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Sociolingüística internacional

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


5. Sociolinguistic functions of languages

The actual hierarchy of languages in multilingual society can better be characterised by their sociolinguistic functions rather than by their legal status. At present, there is almost a balanced situation between Latvian and Russian. There are different political and economic factors in favour of the use of each language. The strongest positions Latvian has in federal and municipal governments. Latvian instead of Russian has become the state and local government working language and the language of office work. The change of visual image (signs, advertisements, information) has taken place. The positions of Russian are very strong in private enterprises, primary and secondary education, quite strong in police, public transport and health care, also in armed forces (because up to 20% soldiers have no Latvian language skills).

Remarkable are the answers given by Latvians to the question: "Do you use Latvian to non-Latvians who understand Latvian". Only 49.8% always use Latvian in everyday situations and 55.5% - in official communication (LLI 1999). On the one hand, these figures reflect high level of linguistic tolerance among Latvians, on the other hand, they certify some features of still existing minority complex and linguistic indifference which could be harmful for future prospects of Latvian. In this transitional situation psychological factors are extremely important. We must take into account both the psychological resistance of Russian-speakers who, from a position of political and economic dominance have become a minority, but also the "minority complex" of Latvians. Readjustment in public opinion concerning the language hierarchy in Latvia has taken place only gradually.

Since re-establishment of independence despite of marked decrease in financial support for research and standardisation of Latvian it is ready to fulfil the demanding new functions of the present and of the future. The Latvian Language Commission has been established under the auspices of the State Language Centre, beside the Terminological Commission the Centre for Translation and Terminology has been founded. More than 400 EU documents have already been translated into Latvian. The linguistic quality of Latvian corresponds to the average level of most of the European languages.

6. Development of language situation: prognoses

Realistic evaluation of the history and present position of the Latvian language would allow to make prognosis on the future perspectives in connection with objective ethno-demographic, economic, political processes in the country, Europe and the world. The maintenance of Latvian is determined by the complex of interdependent objective and subjective factors.

Among the factors positively influencing the future prospects of Latvian the following ones can be meant:

1) sufficient number of L1 speakers and growing numbers of L2 speakers;

2) the use of Latvian in all the sociolinguistic functions especially in the Parliament, ministries and municipalities, and in all levels of education;

3) high quality of Standard Latvian (developed stylistic system and terminology);

4) present status of the sole official State language and existing legal mechanisms for language protection (Law on State Language and regulations for its implementation);

5) future status of one of the official languages of the EU.

However, there are factors whose influence could be detrimental for maintenance of Latvian, e.g.:

1) unstable economic situation and political fragmentation in the country;

2) decrease of the total population of Latvians due to low birth-rates;

3) "minority complex" among Latvians hindering the development of bilingualism among Russian-speaking community;

4) higher economical value of the main languages in competition – Russian and English;

5) the presence of huge Russian language community enjoying linguistic self-sufficiency;

6) tendencies of globalisation and linguistic imperialism, integration of Latvia into supra-national structures as the European Union and NATO;

7) implementation of some international minority rights standards, ignoring post-colonial language situation in Latvia and ensuring protection of minority languages, mainly Russian, at the expense of Latvian;

8) lack of strategic program for research and development of the Latvian language.

There are languages which despite of the efforts of community leaders or governments are inevitably moribund because of a set of unfavourable conditions, e.g. small number of speakers, lack of language transmission among generations and non-use in education. There are also languages whose huge number of speakers and status of an international or regional language ensure the maintenance of the respective language even when special protective measures have not been taken by the state authorities. The Latvian language cannot be classified in either group. Its future prospects are determined by well-considered language policy and active position of Latvian language community and Latvian government. The complicated geopolitical and ethnodemographical situation creates a necessity for long-term language policy which must be based on the program of the integration of the society in Latvia and comply with the criteria and conditions that provide the integration into the European Union.

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