An Englishman in Latvia

On language and integration

March 09, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 9
On language and integration
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On language and integration
Mar 09, 2023 Season 1 Episode 9
Alan Anstead

In this episode I explore the connection between the Latvian language and integration. We look at the challenges that Latvia has faced in integrating its Soviet Russian population and implementing a one official language policy. I interview my Latvian language teacher to find out who is learning Latvian. I also interview my Brazilian friend who loves Latvia and intends to gain Latvian citizenship.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode I explore the connection between the Latvian language and integration. We look at the challenges that Latvia has faced in integrating its Soviet Russian population and implementing a one official language policy. I interview my Latvian language teacher to find out who is learning Latvian. I also interview my Brazilian friend who loves Latvia and intends to gain Latvian citizenship.

Thanks for listening!

On language and integration

Latvia is a multicultural country. It has been throughout its history, from the early tribes speaking different languages to the invaders and conquerors from Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia over the last centuries. 63% of the present population are ethnic Latvians, 24% are ethnic Russians, and the rest are from other ethnicities, like Lithuanians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Poles, Roma and Jews. 

Latvia has been held up as an example of how to integrate people from different ethnicities. I recall some pretty hard discussions with Latvian politicians in the 1990s while trying to help broker citizenship and language laws that met an international human rights standard.

Let’s look deeper at the reality.


The Latvian Constitution guarantees and protects the rights of persons belonging to national minorities to preserve and develop their language and ethnic and cultural identity—a good foundation. After restoring independence in Latvia in 1991, it became a significant task to naturalise and integrate Soviet-era migrants. But also to protect the fledgling state from being overtaken by Russia again. A process of de-Russification began. Street names and signs were changed. A language law was introduced that made Latvian the sole official language. Before 1991, Russian was the official language. After independence was regained, there were thousands of migrants in Latvia without a nationality. They were not Latvian as they had never naturalised. Neither did they hold Russian nationality after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Latvia classified these people as ‘Non-Citizens’. Latvian non-citizens enjoyed equal protection under the law and were granted permanent residence in Latvia. They were not allowed to vote or work in the civil service or national security jobs. There has been a massive government programme over the last 30 years to encourage non-citizens to naturalise as Latvians by passing Latvian language and history exams and providing citizenship documentation. This policy has been successful. In 1996, 30% of the population were non-citizens. This had decreased to 10% of the population by 2022. But still, 182,375 non-citizens remain, only speaking Russian. Many of these are older people. As an observation, in 1990s Riga, it was far more common to hear Russian spoken in public places. In 2022 it was mostly older ethnic Russians who spoke Russian in public conversation. However, the other day I was stopped in the street by someone in their 20s. They asked me for directions in Russian. I gave directions in my poor level of Latvian. The young woman responded in Russian, and only hand directions helped. Of course, this young woman may have been Ukrainian, Lithuanian or Belarusian, using Russian as a second language to communicate in Latvia. She found the place she was looking for, and I never found out why she spoke to me in Russian!

A recent article in the Latvian media caught my attention. “Which parts of Latvia have the most Russian citizens living in them?” That was the question posed by the ‘What's Happening in Latvia’ discussion show. In three cities – Daugavpils, Liepāja and Rēzekne – the number of citizens of the Russian Federation is 5% of the total population, while in Jūrmala and the capital Rīga, 3% of the total population are Russian passport-holders, according to data from the Central Statistics Office. In those cities, Russian citizens have been able to live with little or no knowledge of the Latvian language for a long time. According to the discussion show participants, their ability to communicate in Latvian is poor.

But later this year, thousands of Russian citizens who have decided to live in Latvia rather than Russia will have to demonstrate basic proficiency in Latvian to retain their right to residency. 

