Language situation and language policy in Latvia

Jul 16, 2011 by

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 legislature.

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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