Latvian Language Policy : Unifying or Polarizing? Reconstructing the Political Debate on Language Reform in the Latvian Education System
Abstract: Languages are not just systems for communication, they are also often a marker of ethnic and/or national identity and sometimes a politically contentious issue. A country where this is the case is Latvia, which has a large Russian-speaking population. During the Soviet occupation of Latvia, Russian became the dominant language in public life. Since regaining independence, Latvia has pursued language policies aimed at strengthening the position of the Latvian language, at the expense of the Russian. Latvian is the single official language and over the last decades, the bilingual education system inherited from the Soviet Union has moved towards an increasing share of Latvian as the language of instruction. In 2018, the Latvian parliament amended two educational laws, meaning the share of subjects being instructed in Latvian in so-called minority schools increased markedly. The decision was controversial and was opposed by parties with a large Russian-speaking voter base. The purpose of the thesis is twofold. The first is to describe and analyse the arguments of political actors regarding mono- and multilingual education, focusing on the reform of 2018. The arguments will be analysed in relation to theory regarding the connection between nationalism/nationhood and language, and theory on linguistic minority rights. The second part of the purpose is to advocate normatively and constructively for an approach regarding two different areas of policy: 1) Whether Russian should be an official language or not. 2) Language policy in education. The point of departure for the analysis is the aspiration to create a sense of national belonging, where both Russian-speakers and Latvian-speakers are seen as a part of the Latvian imagined community. In order to create this sense of inclusive imagined community, the approach seeks to be impartial in relation to the “pro-Latvian” and “pro-minority” positions with regards to language policy. The normative argumentation also seeks to include and balance the values of linguistic minority rights and preserving small languages (such as Latvian). For the first part of the thesis, a descriptive idea analysis is applied. The arguments are analysed in relation to my theoretical framework, which consists of various concepts relating to the relationship between language and nationalism and models regarding linguistic rights. The main analytical tool is the concept of an imagined community, where a sense of national belonging and social cohesion can be based on either mono- or multilingualism. In the second part, a normative and constructive method is used to argue for my position in a systematic fashion. The arguments of the proponents of the 2018 reform can be described as based on the idea that Latvian is the common and unifying language of all the Latvian residents and one of the foundations of the imagined Latvian community. At the same time, the proponents claim wanting to ensure that members of linguistic minorities can preserve their language, and that the reform provides the right to learn a minority language. The opponents of the reform argue that, while it is important that students learn the Latvian language, drastically decreasing the level of instruction is an assimilatory policy that will weaken rather than strengthen the national unity. In the second part, the author suggests that Latvian will remain the single official language since granting the Russian language official status may cause the language decline of Latvian, and because the issue is very divisive. In terms of language in the school system, the author concludes that Latvian ought to have a special position in Latvia and should therefore be the dominant language. Therefore, Latvian should be the main language of instruction, in the proportions prescribed by the 2018 reform. Another conclusion is that all students, regardless of mother tongue, should learn Russian on at least an elementary level.  Specified under “Delimitations”.
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