Borders » Multilingualism

About multilingualism within the population of Macedonia and Albania

Darinka Antić und Luca Paggiaro, Translation: Megan Nagel

The question about national identity can be a difficult one in the Balkans. Therefore the question about language skills was less “problematic” and easier to answer. Furthermore it enabled a better access to the people and lead to insightful replies.

During the field trip to Macedonia and Albania our group was often confronted with multilingualism, initially visual through diverse linguistic landscapes and the presence of at least two languages. We encountered this especially in towns, e.g. road signs and sign postings of government buildings in Skopje. These signs from above bear both Macedonian and Albanian. To the signs from below such as the name plates of shops and restaurants, menus etc. other languages are added e.g. Turkish, English and Arabic. The presence of many different languages in a linguistic landscape can give information about the ethnic composition of a town and visualise multilingualism clearly. However, the centre of our fieldwork was made up by the protagonists of this multilingualism, that is the inhabitants of the visited villages and towns.

Luca, participant of the field trip, with construction worker Agron in a café in Centar Župa

As part of our fieldwork we were able to meet locals of different religions, ages and environments and conduct conversations, e.g. with shop vendors at the Basar in Skopje, pensioners in small Albanian villages and a Macedonian who emigrated to Western Europe of Turkish nationality. In these interviews we asked them what languages they know, in which situations they use and how they had learned them. Our group tried to define the native language(s) of the interviewees which was not always easy as some of them were only allowed to speak it/them with their closest family members. Furthermore we asked them about their biographies so as to find out more about the socio-historic background and development of multilingualism within the local population of Macedonia and Albania. This is how we learned that the language use of some interviewees had undercome special changes during their life. For example during communist times some languages were not used as much or even suppressed in public while others were acquired because of migration. The following short profiles illustrate this.

Darinka, a participant of the field trip, drinking tea with Mendur, owner of an Antique shop


Owner of a market stand in Skopje

Language: Albanian (native language)
Acquisition: parents (father from Kosovo)
Use: family, friends, customers

Language: Macedonian (second native language)
Acquisition: school (born in Skopje)
Use: friends, customers, authorities

Language: Englisch (good proficiency)
Acquisition: TV series
Use: customers

Language: Serbo Croatian (very basic proficiency)
Acquisition: school
Use: customers

Fadil’s family planned to emigrate to Turkey in 1955 from their homeland Kosovo. Their journey first brought them to Macedonia which had only been planned as a stopover. However the family could not continue their journey and stayed in Skopje, where Fadil was born. Today he is married, has a son and dreams of the same thing his father did decades before: emigrating to Turkey with his family. He is especially worried about the economic situation which is bad for every Albanian in Macedonia, he says. Emigrating to Turkey would mean changing this and being able to lead a better life.

We talked to Fadil in English.


Owner of an antique shop, topic Yugo-nostalgia

„Nema veze na kom jeziku govoris, svi smo naši!“

(It doesn’t matter what language you speak, we are all the same!)

Language: Albanian (native language)
Acquisition: parents (family from Kosovo)
Use: family, friends, customers

Language: Macedonian (second native language)
Acquisition: school
Use: family, customers, authorities

Language: Serbo Croatian (very good proficiency)
Acquisition: school
Use: customers

Language: Arabic
Acquisition: mosque, Koran school
Use: customers, mosque

Mendur talked less about his family’s reasons to leave their home country or why they stayed in Macedonia. But he talked about the “good old days” with enthusiasm. Back then, when he was living in Yugoslavia, in his opinion the population under Tito wasn’t lacking anything. He concludes: „Umreo Tito, umrelo sve!“ (It all came to an end when Tito died!)

Mendur is from a very faithful Muslim family. He prays five times a day and goes to the mosque regularly. He proudly talks about his brother who works as a Khawaja in Cairo. He repeats several times that origin, nationality, language and religion do not play a role as long as one is diligent, honest, educated and treats fellow human beings with respect.

We talked to Mendur in Serbo Croatian.


Owner of a carpet shop in Skopje

„Svaki jezik je bogadstvo, nema veze koji!“

(Every language is a treasure, no matter wich!)

