3.2. National identity: Language and Cultural Space The Latvian language and cultural space create the foundation for national identity; strengthens feeling of belonging to the nation and the State of Latvia. This is why the maintenance and consolidation of the Latvian language and cultural space is Latvia’s long-term development priority.19 3.2.1. Knowledge and Use of the Latvian Language The Latvian language is the official language; it is the language of democratic participation and the means of communication in Latvia, as well as the basis for a cohesive society. Reduction in the use of the Latvian language would be a threat to the successful social integration.20 In order to improve the quality of Latvia’s human capital, the task of the State is to ensure that all the population of Latvia knew and used the Latvian language. At the same time proficiency in English as an international language of communication, as well as in other European Union official languages has to be encouraged.
Since the renewal of the independence of Latvia a clear and consistent policy of Latvian language as the official language has been implemented. The proportion of people knowing the Latvian language has increased significantly, but was very low during the period of the Soviet occupation as a result of the deliberate Russification policy.21 Even though the level of official language proficiency varies among non-Latvians, the overall trend reveals continuing improvement. In the previous decade, the proportion of people who knew the Latvian language at the highest level has increased among the national minorities in all age groups and the number of people who knew the Latvian language poorly has decreased.22 One of the important stimuli for the national minorities to have Latvian language skills is related to the economic factor, i.e., involvement in the labour market.23
Currently, schoolchildren of primary and secondary schools have the widest opportunities to learn the Latvian language. For other target groups, paid Latvian language courses are fragmentarily available, besides the learning programmes are not tailored to professional requirements. Since 1990, about 75,000 people have learnt the Latvian language in training courses financed by foreign funding and the State budget. However, the Latvian language skills of many non-citizens, especially those aged over 60 years, continue to be inadequate. According to OCMA data on Latvian language tests, in 2008 28% of citizenship applicants failed, in 2009 – 38% but in 2010 – 43%. The lowest Latvian languages skills are in the Latgale region where only 2% of non-citizens have a good command of the Latvian language (freely speak, read and write).24 It provides evidence of a need to place greater emphasis in language training on particular groups of the population, including students, people who did not receive their general education in the bilingual way, and older people.
Even though Latvian language skills have increased significantly in the past twenty years, a number of trends still indicate that the use of the Latvian language in the public sphere is not showing equal achievements. The self-sufficiency of the Russian language is obvious in the public space, especially in the cities where there is a large proportion of national minorities. Less than half (47%) of Russian-speaking respondents indicate that in the public and local government institutions everything takes place in the Latvian language; in shops and the service sector – 15% but in the private business sector it was admitted by 12% of respondents.25 Social integration on the basis of the Latvian language is influenced by the Latvians’ reluctance to speak in Latvian language when communicating with Russian-speakers.26 However, at the same time positive trends are observed in the use of the Latvian language – the proportion of economically active population using only the Russian language in communication is decreasing.27 Overall, the annual surveys of language knowledge and use have shown that in situations where formal language procedure regulates its use, for example in workplaces, the use of the official language strengthens more rapidly, but in situations in which the choice of languages is up to the individual, for example, on the street, in shops or in conversations with friends, the Russian language is often used.28 Therefore the policy has to support corresponding legal arrangements for the language, its effective introduction and monitoring, further language training, as well as has to strengthen the motivation of the national minorities to use the Latvian language in the public sphere. Simultaneously with these policy tasks, it is important to motivate Latvians to use the official language in communication with Russian-speakers. To achieve this goal, special social campaigns are required.