Bilingual education in Latvia: Reform experience, decision making and the public opinion


Since 1999, the minority schools in Latvia have been providing bilingual education, first in primary schools, followed by secondary schools in 2004. The purpose of this article is to contemplate the history of bilingual education in Latvia, both the political and human aspects of its introduction. We shall search for answers to the following questions: What was the political agenda at the start of its implementation? How did the implementation process proceed? Were the interests of the groups involved taken into account? How did the teachers and the pupils feel?

Latvia – a multicultural country

Latvia is a multicultural country. Latvians, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Belarussians, Jews, Gypsies and other nationalities have been coexisting here for centuries. Human rights in multicultural societies (to practise both one’s own culture and that of the country of residence; not to be discriminated regarding education, work and culture; to express one’s views freely not only in the state language, but also in the mother tongue) are granted by the international human rights treaties, such as the Human Rights Declaration (UNO, 1948), the Declaration of the rights of persons belonging to national, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities (UNO, 1992), the European Human Rights Convention (EC, 1953), the European Minority and Regional Language Charter (EC, 1992), the General Minority Rights Convention (EC, 1994), and many others. These rights are represented in our national law and political documents: Chapter 8 of the Latvian Constitution (1998), Law “About unrestricted development and rights to cultural autonomy of the national groups in Latvia” (1991, rev. 1994); the state programme “Social integration in Latvia” (1999, 2001); Law of education (1998, rev. 2004) and the Minority basic education programmes (1999).
Everything should be functioning just fine. But... the political messages between 1999 and 2003 were so radically different from the implementation process that the noble human rights aims in a clumsy realization sometimes resulted in instances of discrimination. How could that happen? Let’s look at the education process in the last decade of the 20th century. In 1999, the Minority education programmes were introduced: from now on, the minority schools were to use two languages in the education process. The principals and teachers were confused and unprepared for the changes. What were the intentions behind this “shock therapy?” Was it done to strengthen biculturalism and individual bilingualism? Or as a notice that soon, there would only be one school system in Latvian? The implementation process, at least at the beginning, was dominated by the realization of the second goal.
The political problem was defined in the following way: the threat of a two-community country and splitting in the society, as well as a low level of Latvian language skills. In accordance with this a political agenda was formulated: integration will be attained by teaching Latvian. Implementation of this political decision was a systematic process – the Latvian Language Learning State programme (LLLSP, now Agency), established as early as the mid-90's, was functioning as a support organization. The financial funds for implementing bilingual education were most commonly awarded to The Ministry of Education and Science (MES) and LLLSP. Another support organization and a resourceful partner was The Soros Foundation – Latvia, which at this time launched the project “Open School” (1999 – 2003) for facilitation of multicultural and bilingual education with a budget of 1.3 million USD. “Open School” was successful as a pilot project which included 20 minority and 17 Latvian schools throughout Latvia and focused especially on elaborating new teaching methods and translating study materials. However, the general process of implementing the new policy must be viewed as a campaign characterized by teacher courses of insufficient quality, lack of various kinds of resources, perfusion of functions, insufficient organization and competition between the initiators. The introduction of the policy was coordinated by MES and thus influenced by the politicians from the nationalistic party TB/LNNK who were filling the ministry's key posts at that time. Among the main political actors in the implementation of the bilingual education were municipality educational institutions, pedagogical high schools, and NGOs. All of them Latvian organizations that did not bother themselves too much with communicating in Russian.

Initiators or victims? The timeline of public opinion changes

What role did the administrations of the minority schools, teachers, pupils and their parents have? What is the opinion of those most directly involved in education – teachers, pupils, parents? The attitude between 1995 and 2000 can be summarized as It will be hard, but we will give it a try, which reflects loyalty to the state. In 2001 and 2002, the most common opinion is It really is hard, maybe something should be changed. «The schools are not prepared for this!» The first protests are sparked among teachers and pupils of the minority schools, fuelled by awareness that the reform has not been properly prepared and has more disadvantages than attainments. 2003 brings mass protests with the slogan «Hands off Russian schools!». At the same time, there are conflicts between the schools that are ready for education in Latvian and the ones that support the protests. The demonstrations increase in 2004, as well as the involvement of pupils. The Russian school defense headquarters start a hunger strike, involving several pupils and their parents. They are convinced that BE in Latvia is an unsuccessful experiment.
Despite it all, the 10th graders in the minority schools start a bilingual school year in September 2004. Now, one can make a claim about minority education in Latvia being carried out in bilingual primary and secondary schools. Investigations from BSZI from 2001 to 2004 give the impression that BE is widely accepted, even liked, while the protests are caused by phrases like «only in Latvian» and «primarily in Latvian». In 2002 transition to Latvian in the secondary schools was supported by approximately 41% of all teachers, pupils and parents; in 2004 it was backed by 15% of the pupils, 30% of the teachers and 13% of the parents. The pupils are well aware of the necessity of Latvian language, but most reject it as a study language. Acceptance of Russian as a second national language is supported by 96% of the pupils and 95% of the parents.

