[lg policy] Languages of the World: Language situation and language policy in …[Latvia?]

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Aug 5 18:46:38 UTC 2011

Languages of the World: Language situation and language policy in …
Posted By: Richard Tan on July 17, 2011 at 4:21 pm

The Ethnologue’s page on Latvia states that there are five living
languages spoken in this Baltic country: Latvian, Latvian Sign
Language, Liv, Baltic Romani and Eastern Yiddish. But this is true
only in as much as only the indigenous languages are counted. The same
page states that the total population of Latvia is 2,302,000, and only
1,390,000 of them (about 60%) speak Latvian, the country’s national
language. With only 8,000 people speaking Baltic Romani, 800 people
speaking Eastern Yiddish and a mere 15 Liv speakers, what do the rest
of Latvia’s population speak?

According to Latvian official statistics, only 59.5% of the country’s
population are ethnic Latvians — recall that in this part of the
world, statehood and ethnicity are not the same thing! The rest are
ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews…
And while many of them speak Latvian quite well, for most it is not
their first or native language.

This makes many Latvians feel like they are a minority in their own
country. Which is certainly true in big cities: in the capital Riga
only 42.5% of the population are ethnic Latvians, while in the
country’s second biggest city Daugavpils, only 18% of the population
of ethnic Latvians.

Given this situation, it is not surprising that some — especially the
country’s nationalist party Visu Latvijai! — are calling for language
policy and language laws that would make learning Latvian obligatory
for everybody in the country. At the moment, not only are other
languages (mostly, Russian) spoken at home, but they are also used in
education: current laws allow all linguistic minorities to have
education in their native languages. A recent initiative, backed by
Visu Latvijai!, called for a referendum on making Latvian the only
language in education. Over 112 thousand people signed the call for
the referendum, but the initiative failed, as it fell 40,624
signatures short of the required number. So for the moment, the laws
will remain the same, although Visu Latvijai! is planning to put
pressure on politicians to support their proposed Latvian-only

But, as is often the case with language laws, this kind of situation
feeds into pre-exiting ethnic tensions. And in Latvia bitterness and
tensions surrounding the linguistic and ethnic situation exist on both
sides. Many ethnic Russians (or their parents) came to Latvia during
the Soviet times; some did not even have any choice in the matter, as
they were sent to Latvia through the then-current “distribution of
personnel” system (graduates of higher education institutions would be
assigned to their first job and typically had little, if any, say in
the matter of where it would be). After the fall of the Soviet Union,
a linguistic policy was instituted whose goal was to eliminate
non-Latvians from managing posts. Ironically, many Russians who moved
to Latvia for their jobs lost those jobs as a result of that policy,
which resulted in much bitterness on their side.

On the other hand, Latvians too have their reasons to feel frustrated:
as things stand now, an ethnic Latvian who speaks only Latvian is
likely to run into problems on the job market. Even though ethnic
Latvians constitute about 60% of the population, 56% of the working
age segment of the population are ethnic Russians. Current Latvian
laws require a decent level of proficiency in Latvian for anyone
working in public or private sectors, but many disregard those laws,
especially in private companies. In 2010, 429 people were fined by the
Center for the National Language for not using Latvian on the job.
Most of those fined were sales clerks, hairdressers and security
personnel. Ethnic Latvians tend to work in the public and state-run
sectors. Of those who received their education in Latvian, only 35%
are said to know Russian. The rest are running the risk of not being
understood in a store or a hair salon. In an interview to the BBC
Russian service, the head of the Control department of the Center for
the national language Anton Kursitis complained:

    “If in Germany, for example, a hairdresser doesn’t know German,
she will go bankrupt. But if a hairdresser in Latvia does not know
Latvian, she won’t lose anything at all. In Latvia, ethnic Latvians
became a minority, not the ethnic Russians.”

However, it is not clear whether instituting Latvian-only policy in
education would solve the current problems. Most likely, ethnic
minorities will continue speaking their native languages at home, so
the current situation where ethnic Latvians speak only Latvian, while
Russians (and others) speak both Russian and Latvian will continue.
And this ultimately hurts Latvians more than it hurts ethnic Russians,
who are more competitive on the job market, according to the general
director of the Latvian Confederation of Employers Elina Egle. She
views the real problem not in the shortage of Latvian in education,
but in the shortage of Russian there:

    “We see that Latvian children become less competitive [in the job
market], because Russians know Latvian, and Russian, and English. But
the parents of Latvian children already understood that they need to
learn Russian too, and not to pity themselves. The current problem is
the shortage of Russian language teachers — there is not enough good
teachers in Latvia.”

After all, many Latvian businesses and organizations have partners not
only in Latvia or in the West, but also in Russia. This is another
reason why knowing Russian is important.

So despite all the pressure from the nationalist circles, the official
language policies in Latvia are likely to remain the same for the time
being. Which may be just as well, as it has already been shown in many
countries that strict language laws tend to contribute to ethnic
tensions rather than resolve them.


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