The Latvian Language is Faltering. So is Integration

27. February, 2004


Svetlana Djackova

Foto: E.Rudzitis

Both Latvian and foreign experts concede that Latvian language acquisition opportunities should be increased. Nevertheless, studies also indicate a lack of motivation to learn and use the language. To what extent is this an obstacle to the integration of Latvia’s society?

According to statistics, a large number of minority group representatives still have poor or no Latvian language skills.[1] Why is this so and to what extent is this an obstacle to integration? Is Latvian language acquisition among adults still an issue? This is what I would like to discuss in this article. Both Latvian and foreign experts have recently conceded that opportunities for Latvian language acquisition should be increased. Nevertheless, studies also indicate a lack of motivation to learn and use the language. There are various opinions among experts and politicians as to this problem and how Latvian language proficiency should be encouraged and improved, particularly for adults. Considering current events related to education reform, the question still remains: is the situation regarding Latvian language skills in our schools satisfactory and does it help make the student more marketable? In my research “Latvian Language Proficiency and the Integration of Society” I analysed the situation and made recommendations on how to be more focused in implementing language policies in the next few years and thus promote the integration of society.

As regards the connection between Latvian language skills and integration as opportunities for participation, I would like to emphasise the following points in particular:

The role of the Latvian language in the job market continues to grow, even though some minority group representatives do not need to use their knowledge of Latvian in daily life. As a result, an insufficient knowledge of the language limits the employment options and marketability of many residents.[2] From the viewpoint of integration and the development of human resources, it is especially critical to promote the marketability of the unemployed and other risk group and their integration into the workforce by supporting Latvian language acquisition efforts.

Although the improvement of Latvian language proficiency does not always serve to overcome minority group isolation, insufficient language proficiency to some extent lessens a noncitizen’s ability and motivation to acquire Latvian citizenship and participate in national social and political processes.

The regional gap in Latvia between the levels of Latvian language proficiency is growing (influenced by demographic, socio-economic, and other factors). For instance, in Latgale, Kurzeme, and Zemgale the number of people who know the language is decreasing, whereas it is increasing in Riga and Vidzeme.

Motivation for Latvian language acquisition

Over the course of recent years, the attitude towards the Latvian language and the motivation to learn it has not changed significantly. There is still a high and assorted demand for Latvian language acquisition, as evidenced in survey results and from various Latvian language acquisition programs.

At the same time, in practice it is often not possible for adults to satisfy their desire to learn Latvian. This is because of several factors – a limited need to use the language in practice, financial challenges, and language usage habits that do not promote the use and acquisition of the Latvian language. The most significant motives for learning a language are employment, career, and professional advancement. The workplace is the main social environment where the use of Latvian is consistently increasing. Therefore, the advantages to society of possessing language skills and the opportunities to learn should be publicised. Experience shows that the supply of language acquisition opportunities promotes demand. Concurrently, various legal regulations controlling language usage are in place, and over the past few years they have not encouraged the advancement of national language usage and the motivation to learn the language.

The role of state institutions

Over the past few years, various state institutions, among those the Latvian Society Integration Fund (SIF), the Naturalisation Board, and the National Programme for Latvian Language Training (NPLLT) have either continued or begun to recognise the need for efforts to increase the availability of Latvian language learning for adults; they have begun to involve other institutions and to seek financial support. Nevertheless, the continuation of these initiatives to a large degree depends on the successful coordination of activities among various institutions and on secure funding. For example, the NPLTT, the State Employment Agency, and several non-governmental organizations are all involved in organising courses for the unemployed, but because of financial restraints and the lack of inter-organisational coordination, demand for Latvian language courses exceeds supply. To avoid overlap and more adequately meet the demand for language acquisition, the Ministry of Education and Science could consider developing a long-term strategy for promoting Latvian language acquisition among adults, reaching agreement on the role of various institutions, evaluating the teaching environment, possible financial resources and their range. Considering the NPLLT’s substantial experience in the field of Latvian language acquisition and methodology, its role as a mediator between government institutions, civic organisations, and the general public should be strengthened over the next few years. Considering the foreseeable decline of funding from the EU Phare program and other foreign countries, the government should secure financial support to institutions that work directly with promoting Latvian language acquisition for adults, primarily to the NPLLT and SIF. Although changes in the area of Latvian language policy in minority schools has encouraged students to improve their Latvian language skills, many of the pupils and students surveyed still do not have a good command of Latvian and do not use it on a daily basis. About half of the teenagers agree that Latvian language courses would be beneficial. On the one hand, this reinforces the government’s goal of increasing the use of Latvian within the education system. On the other hand, the question of the student’s further integration into society is still critical: to what extent are they and will they be motivated to use their Latvian language skills in the job market and embrace the Latvian environment? Thus far, education reform has not promoted effective public participation in decision-making, which is one of the reasons for disassociation.

The role of other political agents

Civic organisations have had success in providing support and opportunities for the acquisition of Latvian and in encouraging inter-ethnic communication. Thus, it is critical to support and build the capacity of civic and private organisations. It is important to continue the initiatives started by SIF to organise invitations for proposals to stimulate self-initiatives for Latvian language acquisition at the local level.

The involvement of local governments, educational institutions, civic organisations, and businesses in Latvian language acquisition must be stimulated, because it is precisely these institutions that best understand the needs of residents and could assume some of the responsibility for implementing language policies.

The quality of Latvian language acquisition should be encouraged; for example, by involving the Education Content and Examination Centre, NPLLT, and private and civic education organisations in cooperative efforts, organising educational seminars or consultative events.

The work of consultative institutions must be promoted, where information would be available about Latvian language learning opportunities from civic organisations, local governments, state language knowledge testing commissions, and other institutions.

[1] One half of minority group representatives have poor Latvian language skills, and 12% of them do not know the language at all. See: National Programme for Latvian Language Training, Baltic Social Sciences Institute, Language, November 2002 – February 2003, 2003, pg. 23.

[2] For example, according to statistics by the State Employment Agency, in April 2002 approximately 13% of the registered unemployed did not possess documented proof of their national language skills, the absence of which denies an unemployed person the right to take advantage of vacancy announcements and requalification opportunities offered by the State Employment Agency. raksts

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