Minority Language Rights in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia through the eyes of a Psychologist

Lajos Goncz


The author, who is a psychologist, points out in his introduction that psychology can be of assistance in several areas of  operation of modern society. One of these areas is human rights and within these the guaranteeing of rights in relation to the protection of minorities and their languages is particularly relevant. Inasmuch as somebody restricts the use of  a mother tongue language it becomes impossible to practice religion in this language and the speakers of the restricted language cannot participate in an educational system which is appropriate for them; therefore such restrictions influence the social situation and the whole behaviour of the individual.

An analysis of cases of  bilingualism draws attention to the fact that with their additional or inverted elements, strongly saturated bilingual situations – compared to the single language situations – modify the processes of emotional development. Due to the many kinds of  linguistic and cultural effects, in a strong bilingual situation a child’s potential mental development can blossom more completely. His or her awareness of metalinguistics can grow, leading to language and cultural tolerance  and reducing tendencies towards ethnocentrism. However, in a bilingual environment which is restricted (i.e. there is language exchange) socio-emotional development and  speech development are damaged and cognitive development can be retarded. If  it is only possible for the majority language to flourish in the social environment the message which is passed on to the minority is that their language and culture are undesirable and have no useful function: thus they are dispensable.  The intensity of effects in this direction depend on the duration of  the tendency; the longer the duration the greater the indifference, and even the antipathy towards the minority language and culture will be. At the same time the minority groups tend to associate with the apparent success of  the majority language and this makes it more attractive. In such circumstances language exchange begins and a process of  “double half-language” presents itself. In the latter the individual (of the minority group) ends up by not knowing either language as well as the one-language speaker knows his or her mother tongue. From the point of view of the psychology of learning the question arises as to what is rewarding or punishing; without help and with “suitable” doses of the “behavioural forms” of the wider community  the minority group is virtually forced to give up the “looked down upon behavioural forms”  and to exchange them for the (apparently) more expedient ones of the majority.

In the Vajdasag region, through a process of many centuries a heterogeneous community has evolved, but another characteristic is a strong push of forced migration. In the case of Hungarians the migration has definitely been away from the region, many moving to Hungary or emigrating to countries which are a long way away.In many waves, and on a planned basis, Serbians have been settled in the region. In 1991 the Serbs represented 56.8% (2 013 889) of the population there, while Hungarians comprised 16.9% (339 491) of the total number.

The author reviews the development of the rights of the Hungarian minority from 1918 up until the break out of the Yugoslavian civil war. The first period was characterised by adisregard for international obligations (which ostensibly had been accepted) and a strong policy of assimilation. The second  period can be characterised as one representing a “Titoistic” Yugoslavia; in this formation equality of rights in economic, cultural and language issues was pronounced as the norm. In the beginning this meant a broadening of the rights of nationalities. However, from the middle of the 1960s a relapse ensued in which, among other things, it could be noticed that the number of those being educated through the medium of their mother tongue underwent a strong decline.

In the period after the civil war the documents on rights presented to the outside world were promising but contradictory in their wording and day-to-day practice is characterised by discriminatory tendencies.  The author refers to the languages spoken in the state which exists today as those of  the III Yugoslavia. Thus the respective statuses  of  Serbian and Hungarian are laid down in the law accepted by the Serb parliament in 1991. This was titled: The Law on the Official and Public Use of the Serbo-Croatian Language and the Languages of the Nationalities. (Incidentally, the law also covered languages in a similar situation to that of Hungarian in the Vajdasag,  such as Slovakian, Romanian and Rusin.)  The language law implicitly pushed forward the use of the Serb language as the language of official and public life, and it also wanted to ensure that Cyrillic letters would have precedence over Latin ones. The languages of other nationalities – and this includes the Hungarian language – can only be used in an official capacity (and as an exception) with a general degree of validity (for example, in the practice of the courts or in interpretation in court cases). These languages are therefore accepted as alternative official variants in a restricted range of areas such as community councils or with reference to the competencies of local governments. In education bilingualism is supported rather than the mother tongue on its own. Concerning the areas of language use the author emphasises that on the lower level (i.e. the family, private life) and on the upper level (literature, journalism) the mother tongue can prevail; however, on the middle level – which includes public life and professional matters – it is exclusively the state language which is acceptable.

In 2001 new major political changes took place in the more favourable circumstances which had been created and these affected the use of language and the protection of minorities. Nevertheless, in real life the effects of these changes could hardly be felt. However,  the opportunity was provided for the minority policy of the country to follow more consistently in future the guiding principles and requirements which have been accepted at various international fora. Thus, for example, the law for the protection of minorities passed in 2002 – although it has certain deficiencies – fits in better with European norms with respect to language use and questions concerning education. Because these questions concerning the regulation of rights are conveyed to the Vajdasag, in the near future new, flexible measures can be expected to be more favourable for the minorities. In part these should counterbalance the serious situation of the Hungarian majority in the Vajdasag.