The learning process: The quality of the languages and education. Professional opinions

Evija Papule, previously the deputy of the director at MES basic education department and the head of the Integration unit, now the director of the General Education Quality Evaluation State Agency, has expressed the following opinion: ”The schools show that the parents', pupils' and teachers' attitudes against the reform have improved, especially among the people who work or study in Latvian. The biggest disadvantages are the lack of appropriate study materials and the low level of the teachers' language skills, which open for necessity for language courses.” Meanwhile Viktors Gluhovs, a representative for the political opposition, teacher in Riga Secondary schools No. 22 and No. 40 and a deputy in the Riga City Council («Jaunais centrs»), is convinced that the teachers keep playing along at the ”bilingual education theatre” and cheat – without inspectors in sight, teaching still happens in Russian, not bilingually, because it is easiest both for the teachers and the students. Vineta Vaivade, project manager of the Latvian Language Learning State Agency (LLLSA), explains that ”A teacher hesitates to do something because of fear or lack of ability. Educating a teacher for BE requires a great amount of knowledge and skills that are not directly connected to bilingual education. First of all, there is the general understanding of changes in the education process as a whole. Secondly, there is a set of methods for integrating the contents and the language; then there is the attitude and finally, the ability to master the language of teaching.” A radical opinion is expressed by Igors Vatolins, an ex-teacher, now a journalist in the Russian newspaper “Chas” and board member of the Joint Congress of Russians in Latvia: “The Joint Congress of Russians in Latvia is not against learning the Latvian language. Everyone living in Latvia must be able to speak Latvian. The debate is about the status of the Russian language. At the moment, the language that is spoken by 94% of the inhabitants has no status. We are very concerned about this! We think that one must keep the freedom of choice and look into the proportions between Latvian, Russian and other languages in the secondary school. Currently there is no dialogue on these issues. We don't even know what is happening at the schools. We assume that there is discrimination and partially even violence.”

Students' opinion

Karina Golovko and Anastasija Kondratova, students at the secondary school in Zolitude gymnasium explain their classmates' confusion and unrest with the pressure connected with the reform that is exerted on the students. Karina believes that minority groups should study in Latvian because they live in the country and most institutions of higher education only offer programs in Latvian, but the minorities should be given a possibility to adapt to the Latvian-speaking environment. As aids in adaptation she mentions special study materials and extra lessons. Both girls admit that very few students would resist learning bilingually, but in order for them to be able to catch up, a gradual transition is needed. Resistance is rooted in the feeling that there is pressure on the students “from the top”, which leads to many negative reactions. Anastasija reckons that the reform should have been introduced differently. “There is not enough emphasis on what and how much the students gain from the reform, which will make it easier for them to be admitted into university and study there. The reform should start at the first grade or even kindergarten to make it easier to understand. At the University of Latvia, Riga Technical University and other leading institutions of higher education all the programs are in Latvian, so terminology causes problems for Russian students. If all school subjects are taught in Latvian to begin with, it will get much easier. Those who cannot think in Latvian find it very hard to study at the moment. During the three years of secondary school they can learn to understand Latvian and use the different terms, but not think in Latvian,” says Anastasija. She doesn't hide that there are students who are unwilling to learn in Latvian, and explains it by lack of respect for the Russian language that is hard for a Russian to accept. This feeling is shared by Katrina: «We feel like we are subhuman. I was born in Latvia, but I am not a citizen and do not have any rights. I don't intend to insult Latvians, but there are some radical nationalists who dislike all Russians and are very unpleasant to encounter.» Anastasija adds that there are also nationalists among Russians, and the conflict between the nationalities is reflected on the whole society.


How did this situation arise? A political analysis can provide the answer. The problem as it is defined by the majority – insufficient integration and inability to speak Latvian – is all about inclusion. At the policy-making stage the central goal was that everybody would learn to speak Latvian, while there was not sufficient focus on other, attitude shaping factors – coexistence of various cultures, tolerance, civic values. Enough has not been done to implement cross-cultural education. There has been no focus on the majority – building an open, tolerant attitude among Latvians. Involvement from other nationalities at the stage of policy-shaping has been minimal (the only exception being SEIMS), there has been a perfusion of functions, competition and insufficient coordination. Almost all funding has gone to teaching the state language, while cross-cultural education has been set aside, only represented by decorative events such as mutual celebrations of festivities instead of teaching routine methods and problem solving. The beginning of policy implementation is characterized by excellent work by LLLSP, cooperation between the state and NGO sectors, but still insufficient connection to the ones who carry it out at schools. Schools have been opting for a positive reputation and striving to obtain that, while hiding the reality of the situation from MES. In addition, the problems of the implementation stage have not been addressed in time. Evaluation of results has been carried on as supervision of the process, but many results, both pedagogical successes and failures in introduction of BE, have not been taken into account soon enough by those responsible, which has resulted in protests from the teachers and students.

What should be done?

Mistakes are made to be learned from. Especially one’s own. In relation to the mistakes made at the implementation of BE I would like to offer the social system approach (Martin, J., 1992) as a positive alternative. According to this approach, the policy is shaped by all the groups it affects, from defining the problem to evaluating the results. It would have also been best to set cross-cultural education as the highest aim for both minority and Latvians in the context of achieving integration in the society and view BE as one of its measures, as well as putting education and sociolinguistics experts in charge of implementing the reform. And, not least, it would have been best to trust students and teachers.
Then Anastasija, an eleventh-grader at a bilingual school would not have to say with bitterness: «I think that now, when it's Latvian politicians who have the power, they want to transform all Russians into Latvians, but how is it possible to make a Russian or another person into a Latvian? Our relations will improve if there is mutual respect. Additionally, the attitude would be much more positive if we weren’t subjected to pressure. We are all inhabitants of Latvia and have to respect each other.»

Key terms

Bilingual education – functional use of two languages in the acquirement of the learning process /according to Baker, 2002/ The intended result is individual, not social bilingualism. According to Baker, the esthetical and humanistic subjects should be taught in the mother tongue, while the social and the natural sciences should taught bilingually or in the state language.
Individual bilingualism – commensurable use of two languages.
Social (institutional) bilingualism – social acceptance and agreement on the use of two languages. /K. Brett – Paulston, 2001/
The goal of multicultural education is preparation for a life in a multicultural society. It includes all forms of education that strengthen and facilitate educational opportunities and involvement of minority children, as well as increase the tolerance level of those children who belong to the majority groups.