We are happy to announce a one-day symposium which will take the New Speaker concept to Latvia: It will take place on April 10 in the European Union House in Riga.
In order to familiarize the readers of this blog with the situation of languages and language policies in Latvia, we would hereby like to provide a short background of languages and society in which the symposium will take place.
Latvia has a long tradition of multilingualism and language policies. It has for centuries been a place between Western and Eastern Europe, with Latvian and other Baltic varieties co-existing with German, Russian, Polish and other languages. When Latvia became independent in 1918, the Latvian language was one of the main elements of nation building. Yet, German and Russian as the languages of the former elites, smaller minority languages and the regional language of Latgalian enjoyed official recognition and support.
The linguistic situation of Latvia changed during the times of Soviet occupation (1940-41 and 1944-1990). Because of the migration of mostly Russophones from other parts of the Soviet Union, a situation of asymmetrical bilingualism developed, with L1 Latvian speakers mostly being bilingual in Russian, whereas L1 Russian speakers mostly remained monolingual. At the same time, support for other languages largely disappeared, in particular for minority and regional languages.
Since the reestablishment of Latvian independence, the Latvian state has followed a policy of normalization of Latvian as the main language of society. Yet, society continues to be characterized by the co-existence of Latvian and Russian as two major languages of society (in recent years to some degree supplemented by English), including, for instance, the ongoing educational dualism of “Latvian” and bilingual “minority” (i.e. mostly Russian-Latvian) schools.
The situation in Latvia is therefore characterized by the following features – which in total create a framework of languages and language policies which differs considerably from many countries in Western Europe:
- a high level of multilingualism with two major languages in society, whose importance has differed considerably throughout history in political and economic terms;
- a long tradition of language policies, which have primarily aimed at guaranteeing the functioning of Latvian as a full-fledged national language in a process of Reversal of Language Shift to overcome the effects of Soviet occupation;
- multilingual policies for minorities, in particular Russian, in education and other fields – the aim of minority schools is, however, not only to maintain minority languages and cultures, but also to guarantee sufficient knowledge in the national language which can still not be taken for granted among members of the minorities;
- migrant movements from other countries which have characterized Western European countries for several decades are a relatively new phenomenon in Latvia.
This background provides the following topics in which the concept of New Speakers may be discussed:
- Russophones as New Speakers of Latvian, some of whom have lived in Latvia for many years, whereas others migrated to Latvia more recently due to economic reasons, for attending institutions of higher education or who have spouses from Latvia. Linguistic integration of society continues to be political minefield overshadowed by Soviet history.
- Policies for more recent migrants as New Speakers of Latvian, for whom Latvia is only beginning to develop integration policies.
- New Speakers of the regional variety of Latgalian in Eastern Latvia which has long been marginalized; slowly changing policies have produced new needs of New Speakers of Latgalian.
The event on April 10 in Riga aims at contributing to the debate on languages in Latvia, to familiarizing Latvian society with the concept of New Speakers and to enhancing understanding of specific language needs. Further information on the participants and the programme will follow.