THE STATE OF THE LATVIAN LANGUAGE DURING SOVIET OCCUPATION
The USSR was comprised of 15 national republics in which the respective languages were afforded a significant role in education and culture, but Russian was the lingua franca – the language of communication between the republics. Officially, the Soviet regime did not pursue a policy of assimilation. Yet in reality, the national languages were gradually pushed out of individual state administration and the public sphere, in general, in favour of Russian. A fully valued education and career opportunities were only possible through the Russian language, which also gained the upper hand in the media.
The language situation in Latvia during Soviet occupation was influenced not only by Soviet imperialist language policies, but also by attitudes towards the policy of mass migration into Latvia. By the end of World War II, a significant number of Soviet military personal had come to Latvia, and their family members soon followed. Later, most migrants came to support the industrialization policy – approximately 500,000-700,000 from other Soviet republics, but primarily Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia where Russian was the dominant language.
The Russian-speaking segment of the population of Latvia grew rapidly. Essentially, these migrants were not motivated to integrate into the Latvian language-speaking space; segregation on a national scale was given priority. Special “Russian classes” were created for migrant children in dual-language schools, and later, a parallel school system – Russian and Latvian – was created.
In employment, too, there was little motivation for the migrants to learn Latvian, and language acquisition was very low. State companies and agencies often used Russian as the language of communication, which most Latvians spoke in varying degrees of proficiency.
As a result, “asymmetrical bilingualism” developed. During the National Awakening, a joke circulated about bilingual Latvians and mono-lingual Russians: “The person who speaks two languages is a nationalist; an internationalist – only speaks one.”
THE LANGUAGE ISSUE DURING THE NATIONAL AWAKENING
With the renewal of Latvian independence, one of the main political tasks was to change language policies, entrenching Latvian as the only national language in Latvia. The status of the Latvian language was already strengthened in 1989 with the adoption of the Language Law. However, real change took place in 1992 when changes to this law required knowledge of Latvian for many jobs in the public and private sector, including teachers, police, prison guards, etc.
The scope of this change was significant considering that many people who had previously worked in these professions had never learnt Latvian. This required plans for mass language lessons, which was achieved with the assistance of the UN Development Program.
LATVIAN LANGUAGE AND EDUCATION
In 1992, all institutes of higher education teaching in languages other than Latvian were closed. Primary and secondary education continued to be taught in Russian, but with an incremental increase of classes taught in Latvian. In 1995, minority language primary schools were required to teach two classes in Latvian; in secondary schools – three.
The most significant changes took place in 1998 when a law was passed requiring state-funded schools to teach almost all classes in Latvian by 2004. These changes were viewed very negatively by the Russian-speaking segment of the population and ultimately brought about the creation of “Russian-speaker” political parties.
Discontent among Russian-speakers gained momentum in 2003 and 2004 and the largest mass protest – supported by a Russian-backed organization – since the renewal of Latvian independence forced the government to temper the proposed reforms.
The new law stipulated that 60% of all lessons must take place in Latvian, and 40% could take place in the minority language. Another modification allowed students to answer secondary school exam questions, posed in Latvian, to be answered either in Latvian or the minority language.
These school reforms continue to be a source of discussion in terms of their effects on the quality of education, as well as the degree minority language teachers actually adhere to the law. Language use in minority-language schools continues to be politicized. Some political factions have called for a return to the original goals set out in the initial 1998 law, but political forces that protect Russian-language rights warn of repeated mass protests using the slogan “Russian schools are our Stalingrad.”
LANGUAGE USE IN THE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SECTOR
Language use issues are not limited to education alone. In 1999, the Parliament passed the State Language Law that regulates the use of the official language in various sectors. This law was the result of a long process and included admonishment from EDSO and EU officials regarding restrictions on language use in a democratic country.
Use of the state language is strictly controlled in the public sector. Language use is generally not controlled in the private sector, with the exception of sectors that serve public interests (such as the service sector). Regulation of the public sector is balanced by human rights considerations and rights to free speech as guaranteed by the Latvian Constitution. Yet, the efficacy of these regulations can be called into question.
The most significant issue is the level of knowledge of the state language and its use since the renewal of independence. In addition to political decisions, a host of other factors have influenced this – demographics, migration, and economic globalization. But in the case of Latvia, language politics have played a significant role, and the results of this should be analysed.
