Cats on a hot tin roof

  • 2001-04-26
Language issues have always sparked hot debate in countries populated by people from more than one nation. The language one speaks is very telling. It reveals not only a person's nationality but also his or her place of origin, educational level, social status and many other otherwise hidden characteristics.

Prewar Latvia, with its complex national composition, was split into two more or less hostile camps – Latvian and Russian speakers – by 50 years of Soviet rule and total Russification. Today, 10 years after restoration of independence, the restoration of Latvian as the state language is producing a variety of reactions – from outraged demonstrations by those who now have to return to language classes, to victorious remarks from those who can now demand their language be understood in their own country.

Few foreign analysts have chosen to address this delicate topic, apparently feeling like cats walking on hot tin roofs. Paul Goble, whose comments on the subject you can read on this page, is amazed that only 81.7 percent of Latvia's residents can speak Latvian, while 84.4 of people living in the country can speak Russian. He talks about this situation as something unique and requiring urgent action. Precisely what action, no one can say. And there are serious doubts whether any urgent steps are needed at all.

What he and other observers frequently tend to forget is that 10 years ago the proportion of Russian speakers versus Latvian speakers perhaps was even more dreadful, as all of the official talk and correspondence with authorities was in Russian. Without knowing Russian one could hardly find a decent job. So the statistics could have been 52 percent Latvian speakers (the official number of Latvians in the country) versus 99.99 percent Russian speakers.

So the current results of the census are striking in the best sense of this word. They just prove that if learning a language is made a necessity (rather than an obligation) the results can be impressive.

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a Danish linguist from Roskilde University, who spoke at an international conference on small languages in 21st century Europe in Riga last week (see page 2), said that there are no signs of linguistic genocide toward minorities in Latvia. She hopes however that Latvians will use more "carrot and less stick" in the future, because a positive stimulus to learn a language is more effective than a simple demand. She suggested better quality language courses with better teachers than there are now and a progressive pay system with slightly higher salaries for those who know both Latvian and Russian. If required in state institutions, that suggestion may draw fierce opposition from nationalist forces. However, in the private sector knowledge of Latvian, Russian and English is a must for those wanting top- and even mid-level jobs.

Knowledge of languages is an asset and, in some cases, a ticket to the society one wants to enter. As Skutnabb-Kangas said during the conference: "Monolinguals are out." For example, Estonian President Lennart Meri's perfect English has helped his country to secure a place ahead of its Baltic neighbors on the international scene during the first years of Baltic independence. While two former presidents from Latvia and Lithuania had to use translators when meeting the world's leaders, Estonia's Meri chatted freely with them. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga's multilingualism has helped her international success.

This simple truth is also clear to many Russian parents who choose to send their children to Latvian schools. It is clear that with Russia as a neighbor and a significant economic partner, Russian in Latvia will remain an important tool of communication in the future. But in order to succeed at home more than one language will be needed.