We hope that the article in the education law which speaks to a move in general secondary education toward the Latvian language will be repealed. The bilingual education model which we have offered emphasizes other principles - ones which will preserve and develop the minority language.
The Russians do not give up
The introduction of bilingual education in Latvia has two aspects - the methodical and the political aspect. The political aspect, moreover, is often expressed far more powerfully. Government bureaucrats and the Latvian media, however, have devoted much more attention to the methodical aspect. They perceive it as being more important, and they are accusing the NGOs and the press of the Russian speaking minority of politicizing the issue.
The obviously political tone of the reforms, however, is causing people to protest and to ignore the benefits of bilingual education which have been promised by true enthusiasts in this area. Political demands are being made. Shortcomings in the introduction of these reforms, which are recognized by objective observers, too, make the protests all the more intensive.
The Ministry of Education and Science in 1998 elaborated a programme called “Transition toward education in the official language”, and bilingual education was proposed as a transitional resource for these reforms. The program said that the basic motivation for education reform in minority schools would be to change the ethno-demographic situation in the country so as to increase the number of residents in Latvia “who identify themselves as Latvians”. Schools where lessons are taught in Russian are seen as the main obstacle on the way toward the establishment of a favorable environment for Latvian language learning and for the integration of society. The ministry said that its most important (!) job is to increase, gradually, the number of subjects that are taught in Latvian at schools where lessons are otherwise taught in other languages, as well as to create the normative basis for introducing a gradual transition from education in Russian to education in the official language.
On the basis of this concept, bilingual education sub-programs were designed as a transitional phase from lessons that are taught in the child’s family language in elementary school toward lessons in the official language in high school. Members of Parliament have “taken excessive care” (as stated by the authors of the book “Ethno-politics in Latvia") by inserting the word “only” in front of the words “official language”. At the time nothing had been written in the press about the benefits of a bilingual education. The only idea that was promoted was that it is very important for everyone in Latvia to speak Latvian - as though anyone had questioned that idea!
The program was adopted before the education law was reviewed. The Cabinet included the programme as a line item in the government concept “On integration of society in Latvia”. In other words, a shift toward education in the official language became the cornerstone for society integration. Later, in 2000, Parliament approved a “Strategy for Integration into the European Union”, and it contains the following statement: “In establishing an integrated society, the state must ensure that all government-financed schools move toward education in the official language”. Since this declaration, it has been difficult to talk about the beauty and advantages of a bilingual education.
The Association for support to schools with Russian as language of instruction in Latvia (LKMSAA) does not doubt that bilingual education is an instrument for integration in a multi-national and multicultural society or that it is a way of learning a second, third or fourth language. There is a question here, however: if bilingual education, as it is implemented in Latvia, is so effective and progressive, why should we limit its use to elementary schools? Why is this word “only” applied to lessons in high school, leaving the native language of students within the context of the national bloc?
We agree that the four bilingual sub-programs which the Ministry of Education has developed for primary education will satisfy those parents who believe that a child can learn the Latvian language only by studying other subjects in that language and who are not particularly worried about the child’s ability to develop skills in his or her native language. We, however, are proposing an approach which ensures the development of the child’s thinking and native culture on the basis of his or her native language, while at the same time ensuring a high level of Latvian language learning and the effective integration of students into society.
Unlike the ministry’s sub-programs, ours would develop other principles in the concept of bilingual education, specifically the principle of “preserving and developing the minority language”. We are not trying to replace the ministry’s sub-programs, but we want to supplement them, expanding the ability of parents and students to choose an educational program.
We feel that general secondary education in the minority languages of Latvia must be preserved. We hope that the article in the education law which speaks to a move in general secondary education toward the Latvian language will be repealed. That is why we are offering draft programs for basic education for minorities, as well as for the general secondary education program.
At the beginning of November, the primary education program was presented at the conference “Bilingual Education: Theory and Practice”. The Education Ministry’s consulting council on minority education issues has decided that schools can submit the sample primary education program for licensing. Another important thing, as far as we are concerned, is that these sample programs can be used by any nationality - Russians, Hebrews, Poles, etc.
We will continue to discuss our proposals with school administrators so as to receive critical professional responses. Our plan is to find schools which will submit the program to the ministry for licensing or will develop their own programs on the basis of our samples.
At the second conference of parents, “Learning in the Native Language”, participants supported the program principles and called on the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, the Naturalization Board and the Soros Foundation - Latvia “to support the sample programs for minority primary and general secondary education which the LKMSAA has developed on the basis of these principles and to promote the elaboration of new standards for subjects of study”.
We hope that our initiative will gain support and that political obstacles against the preservation and development of educational programs that are taught in Russian will be removed in the law and in the government’s activities. We also hope that our proposals will become a cornerstone for the Ministry of Education documents and that they will be approved.