Data shows that most Russian citizens residing in Latvia are over 60. During the discussion, a 65-year-old woman from Daugavpils said that although she has lived in Latvia for 50 years, "There is no Latvian environment in Daugavpils for older people. Also, in other cities, where there are a large number of Russian residents.” She said she goes to the market, talks to her friend, and goes to the pharmacy. She does not hear Latvian. She noted that language courses would not help as the people who need Latvian language proficiency for residency were too old to learn. An academic discussion participant who has studied integration said that many of these people decided on Russian nationality rather than Latvian citizenship to get a better Russian pension. 

There is an English proverb: ' you can’t have your cake and eat it!

In the early 1990s, Latvia had a segregated education system with Latvian and Russian schools, each with its own curricula. An Education Law in 1998 changed that system by gradually eliminating Russian schools so that there is now one education syllabus taught in state schools and all in Latvian. There have been investigations by the UN, OSCE and Council of Europe to determine whether this education policy was discriminatory to ethnic minorities. These international organisations viewed it as reasonable and proportionate. My ethnic Russian neighbour disagrees, telling me in fluent English how difficult it is to find education in the Russian language for her daughters.

I recall helping the British Ambassador bring together Latvian politicians from across the spectrum of Latvian nationalist to ethnic Russian socialist parties around 1997-8. We worked with minorities and human rights experts, like Max van der Stoel, the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities (who was dubbed Dr Death by the Latvian media because he was tall, slim, and grey) to facilitate discussion about language and education laws, and the policy towards non-citizens, so that Latvia met its international human rights obligations, yet protected its fragile status as an independent country. Remember that this was before Latvia joined the EU and NATO. Those were quite heated and emotional discussions.

Latvia has a government programme called the Integration of Society in Latvia. The Cabinet of Ministers approved this programme in 1999. The programme states, "The goal of integration is a consolidated civil society based on the shared principles of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for and observance of human rights. Integration is unthinkable without the support and active participation of the political forces in Latvia.” It has three elements: Latvian language training, naturalisation, and education system reform.

To become a Latvian citizen, you need to have held a Latvian residence permit for at least five years, speak Latvian to a proficient level and have no criminal record. There is a citizenship test covering Latvian history, culture and the constitution to pass, and an interview on why you want Latvian citizenship. Both are in Latvian, of course!

I spoke to Tales Rosa, a Brazilian national who has lived in Latvia for some years.

Me: What is your experience as a foreign national with fitting into society in Latvia?

Tales: I think the best way to start is by saying that I love Latvia. I love living in Latvia. I feel very lucky about that. I understand that many foreigners have had different experiences, maybe more positive or negative. But overall, my experience is extremely positive. My experience is that aside from the language, I use Latvian on a daily basis, but most of my communication is still in English at work, with friends, and with my partner. So aside from that, I feel very much like a Latvian. I don't feel like a foreigner at all. I feel this is my country, which I love and am loyal to, and I'm just somebody who came from abroad, basically. 

Me: Communication is important, of course. So knowledge of the official language must help you integrate into Latvia, your love of Latvia. How easy is it to learn Latvian?

