RIGA - Recent studies in the capital have shown a remarkable trend - more schoolchildren in Riga are now attending Latvian language schools than minority ones. Despite statistics maintaining that Latvians are still a minority in the capital city, 52 percent of school-aged children are now attending state schools, or 6 percent more than last year.
Opinions as to why this change of heart has been occurring are divided and ranges from simple demographics to a possible counter-reaction to anti-education reform protests. Many experts do, however, agree that this has been the trend for the last couple of years. What's more, it seems to be especially pertinent with younger parents.
Demographically, while the population of ethnic Latvians is declining rapidly due to low birth rates, Russians in Latvia are shrinking even faster. But even this cannot provide an entire explanation to the problem. According to the Central Bureau for Statistics, Russians and other minority groups still make up close to 60 percent of Riga's inhabitants.
Experts say that a significant number of minority parents believe that studying mainly in Latvian will help their children compete in the labor market, encourage integration and provide an early possibility to speak Latvian without an accent.
"It's part of a development that has been going on for a while," Maria Golubeva, an education expert at the public policy NGO Providus, said.
In some instances the school reform, which mandates that 60 percent of all classes be taken in Latvian, forces teachers without a proficient level of the state language to teach Latvian.
To be sure, choosing to send one's child to a Latvian school is not always an easy decision for the parent of a minority student. Many school principals, parents and teachers fear that an increased number of minority students will have an effect on the language of instruction.
There is a popular anecdote that says if there are nine Latvians in a room and one person is speaking Russian, then everyone will switch to Russian. Despite some truth to this, most schoolchildren today don't possess the same Russian language skills that their parents do. Thus over time, the old anecdote loses its verisimilitude.
Also, maintaining the balance of predominantly ethnic Latvians in state schools has been given a veneer of academic credibility. Ina Druviete, a professor of social linguistics and a member of the New Era political party, has argued for a limit in the percentage of minority students in state schools so that Latvian remains the dominant language in the classroom.
Druviete is not alone in this fear. It has been reported that Latvian school directors have discouraged minority students from entering their schools.
"This is not the best way. If they do not attend minority schools then they have no possibility to acquire their native language at a high level. However, if they do want to go to Latvian schools, we have no right to reject them," Druviete said.
As might be expected, such ideas have drawn criticism from a number of observers.
"Latvians still behave as if they are the minority, treating Latvian as if it is a minority language," said Aija Priedite, director of the National Program for Latvian Language Training.
Despite reservations from academics and school principals, a growing movement toward Latvian schools is continuing.
"The tendency has always been there. In the last two years we have seen more applications from Latvian schools where teachers need training to deal with students who do not know Latvian that well," Priedite said.