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Sociolingüística internacional
Winter 2002

Latvian language acquisition –a fight with myths, stereotypes and prejudeces, by Aija Priedite

When Latvia regained its independence in 1991 the status of the Latvian language was one of the main problems facing the country. In spite of well-meant State policies in 1992-1993 the situation changed hardly. This was the reason why the Latvian Government in 1995 decided to develop and implement a ten-year National Programme for Latvian Language Training (NPLLT). As a result of the first six years there has been a real change of attitudes to language learning and use, the language acquisition environment has changed completely owing to effective teacher training and completely new and attractive teaching materials. But the most important change is that people have understood that language acquisition is a normal pedagogical process, not a mysterious monster embedded in myths, stereotypes and prejudeces.

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1. Introduction

2. State policy in order to change the language hierarchy in Latvia

3. Why did the well-intentioned State policy fail?

4. Analysis of the myths

5. The Nacional Programme for Latvian Language Training (NPLLT)

6. The Philosophy and Strategy of the National Programme for Latvian Language Training

7. Changes in the Education System - a political or pedagogical problem

8. Language acquisition the way to integration or vice versa?

9. The current situation


1. Introduction

What is so special about Latvian language acquisition that it is worth serious debates in Latvia and that even the international community is interested in the issue? People conducting interviews on the language issue in Latvia are confused, because the statements about the language situation in Latvia will be almost as many as the persons interviewed. What is really happening, whom can you believe and who is right?

The language situation in Latvia in the year 2002, 11 years after regained independence, is still not treated in neutral terms, but is tackled emotionally and used as a weapon. Where the Latvian language society is divided between two extremes or two poles. Some want to implement the Latvian Language Act, which recognises the Latvian language as the only State language of Latvia, as fast possible - others want to continue the former Soviet policy and its consequences, and accept two State languages, Latvian and Russian. Between these two poles everyday life is taking place.

2. State policy to change the language hierarchy in Latvia

In 1994 approximately 700,000 of Latvia’s approximately 2.5 million residents had little or no knowledge of the Latvian language, as a consequence of the 50 year-long Russianisation policy during the Soviet occupation. Of these 700,000 persons approximately 200,000 were Latvian citizens. The Law on languages, which in 1989 gave the Latvian language the same status as Russian, was changed by amendments in 1992 and the Latvian language became the only official language of the Republic of Latvia. In the same year, a State Language Centre was set up, responsible for the juridical status and the strengthening and use of the Latvian language. Different language levels for different professions were worked out, the so called proficiency tests and attestation commisions responsible for the language exams established, and a language inspection introduced.

It is obvious that the Latvian state sought to introduce a responsible language policy aimed at reestablish Latvian as the only State language. In 1992-93 virtually a people´s movement was mobilised to teach Latvian. Practically everyone who knew Latvian was teaching the language to someone who did not know it. 153,000 persons passed the language proficiency tests during this time but the language situation changed very little. The result was deep disappointment on both sides. What happened? Why did this action fail? The reasons and answers are very complex.

3. Why did the well-intentioned State policy fail?

In the following I will try to analyse and determine some of the reasons the failure of this well-intentioned. The main reason, in fact, was unrealistic ideas about language learning and language teaching, based on different myths, stereotypes and prejudeces developed and practiced during Soviet times and intensified by the mental isolation of Latvia over the period. Here a list of frequently voiced statements:

Table 1

Latvians about Russians and the Latvian language

Russians about Latvians and the Latvian language

  • All Russians are stupid, ignoramus, imperialists, and rude;
  • Russians cannot learn a foreign language;
  • The Russians should go home;
  • Russians are not able to learn Latvian;
  • Russians will never learn Latvian;
  • They have been living here for 40 years and still do not know Latvian;
  • In Siberia we learnt perfect Russian within three months;
  • They have to be forced to learn Latvian as we had to learn Russian;
  • The Latvian language is a special language;
  • The Latvian language is a very old language;
  • The Latvian language is very difficult and complicated, even the Latvians have difficulties;
  • The Russians are ignoring our language and culture;
  • I cannot listen to the Russians speaking Latvian, their terrible accent and grammar mistakes are not tolerable;
  • What will we do, if all Russians speak Latvian?
  • All Latvians are damned nationalists= faschists;
  • You cannot trust the Latvian institutions;
  • The Latvians do not like us;
  • The Latvians want to get rid of us;
  • The Latvians say, go home, but where should we go, Latvia is our home;
  • You cannot trust the State Language Centre, the commissions are corrupt, incompetent, they do not want us to pass the language tests;
  • The Latvian language is very difficult and complicated, even the Latvians have difficulties in speaking correct Latvian;
  • You cannot speak about higher cultural, philosophical and global issues and values in Latvian, the language is too poor;
  • The Latvian language is a kitchen language, a dog language;
  • The Latvian language teachers are bad;
  • There are no good teaching materials available;
  • Why should we learn Latvian, we will speak Russian anyway; 

