Bilingual education is currently being proposed only for Latvia’s minority schools, but in the near future there will also be schools where subjects are taught in Latvian and English, Latvian and French or Latvian and Swedish. The experience of other countries tells us that this is a good idea, but there has been a lack of readiness in Latvia so far to introduce it.
In which language shall we live?
“I cannot love words,” thought Herman Hesse’s Sidhartha. Something similar is thought by more than just a few students at schools where lessons are taught in Russian, along with their parents and teachers - people who do not see any sense in bilingual education. Why?
Latvia’s minority schools have been implementing bilingual education - or education in two different languages - since the fall of 1999. This was done on the basis of instructions from the Ministry of Education and Science. The native language of the children is joined by another - the official language. It is used as a teaching resource to learn various subjects and to create an environment for communications. This is a very good and effective idea, as has been demonstrated in Canada, Switzerland and other countries, as well as in research projects at schools.
Latvia, sadly, was not sufficiently prepared for the introduction of bilingual education. The Education Ministry’s strategy in introducing the reforms was one of those “top-down” processes - the relevant laws and regulations simply ordered schools to introduce the changes, and the schedule for the process was very tight. One of the ministry’s partners in the implementation of these reforms is the “Open School” project of the Soros Foundation Latvia. It represents what could be called a “social system approach” - all of the target groups which are a part of the educational process are involved. This includes students, parents, teachers and school administrators. We have studied their needs during the implementation of the reforms, and we have provided methodological and content-based answers to important questions. “Open School” is a cooperation network. In order to ensure ongoing bilingual education, we bring together kindergartens, schools and pedagogical universities. We are developing bilingual and intercultural education centers in Latgale, Kurzeme and Riga.
Latvia’s bilingual education sub-programs or models reflect two fundamental principles of policy - strengthening the status of the Latvian language so that in 2004, students in the 10th grade might be able to study all of their subjects in Latvian, and helping the ethnic groups which are present in Latvia - Russians, Ukrainians, Hebrews, Lithuanians, Estonians, etc. - to preserve and develop their native language. Latvian language learning serves as a means for the social integration of students. Official language skills help young people to obtain citizenship and take part in political processes, as well as to compete successfully in the labor market. Bilingualism is not a goal. It is a resource for full communicative abilities in the cultural environment in which someone lives.
Everyone becomes richer by adding another language to his or her “linguistic passport”, but bilingual education in Latvia at this time is being offered only in minority schools. In the near future, however, there will also be bilingual schools where subjects are taught in Latvian and English, Latvian and French or Latvian and Swedish. Bilingual education should also be introduced in Latvian schools. This is one of the main ideas which was expressed by University of Latvia Professor Ina Druviete at a conference called “Bilingual Education: Theory and Practice”, which was organized by the Ministry of Education, the “Open School” project, and the Association to Support Latvian Schools with Lessons Taught in Russian. Professor Druviete also talked about two other important aspects of this issue - the native language of students must be nurtured and improved at least until the child is 11 years old. Secondly, Latvia must adopt the globally common practice of teaching social studies, history, music and art in the student’s native language and teaching the exact sciences bilingually or in the official language. This means that students link the official language to everyday events and work, while also learning their cultural heritage in a deeply emotional way, thus strengthening an individual’s native cultural identity.
Education professionals at the conference decided that the main problem here is that many teachers oppose these reforms. They may be promising to work in a bilingual manner, but in truth they are organizing the educational process in Russian. School administrators are proving unable to implement a team approach to the issue. Family and school strategies have not been harmonized when it comes to the raising of children and the use of languages.
Many teachers are not sufficiently convinced about their language skills and methodological preparedness. There are problems with the evaluation of bilingual education, and there is the serious problem of a lack of a Latvian-speaking environment, especially in the eastern Latvian region of Latgale. The greatest problem for teachers is that the parents of their students have different interests, and parents do not get involved in the process. A teacher from the Riga Hebrew High School, Elina Falkensteina, talked about her experience in this area, saying that the main thing is not to get carried away with this issue. Bilingual education should be introduced in a calm and gradual way so as to avoid overloading the students and getting their parents upset. If a second language is introduced gradually, she said, children are happy to learn it, and parents feel more free, sense their importance and are ready to help. The discussion of the involvement of parents in support for bilingual education, however, is turning into a process of criticizing the country’s social and regional policies. As long as parents work until late at night or are forced to be ashamed of the fact that they are unemployed and do not speak the Latvian language, they will not come to the school and offer their help. As long as the state has not demonstrated its effectiveness in terms of allowing everyone to expand his or her opportunities, as long as the political process takes place behind closed doors where political decisions can be bought for cash - as long as these things prevail, Latvia’s minorities probably will not demonstrate any fervent desire to integrate into what they feel is a somewhat alien and peculiar society.
We are the ones who shape this country. Are we perhaps talking too much about differences among ethnic groups? Perhaps, in accenting the learning of the Latvian language, we are forgetting that language itself is not enough. You can speak Latvian but still deny the country and its culture. You can use the Russian language in telling your children about Latvian independence day, 18 November, as a celebration for the state and the family. Perhaps we have to begin at the point which all young people have in common. The “Open School” project works with the Kalnciems kindergarten, and children there simply don’t care whether their playmate is a Russian or a Latvian.