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Albanian Studies in the Global Context

by John Watkins

On 30th January 2024, UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) hosted a conference called “Albanian Studies in the Global Context”. This half-day event was organised by ProLANG, a SSEES research group which aims to strengthen and promote East European language studies. Moderated by Dr Mirela Xhaferraj from SSEES and Ledio Hala from the University of Regensburg, this was the first ProLang event dedicated to the study of the Albanian language and it drew together experts on Albanian language and culture from across the world. It was also attended by the newly-appointed Albanian Ambassador to the UK, HE Uran Ferizi, and Mamica Toska, who had been Chargé d'Affaires at the Embassy. 


Dr Xhaferraj introduced the event with a few words about the history of Albanian teaching at UCL. The first lessons had been given in the 1930s by Norman Jopson. Then, for the next twenty-five years, from 1947 to 1972, Albanian teaching was overseen by Stuart Edward Mann. In 1996, the Alexander Nash Fellowship was inaugurated. The Fellowship is offered for a fixed term to an academic with a track record in Albanian-related research. The current Nash Fellow is Dr Piro Rexhepi.


All in all, more than a dozen scholars contributed to the event. Some speakers explained how Albanian is taught in their particular country; others addressed broader cultural issues relating to the Albanian language.


Some of the most interesting contributions came from countries that historically had had close political and economic ties with Albania. A Chinese academic, Dr Jin Qiao from Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), described the first “Agreement on Cultural Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of Albania and the People’s Republic of China”. Drawn up in 1954 when Albania and China were developing closer economic and cultural relations, the Agreement facilitated exchanges of academics, writers, artists and educators. As relations improved, Albania began sending small numbers of Albanians to study in China. By 1961, the number had increased to a hundred. In the same year, BFSU set up an Albanian Language Department. In 1967, Professor Tong Qingbing, became the first Chinese academic to go to Albania to teach Chinese language and literature at the University of Tirana.


In the 1970s and 1980s, relations deteriorated and the numbers of Chinese students studying Albanian at BFSU fell sharply. When Albania’s communist regime collapsed, educational exchanges between the two countries resumed and the numbers of Chinese students enrolling at BFSU’s Albanian Language Department began to increase. In 2009, the Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha visited China and the two countries agreed to “encourage and support cooperation in the field of education”. Dr Qiao said that there were now formal academic connections between BFSU and Albanian universities in Tirana, Gjirokastër and Vlorë, and with Albania’s Academy of Sciences.   


Dr Maria Morozova is an Albanologist at St Petersburg State University. Dr Morozova spoke first about Agniya Desnitskaya, a Soviet linguistics expert who had gone to Tirana in 1946 as a member of a Soviet  delegation to the Congress of Albanian Women. Desnitskaya began studying Albanian literature and folklore and under her guidance, the Division of Albanian Language and Literature was opened at Leningrad University in 1957. Since then, Albanian has been taught at Leningrad/St Petersburg continuously, even after December 1961 when diplomatic ties were broken. The Albanian Studies Department continues today within the Department of General Linguistics. Dr Morozova described the Albanian Studies curriculum which includes modules on Albanian history, folklore, literature, phonetics, dialectology, lexicology and grammar.


Professor Eda Derhemi told the conference about Albanian language teaching in America. Professor Derhemi had been born in Albania. After teaching for five years at the University of Tirana, she moved to Italy then completed her graduate studies at the University of Illinois where she is now a Professor of Linguistics. Despite the efforts of émigré Albanian intellectuals like Fan Noli and Faik Konica to raise awareness of Albania in the US in the early years of the twentieth century, Professor Derhemi said that no American university had an Albanian Studies department. She thought this was partly due to Albanian being “a very small language”, but it was also influenced by the Cold War in the 1950s when American universities became even less inclined to study foreign languages, especially those from the Eastern bloc.


American attitudes towards linguistics were transformed by Noam Chomsky’s book, Syntactic Structures, published in 1957. Suddenly everyone wanted to study linguistics. American universities began opening departments to study Slav languages. Other language departments opened in response to American defence and intelligence needs, and that included Albanian. The first Albanian language section had opened in 1948. Headed by Nelo Dizdari, an Albanian academic from Columbia University, it became part of the US Army Language School in Monterey. The school still exists today but under a different name, the Defence Language Institute Foreign Language Centre.


The American Air Force was also interested in foreign languages. In the 1950s, it used contract programmes run at Yale, Cornell and Syracuse universities. Later, all its language teaching was brought together at Indiana University and became known as the Air Force Language Programme. Albanian and Hungarian were the first two languages taught there. But as the military threat receded, interest in language teaching waned and there is still no accredited Albanian teaching in the US, which means that no student can major in Albanian Studies. Some universities do offer language courses. These include Arizona State University, Havard, DePaul University, the University of Pennsylvania and Mercy University in New York State. But the future of these courses is very uncertain.


In contrast to these more political overviews, other contributors discussed Albanian as a dynamic and changing language. Associate Professor Enkeleida Kapia works at the Institute for Phonetics and Speech Processing at the University of Munich. She uses computational modelling to understand how social change has impacted on Gheg and Tosk as used by both adults and children in urban and rural areas. When Albania’s communist regime collapsed, tens of thousands of Albanians moved from villages to the cities. Many more left Albania altogether. These social upheavals have left their mark on the language. Dr Kapia and her team are trying to identify variations in language and language acquisition among different groups of Albanians and are using cutting-edge technologies to help them identify the key factors influencing these changes. 


Dr Kapia was particularly interested in developing tools to help her better understand bilingual, multilingual and “heritage language” children and to see how cognition impacts on language development. One of her approaches is to use ultra-sound imaging technology that records what is happening physically when someone speaks. The device has to be strapped around the child’s face so it can collect accurate data about speech articulators (jaw, tongue, lips, teeth etc). Dr Kapia said: “Kids love it! They want to come and do the test”. Dr Kapia wants to continue her research with these communities so she can unravel the “closely intertwined relationship” between language and education.


Associate Professor Blertë Ismajli also studies Albanian as a “heritage language”. She lectures in German language in the Department of German Studies at the University of Prishtina. Her talk was called “Preserving Heritage Language through Music: Albanian-German Bilingual Rap Music”.


Dr Ismajli explained that during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, many Albanians from the Albanian territories of the former Yugoslavia - Kosovo, Macedonia, South Serbia - migrated to Germany and Switzerland as Gastarbeiter. It’s estimated that as many as half a million Kosovars now live in Germany and 150,000 in Switzerland. Dr Ismajli found that second and third generation Albanians living in German-speaking countries are keen to preserve their mother tongue and have started using rap music to create a “trans-national identity” where rappers switch seamlessly between German and Albanian.


The music creates a link with the “heritage country” and is popular in both the host countries and in Albanian-speaking regions in the Balkans. Increasing numbers of artists are rapping in Albanian and German. Some performers like Elvana Gjata who is based in Tirana and has never lived in Germany, has collaborated with German-speaking singers and rappers. These songs are often about migration and asylum. Bilingual rap is seen as a way of integrating young people with a migration background into the societies where they live. But it is also an expression of resistance against social, cultural and linguistic exclusion.


In her closing comments, Dr Xhaferraj thanked all the speakers. She hoped that this would be the first of many events to discuss Albanian Studies.


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