This list could be prolonged with tens of additional statements. What can be achieved through such attitudes? Certainly the acquisition of the Latvian language. Both sides are in principle rejecting Latvian language acquisition. For the Latvians the language is a "holy cow" and an insider secret code; for the Russians it is useless and worthless. In actual fact, this discussion is not promoting but blocking the distribution and the use of the Latvian language.

Let us analyse some of the issues to get a clearer picture of what is going on and what is needed to solve the problems.

4. Analysis of the myths

Firstly, the Russians were never obliged to learn Latvian when they came to Latvia. The environment was prepared and adapted to the language needs of the Russians, not to those of Latvia and the Latvians. For example Russian classes were established in Latvian schools, when this was requested. When the need was expressed, the schools were transformed into two-stream schools, with Russian and Latvian classes. When more Russians came to Latvia and the need was there, Russian schools were established. In the beginning, this was defended by the argument, that these people would stay in the country only for a limited time, and would move somewhere else after a few years. The fact is that the people stayed but the tradition, not to learn the language, remained. In fact, this behaviour was extended to other fields. When non-Latvian speakers were not able to manage their everyday duties in Latvian, the language of instruction was changed to Russian. By the nineteen eighties the official language in Latvia had been transformed, "naturally" into Russian. Latvian had become de facto a minority language in Latvia. What is more, the teaching of Russian in Latvian schools was very well prepared and of a high standard. The status of Russian as the "lingua franca" in Latvia was established from two different directions.

Secondly, there existed and still exist unrealistic ideas about language acquisition. Language acquisition was not regarded as a human learning process but as a technical issue, something which could be installed at a certain date and under certain circumstances. No human factor was taken into account. No estimates were made how many hours and how long a time is necessary to learn a language. No psychological or sociological analysis was made to understand the trainees. Learning foreign languages was not very popular during the Soviet period, because there was no use for foreign languages. In the accessible foreign countries you could speak Russian, the other countries were not accessable. Foreign languages were taught theoretically or with topics (certain themes with limited questions and answers which were learnt by heart). Additionally most Russians had no language learning experience at all. All this made the Latvian language even more worthless and unattractive.

Thirdly, there is no motivation to develop language teaching pedagogiy if the language learning is only formal. So no attention was paid to improving the teaching of Latvian, to develop new, attractive and interesting teaching materials that would motivate the learners.

Fourthly, being a Latvian language teacher in Russian schools was regarded as a low prestige job. The mental isolation associated with Latvian Philology influenced also the Latvian language teachers, who were constantly repeating how difficult and complex the Latvian language is. This did not promote the language acquisition. Additionally many teachers regarded the students as stupid and lazy and not able to learn Latvian, which did not make the situation any better.

Fifthly, there was no tolerance of people who spoke Latvian with a foreign accent or wrong grammar. As soon as soemone began speaking Latvian with an accent or was making mistakes, Latvians switched to Russian. This phenomena is still active. How can a student learn a language if he or she is not allowed to use the language in the learning process and is not allowed to make mistakes?

Last yet not least, the already mentioned introduction of a Russian school system in Latvia was the beginning of segregation in the society, a creation of two different information spaces. The Soviet Russian schools in Latvia had nothing in common with Latvia and the Latvians. The follow-up of this policy is still affecting Latvian life in

Latvia. It is obvious that a common education system is needed to achieve a consolidated and integrated society in Latvia.On the Latvian side it is expected that the Russians learn Latvian fluently but no means are provided to make the language accessable for learning. Instead, the Latvians are keeping their language as a secret code in a golden cage.

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