My name is Ruslana Westerlund. I have a Master’s in teaching English as a Foreign Language from Cherkassy University, Ukraine (1995), completed post graduate work in Second Languages and Cultures at Hamline University (2005), and hold a doctorate degree in educational leadership (2014). Since this blog is dedicated to languages, here is my story as a language person.
My story as a language person didn’t start when I started learning English, but it started with my native language which is Ukrainian. I grew up bilingual but my bilingualism wasn’t as “sexy” as it was most often portrayed. Sometimes you are bilingual by your own choice, and sometimes you are bilingual for other reasons. Ukrainians were exposed to Russian for various reasons: Ukrainian and Russian languages are related, people intermarry and get along. However, the Soviet regime aimed at wiping out the uniqueness of each Soviet Republic and one way of doing that was to impose the Russian language as the unifying language. The Russian language ideology not only impacted the spoken language, but also the writing systems. Asian language writing systems were transliterated into Cyrillic. Even names of Ukrainian cities and small villages received Russian pronunciation and when transliteration into Latin followed the Russian pronunciation. One example is Kyiv – most of you know it as Kiev.
I grew up in Central Ukraine where we spoke surzhyk, a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. When we went to school, we had to speak the literary Ukrainian, while at home we spoke surzhyk. When traveling to a city, we had to switch to Russian. This wasn’t bilingualism by choice. We switched between languages and dialects to belong, to fit in and to access whatever power structures available in the society only when you spoke a certain way.
Switching between languages did something to my identity. I was never really proud of being Ukrainian or speaking Ukrainian. I was a teenager. I needed to fit in. I wasn’t a confident linguist that I am now who can contest these ideologies.
Language is such a huge manifestation of our identity. In fact, it had a bearing on the identity of our entire nation: are we worthy being our own nation with our own language? Reflecting on this whole phenomenon now, it was a clear case of marginalization: the nation’s language was marginalized in its own land. As a result, I have developed a heightened sense of justice toward linguistically marginalized people worldwide.
I have had the privilege of being an ESL teacher, teacher educator, and recently have received a doctorate degree and continue to be a teacher educator and a researcher. I currently work for WIDA and continue to teach preservice and inservice teachers at Bethel and Hamline Universities.
Many of our ELL students feel the same about their own minority languages especially if those languages were persecuted in their home lands. Language and power are always inter-related and has implications for ESL teaching.