Students juggle Russian life, Latvian schooling

  • 2002-04-11
  • Steven C. Johnson

The tenth grade biology class at Riga Public School 13 is a laboratory of integration. About 20 students, all native Russian-speakers, listen to their Russian teacher lecture. Open before them are notebooks full of vocabulary words - in Latvian.

At night, they take home Latvian-language textbooks to help with their homework. But the next day they ask questions about difficult concepts - and receive answers from their teacher - in Russian.

"It can be hard, but it's not impossible," says Vitaly, 16. "Learning everything in Russian would be easier, yes, but I need to speak Latvian to get a good job someday."

The class is part of an ongoing experiment being conducted across Latvia to introduce bilingual education for the nation's tens of thousands of children who attend schools where the language of instruction is Russian.

The ultimate goal is to dismantle the two-tiered system of Latvian-language and Russian-language schools, which has endured here since Soviet days, by making Latvian the sole language of instruction for grades 10-12 and establishing a permanent system of bilingual education in Russian primary schools.

Although it acknowledges bumps in the road, the Ministry of Education says the majority of Russian schools are on target to meet a 2004 deadline for implementing full Latvian instruction in compulsory high school subjects such as history, math and biology.

After 2004, the law will still allow for secondary schools to continue teaching some 30 percent of courses in Russian, mostly voluntary electives such as economics or art. It also maintains Russian literature and language courses. All high school instruction must be in Latvian by 2007.

Nearly 75 percent of Latvia's 100 Russian-language high schools have already implemented bilingual programs and have a plan for the future, said Evija Papule, coordinator of the ministry's school integration policy.

"Education is the way to build a united society, and people realize that being competitive depends on their Latvian skills," she said

At P. S. 13, grades one through four receive Russian-language instruction. Bilingualism starts in grade five, and by ninth grade, some subjects are taught in Latvian and others are mixed.

School Director Ludmilla Krutikova said that while some parents were not pleased with the new system, almost all recognize that Latvian proficiency is essential for their kids, not least because all public higher education is only available in Latvian. But the system has met with resistance from many points, especially from Russians who fear it weakens Russian students' grasp of their own language and culture by effecting a kind of Soviet-style indoctrination in reverse - combating the decades long policy of "Russification" with "Latvianization."

"This is enforced assimilation of students, and it's been planned by politicians for many years," says Igor Pimenov, chairman of the Latvian Association for Support of Russian Schools, a union that is pushing to change the law so that it allows Russians access to education in their mother tongue.

Tatyana Liguta, a Russian language professor at Latvia University, said studies have shown that students in truly bilingual courses such as the biology class at P. S. 13 mix languages regularly and, in the end, come out with poor Russian grammar skills.

"It's not enough for them to get it from their parents, from their brothers and sisters," Liguta said. "That's only colloquial speech, and most parents are very busy and cannot spend time teaching their kids Russian grammar. That is the job of the school."

Russians also criticize the state's schedule, saying the overhaul was rushed without giving Russian teachers time to train properly.

Nearby Estonia, which like Latvia endured an influx of Russian-speaking immigrants during 50 years of Soviet rule, recently admitted as much when it pushed back a deadline for teaching all subjects in Estonian from 2007 to 2010.

In Latvia, it's not a solely Russian criticism.

Aija Priedite runs the Latvian Language Training Program, set up to train minority teachers around the country in Latvian and Latvian-language instruction. When they started training teachers in 1996, schools were already required to teach at least two subjects in Latvian, a requirement that many could not meet.

"The ministry has finally come to realize that it cannot implement this policy without us," said Priedite.

The program, which will run through 2006, has received some 4 million lats ($6.35 million) from the United Nations Development Program, the government and several donor countries in Europe and North America.

Priedite expects about half of Latvia's Russian schools to be fully ready to start teaching compulsory high school subjects in Latvian by 2004. And 25 percent are nearly there.

The future is much foggier for the rest. Indeed, not all schools are as successful as Riga's P. S. 13, where administrators say they will be ready to meet the 2004 deadline.

Pimenov talks about schools in the eastern region of Latgale, the most economically depressed and overwhelmingly Russian area of the country, where virtually no efforts have been made to implement bilingual studies. Students, he says study in Russian, but pull out dusty Latvian textbooks when visitors come to the school and pretend they are meeting state requirements.

"If the teachers speak poor Latvian and are forced to use it, the kids learn it badly and they learn the subject they're studying - lets say it's biology - badly," he said. "They end up hating the subject, hating the teacher and not respecting themselves."

Markus Warasin, secretary general of the Brussels-based European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, said there would be a risk of alienating children if they were cut off from their mother tongue.

"It's not just a matter of education, but of the social impact," he said. "You don't want some kids in Latvia to feel less good about themselves than the rest."

Still, Pimenov's alternative plan - maintaining Russian-language education for those who want it, but requiring Russian students to take a course called "Lettonica," a mix of intensive Latvian language lessons, Latvian history and Latvian culture all taught in Latvian - is roundly rejected by state officials.

"I think that would be an excellent model for Latvians living in Russia," said Priedite. "But here, it ignores reality."

After 2004, municipal authorities could legally close schools that cannot provide Latvian-language education, but the Education Ministry's Papule said she didn't expect this to happen.

"We would prefer to find a way to motivate them," she said. "Hopefully, it won't come to closures."