Language: Albanian (native language)
Acquisition: parents (he is from Peć, Kosovo)
Use: family, friends, customers

Language: Macedonian (second native language)
Acquisition: school (he came to Skopje as a child)
Use: acquaintances, customers, authorities

Language: Serbo Croatian (very good proficiency)
Acquisition: school
Use: customers

Language: Turkish (basic proficiency)
Acquisition: school (the plan was to emigrate to Turkey)
Use: customers

Adnan’s family wanted to emigrate to Turkey from their hometown Peć. When they were already on their way new laws under Ranković prohibited this and the family dismissed their plan. At school he learned Turkish for 12 years. He is not content in Macedonia but thinks that his family would be worse off in Kosovo or Albania. He notes that multilingualism is a widely spread matter of course in the Balkans.

We talked to Adnan in Serbo Croatian.


Pensioner from Dolna Gorica, Albania

Language: Macedonian (native language)
Acquisition: school
Use: family, villagers

Language: Albanian (second native language)
Acquisition: school
Use: inhabitants from other towns such as Tirana or Korça

The Macedonian ethnic minority in the region at Prespa Lake and Golloborda was recognised officially by the communist regime after the Second World War, therefore the inhabitants were allowed to learn Macedonian at school and use it officially. Vlade used to work for an Agricultural cooperative and was able to speak Macedonian at work as well, but when a representative from Korça visited he had to switch to Albanian.

Nowadays both languages are spoken. After the fall of communism Vlade was able to travel to Macedonia and work there, furthermore he had free access to Macedonian newspapers and TV.

We talked to Vlade in Albanian and the conversation was later translated by a friend.


Construction worker from Centar Župa, Macedonia

„Ako ne znaš svoj majčin jezik, ne možes da živiš.“

(If you do not know your mother tongue you cannot live!)

Language: Turkish (native language)
Acquisition: school
Use: Turkish speaking villagers and inhabitants from neighbouring villages

Language: Macedonian
Acquisition: school
Use: Macedonian speaking villagers and inhabitants of other towns in Macedonia, family

Language: Albanian
Acquisition: parents (father lived in Albania), school
Use: villagers, inhabitants of Debar (mainly Albanian speaking population), family (some relatives live in Albania)

Language: Italian
Acquisition: work stay in Italy
Use: everyday life, family (sons and daughters were educated in Italy)

Language: German
Acquisition: short term work stay in Austria
Use: sometimes in everyday life in South Tyrol (German and Italian speaking region in Italy)

Language: Serbo Croatian and Slovenian
Acquisition: service as an officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army in Serbia and Slovenia
Use: today rarely

In socialist Yugoslavia mostly Macedonian was spoken even though it was not forbidden to teach and use Turkish and Albanian. Nevertheless many Turkish speaking villagers had to flee to Turkey during the communist regime.

After the fall of communism many former villagers of Turkish nationality were able to return to the village, therefore the number of Turkish speaking population has risen. In school lessons are mainly held in Turkish but also in Macedonian and Albanian.

We talked to Agron in Italian and Serbo Croatian..


Pensioner from Zogaj, Albania

Language: Serbo Croatian (native language)
Acquisition: parents (of Montenegrin origin)
Use: parents, relatives from Montenegro

Language: Albanian (second native language)
Acquisition: school
Use: family (wife is Albanian), everyday life

Isuf was born in Shkodra (Albania), however his parents are from Podgorica (Montenegro) and emigrated to Albania before the Second World War. Under Hoxha’s regime it was officially forbidden to speak Serbo Croatian. Only he learned the language from his parents while his three sisters only spoke Albanian. He was also never allowed to speak Serbo Croatian with other people of Yugoslav origin in Shkodra.

After the opening of the border in 1989 Isuf was permitted to visit his relatives in Podgorica for the first time. He worked for the arms manufacturer “Yugoimport” in the Montenegrin capital in the 90s. Nowadays all inhabitants of Serbian origin are free to communicate in their native language.

We talked to Isuf in Serbo Croatian.

The biographies of the interviewees helped us to understand how the widespread multilingualism within the population came about.

In addition we heard of more details from the local inhabitants, e.g. how the use of a language changed during their life. They reported that some languages retreated into the background and lost their prestige. In consequence their use and presence also declined. This was influenced by political and historical events as well as personal decisions that were one of the main reasons for the acquisition of new languages, e.g. emigration.


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