First of all, the level of knowledge of Latvian has improved dramatically over the last 25 years. This is most noticeable among the younger generation, but knowledge levels among the older generation remain comparatively low.
This was well documented in the 2014 survey that collected data on inhabitants’ self-evaluation of Latvian language skills. Among Latvia’s Russian-speaking residents between the ages of 18 and 24, 61.6% evaluated their Latvian language skills as high; but only 12.2% of those between 55 and 74 thought they spoke Latvian well.
Differences in language skills were also noted regionally: 51.7% and 48% of Russian-speakers in Zemgale and Kurzeme respectively considered themselves fluent in Latvian, however, only 21.6% in the capital, Riga, and 19.2% in Latgale. This supports the well-known socio-linguistic conclusion that good language skills are more dominant in those areas in which daily contact with the language takes place – in this case, regions inhabited mostly by Latvian speakers. Areas such as Riga and Latgale have large Russian-speaking populations, reducing the need to speak Latvian.
RUSSIAN IN THE PUBLIC SPACE
Reducing the role of the Russian language in the public space has also been one of the main political goals, thereby diminishing the hegemonic status of Russian during the Soviet occupation. One example of this is the ratification, in 2005, of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, at which time Latvia stipulated reservations regarding the use of minority languages with state authorities (art. 10, par. 2) and rights regarding translations of individuals’ names and place names (art. 11). This political agenda leads to the question of the current status of the Russian language in Latvia today.
Among those inhabitants whose mother tongue is Latvian, Russian language skills have diminished, but this decrease has not been offset by an increase in Latvian language skills among Russian-speakers. The most notable difference here can be witnessed in differences in age groups.
The older generation of ethnic Latvians generally speaks Russian: 72.9% of people aged 55-74 indicate fluency in Russian, but only 33.1% of Latvians aged 18-24 do so. Here, location plays an important role. Ethnic Latvians who live in cities and regions with high concentrations of Russian-language speakers tend to have better Russian language skills.
Statistics about Russian-speakers indicates that proficiency in Latvian does not guarantee use of Latvian in all spheres of life. They tend to use Latvian in social situations that require it, such as during contact with federal or municipal government agencies. Use of Latvian in the workplace is increasing, although in some business spheres Russian continues to dominate completely or partially.
Russian-speakers in Latvia sometimes speak Latvian to their friends, but currently available data does not indicate that this is a growing trend. Changes have been noted on the street and in shops, favouring the use of Latvian.
The fact that non-Latvians use Latvian relatively little in their everyday lives, despite good Latvian language skills, may be attributed to reticence of ethnic Latvians to speak in Latvian to their non-Latvian friends and acquaintances, often switching to Russian or more recently, English.
The use of language in the media is also a sensitive issue. Latvia clearly has two parallel information spheres – Russian and Latvian – and the content is not always similar. Russian language media is often influenced by Russian Federation media, which leaves a lasting influence on the Russian-speaking population, particularly electronic media.
A 2014 survey showed that 50.8% of the Russian-speaking population watch Russian media more frequently than Latvian media and 30.1% watch Russian television almost exclusively, while among Latvian speakers, the percentages are 12 and 3.2 respectively.
This clearly indicates the split in the information sphere, which also clearly shows problems for the spread of increased Latvian language use. However, results indicate the heightened prestige of Latvian among non-Latvians, who deem knowledge of the state language to be necessary and view this knowledge positively.
In general, the status of the Latvian language has improved, both in legal as well as social contexts. The majority of migrants who came to Latvia during the Soviet occupation have learned to speak the state language. Use of Latvian is self-evident in many of the spheres of life from which the language had almost been pushed out of during the 1980s.
Yet, as Latvia rejoins the West, entrance into global economic and social processes have offered new challenges to the language, most notably the swift onslaught of English into many spheres of life – from education to state administration. It is precisely for this reason that protecting the Latvian language will continue to play an important role in politics, so much so that the importance of the language has been entrenched in the constitution.
It is important to note that lessons from history should be taken into consideration, including aspects of the “carrot or stick” dimension. The Latvian language is one of the bases of the Latvian state, and for this reason, protection of the language should not take on populist dimensions, but rather responsible and competent actions by the government.