the different groups view themselves and others based on their accent or language. Bown and her team originally began collecting surveys and interviews in Lithuania and Latvia in fall 2021, and those first pieces of research focused on the persisting opinions from when the USSR collapsed in the ’90s. Bown’s research drastically changed a few months later when Russia invaded Ukraine. She said, “The world for us turned upside down, and we saw some of our own friends and colleagues feel very conflicted about their Russian identity, with many well-known Russians expressing a deep sense of shame over the war.”

Even before the war in Ukraine, linguistic prejudice posed a problem in these countries. The national trauma experienced by the Baltic peoples meant that after the USSR dissolved, most Russians living in those countries were denied citizenship, and over the years, prejudice against Russian-speaking communities has continued.

In spite of the changed situation, Bown’s team decided to keep working, with some small alterations to their surveys to account for the new dynamics. They found that most Russian-speakers in these countries identify themselves as being ethnically different in some way from Russian-speakers who reside in the Russian Federation. This distancing has increased since the war began, even as Russian-speakers become more concerned with losing their rights. As expected, the war has heightened tensions between Russian speakers and non-Russian speakers in these nations, though Ukrainian refugees who speak Russian seem to be an exception. The tension has manifested in the push to remove Russian from schools, especially in Latvia and Estonia, which has gained more support since the start of the war.

While Bown did not have a solution to the complex and multifaceted issues surrounding language identity and linguistic prejudice, she implored listeners to recognize their linguistic privilege. She said, “Consider how fortunate you are to speak a language that has become a lingua franca and how fortunate to speak a variety of English that allows you access to education and professional training. Consider how immigrants to this country might feel and what barriers they might face because they don’t speak English. Think about how you can avoid practices that might marginalize or silence them. Use language as a tool for belonging, not as a tool for exclusion.”

For more information about the annual Barker Lecture click here.