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Sociolingüística internacional

Language Policy and Protection of the State Language in Latvia, by Ina Druviete


The 1992 Language Law was quite similar to most language laws throughout the world. The most essential postulates were as follows:

1) Latvian should be the only language of government and state administration;

2) proficiency in the state language should be required for the holders of certain jobs and there should be a system of language proficiency certification.

3) the state language is given priority in higher education.

4) ensuring the priority of the state language in public radio and television braodcasting.

5) ensuring the priority of the state language in the sphere of public information.

In 1995 new Laws on State Language were adopted in Lithuania and Estonia and in 1999 in Latvia. These laws are much more liberal than 1989 and 1992 laws. The Baltic states now are members of the Council of Europe; they have applied for membership in the European Union and NATO, and legally binding European standards (Framework Convention for Protection of National Minorities1994; European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages1992) have been observed. However, the implementation of some Western-European standards was quite problematic in Latvia (Druviete 1999, 2000; Ozolins 1999). The language laws of the Baltic states have sometimes been criticized for deciding the role of competing languages and for too much official intervention in language use in society. In most Western European countries it is taken for granted that minorities are, or at least tend to be, bilingual in their mother tongue and the official language. It is not the case of Latvia yet.

3. The 1999 Law

The Law on State Language adopted on 9 December 1999 is in force now. The purposes of the present Law are: the preservation, protection and development of the Latvian language, the integration of national minorities in the society of Latvia while observing their rights to use their mother tongue or any other language.

Two intertwining processes are taking place now in Latvia: the integration of the society in Latvia (the linguistic integration against the background of the Latvian language skills) and integration of Latvia into the European Union (involving individual plurilingualism). Therefore the language planning strategy proceeds from the following principles: 1) an official language is both the symbol of the state and an instrument for integration of society. Learning and usage of Latvian is one of the main factors, which ensures the stability of a multilingual state, 2) ensuring all inhabitants of Latvia the possibility to study and to use the Latvian language in order to promote the integration of the society; 3) supporting the learning and use of the minority languages in Latvia; 4) ensuring the possibility to study foreign languages in order to stimulate readiness for communication in a foreign language and integration into European structures.

4. Language skills and language attitudes

The ethnodemographic composition of Latvia is as follows: Latvians 57.6%, Russians 29,6%, Belarusans 4,1%, Ukrainians 2.7%, Poles 2.5%, Lithuanians 1.4%, Jews 0.4%, Roma 0.3%, Germans 0.2%, Livs (177 people, 8 persons declared Livonian as their first language) (2000 Census). Because of the high level of linguistic assimilation (Russification) among speakers of languages other than Latvian and Russian the notions of national (ethnic) minority and linguistic minority do not coincide in Latvia. For example, only 2.1% Belarusans, 3.7% Ukrainians, 9.5% Poles declared the respective languages as their native languages (2000 Census). The population census in 2000 shows that Latvian as native language have indicated 62% of Latvia’s inhabitants, although Latvians are only 57,6% of population. Russian as native tongue have indicated 36,1% inhabitants of Latvia, although Russians are 29,6% of all inhabitants of Latvia. In Latvia representatives of minorities have more desire to identify themselves with Russian minority (Baltaiskalna 2001).

During ten years of independence there was a considerable progress in Latvian language skills among minorities. During 1989 census the Latvian language skills were declared by 18-20% of minority representatives. According to the 2000 Census 59% Russians, 55% Belarusans, 54% Ukrainians, 65% Poles declared Latvian language skills. The number of minority representatives having no Latvian language skills at all is diminishing – 78-80% in 1989, 22% in 1996, 9% in 2000 (Baltic Data House, 2000). The renewal of minority languages takes place quite slowly. E.g. there are 1095 general education schools in Latvia in the school year 2000/2001: 66.3% with Latvian, 33.3% with Russian as language of instruction. Only 0.4% of schools teach in any other language. In general, the population of Latvia is bilingual or even multilingual. In 2000 about 75% of the representatives of Latvia’s minorities declared Latvian language skills. Approximately the same percentage of Latvians declared Russian language skills. Thus, about 75-80% inhabitants of Latvia are at least bilingual – in comparison to 44% in the EU Member States. Latvian is studied in all schools, and 23.65% of Latvian pupils study Russian.

The State ensures the right of every resident to master Latvian. However, high level skills of the State language is still a problem in Latvia although the general attitude is mainly positive. To the question "Must the inhabitants of Latvia know Latvian?" most of respondents gave a positive answer: 91% citizens of Latvian, 79.6% non-citizens, 87.5% men, 91.1% women (LLI, 1999). 95,8% Russian speakers with higher education, 93,2% with secondary education and 91,8% with special secondary education expressed a wish that their children could speak Latvian. However, at the same time more than 70% of minority representatives would want Russian to be proclaimed the second official language in Latvia in a hope that the Russian-speakers could remain monolingual (Baltic Data House 1998).

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