Considerations regarding the Latvian Language

  • 2011-07-06
  • By D.M. Helmeste, PhD USA

Dear TBT,

With the upcoming elections in Latvia, it is useful to remember that maintenance and long-term survival of the Latvian language are not guaranteed by all political party policies. Recently, I wrote the essay ‘Estonian language - factors governing usage, global recognition and loss,’ published in Eesti Elu newspaper online which discussed major factors governing Estonian language usage and loss. Since the Latvian language is also affected by the same considerations, it is timely to summarize some of the main points from that article as follows:

1. Language choices for Europeans tend to be governed by issues of practical utility, power and prestige rather than culture, solidarity and proximity. Estonian, being the official language of a very small nation, requires careful long-term government education policy implementation for maintenance. Competing languages include Russian (and English which is needed for NATO defense interactions, science and many international university research endeavors). Careful consideration is needed to maintain Estonian language survival.

2. Emigration overseas leads to the trend of “English only by third generation” in North American culture.

3. Specific biologically-determined windows in a person’s lifespan exist for optimal second language learning, and only some educational methods achieve good results.

From this are two main points that need further discussion.

1. Parallel language communities in a society (where people do not have a common language) tend to inhibit interaction at the personal level and have been observed to be a barrier towards social integration. This was the case in Quebec in the 1960s-1970s [Sancton (1985): “...the French and English in Montreal formed two distinct societies that seldom came into contact with one another”], and similar observations have been recorded by Professor Ted Cantle (UK) in his analysis of potentially destabilizing factors in British society. In Latvia and Estonia, local inhabitants generally have positive feelings about their Baltic neighbors, but it is well recorded that their personal social interactions tend to be small because of the language barriers. This has also been reported to impact collaborative projects between the Latvian and Estonian communities (discussion: /).

With Latvia being a very small country, social cohesiveness is especially important for stability of the country. Long-term social interaction/bonding is facilitated by having a common official language (i.e. Latvian) that all children learn in school. Yet we know that Latvia is a very small nation with no outside Latvian-speaking lands. It also needs bilingualism, trilingualism (and more) to collaborate and cooperate globally. Thus foreign language learning is also needed in varying degrees by different segments of the population. But, as discussed in the Estonian language paper (cited above), this is different from official bilingualism (with Russian or another “globally dominant language”) which would decrease the number of Latvian language speakers and hasten Latvian language decline.

The basic math model (Abrams & Strogatz 2003; Minett & Wang 2008) predicts that whenever two languages compete for speakers, one language will eventually become extinct. In Latvia, decline of Russian or English language usage (for example) will not cause language extinction since large populations of Russian and English speakers exist outside of Latvia. In Latvia, decline of Latvian speakers will result in extinction, since no other nation contains a large enough population of Latvian language speakers to compensate for language decline in Latvia itself. Rather, the general rule is “English only by third generation” once people migrate overseas (Alba et al. 2002).

2. When Latvian language declines, so do Latvian language job opportunities (for writers, Latvian language theater, translator job opportunities, etc.).
Some may also argue that governmental policies which accelerate decline (and therefore possible extinction of the Latvian language) are not consistent with the aims of Article 22 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights (Respecting linguistic diversity in the European Union)...since policies which accelerate Latvian language decline/extinction cannot be construed as promoting or respecting “linguistic diversity.” We must remember that the Latvian language has very few Latvian language speakers globally (in comparison to globally dominant languages such as English, French, etc.). Latvia is the only Latvian language speaking nation.
Thus careful consideration is needed for official language policy in Latvia. Government decisions will have long-lasting effects.


Related Articles