Tales: Well, Alan, that's a difficult question because the answer is it depends on the person. I don't want to go for the easy answer here. I will say this. Speaking some Latvian goes a long way to earn sympathy. So wherever you are, whether at a shop or at a government department or just talking to someone on the street, to be able to communicate at least at a very basic level just to show the effort really goes a long way. Latvia is a country of less than 2 million people. So the Latvian language is not a business language; it's not even like German or French or even Russian, which are languages that you can speak in a host of countries. So it really shows, I would say, a certain commitment to Latvia. Having said that, Latvian is not particularly easy to learn, especially when you come from my background, so my first language is English, but my background is in Latin languages, so Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian, and for me, it was very eye-opening to see that Latvian grammar is organised differently. It doesn't use the same structure. You can use words in different orders. So you have to be a bit open-minded to this difference. And finally, many of the words are different. So, if you compare English with French, you will see many words that are similar. But in Latvian, almost all of the words, if they didn't come from a Latin or Greek background, were absolutely new. Also, one of the things that I find very interesting is that, unlike my own native language, which is Portuguese, where there's a huge difference between the formal language that you learn in school and the language that you effectively use on the street, you know, they are almost like completely different things. And people tell me the same about Russian, that the formal language is one, and the language that people use is another. Here in Latvia, my perception, and this is a very personal view, is that the formal language and the language on the street, are comparatively closer. So if you learn formal Latvian, you are a little bit better prepared to deal with day-to-day Latvian. That is my perception. So I find it fairly easy to understand because the pronunciation in Latvian is actually fairly clear when people speak. It's different if you go to America, if you go to the deep south, or if you go to some places, like Glasgow, in Scotland, where the language is English, but it will take you a while to understand everything that everybody is saying. Just because of the accent. Honestly, it takes effort, and I think for an ex-pat if you make the effort, it shows a commitment and a certain devotion to this country. And I think that's a wonderful sign that you can give to the locals, you know, that, yes, I live here, I like to live here, and I want to integrate. 

Me: Yeah, I totally agree with you. And yes, the better you are at learning languages and using them, the easier of course, which is not my forte. As a foreigner, how easy is it to navigate the bureaucracy? Is it harder as a foreigner, or is it just bureaucracy and one gets on with it?

Tales: That’s a wonderful question because you are asking a Brazilian. For someone who grew up dealing with Brazilian bureaucracy. The Latvian bureaucracy is an absolute breeze. Even with the language barrier and challenges, sometimes you need help, but Brazilian bureaucracy, I know that it has improved in the past few years. If you consider that I dealt with Brazilian bureaucracy in the late 90s and early 2000s, It's absolutely Kafkian. It is built to drive you insane you go to the notary for one stamp and back to whatever organisation. They'll tell you you need stamp ‘a’, but you got stamp ‘b’, and you go back to the notary. We cannot give you stamp ‘b’; you must get stamp ‘c’.  It just drives you completely nuts! What I like about Latvia is that if they give you a list of documents, usually that's what you need. What is challenging, it’s more of a cultural element, especially in government institutions. The person with whom you are dealing on the other side is often quite maybe cold. Sometimes a bit rude, or you perceive them as rude and you perceive them as unhelpful. So, even if sometimes you ask questions, you get this feeling that you are the one who is stupid for not knowing. I find this to be a cultural element, but not something you need to be prepared for; if you're not, you'll probably not be received with warmth and smiles. Sometimes you are, but then you're a little bit lucky that day. Most of the time, you get quite a straight face, very business-like, which as a foreigner, and I think especially in the early years when you are here in Latvia, it's a bit scary. It's something that you really kind of you think to yourself, wow, couldn't that person be a little bit more helpful? Can't they understand that I don't know the language, things like that? But with time, you get used to that. It's just actually a style of communicating. Most people, most government workers, for example, are very helpful. It's just that they will do it with no smiles at all, but they will help you

Me: Everything’s relative, isn't it? Brazilian, Latvian, British, and I also go on about British bureaucracy. The last question. You said at the beginning of our chat about your love of Latvia. Have you thought about naturalisation in Latvia, of gaining Latvian citizenship?

Tales: Absolutely! This year is exactly the year when I can apply for citizenship. Luckily, as a Brazilian, Latvia - Brazil has an agreement, and I can request dual citizenship. So I don't have to give up my previous citizenship. There are only, I think, three countries with which Latvia has this agreement. I think it's the United States, Brazil, Australia, and maybe Canada. So I am lucky in that sense. I think, I said, I have felt like a local for many years. So the passport or the citizenship itself, for me, would be partly just a bureaucratic matter, but also a very important symbolic matter. For me, it is something that I have been waiting for. I am a grandson of Italians, so I could have gone to Italy and could have gotten a European passport if I had wanted just to have a European passport. But it would make no sense to have that, I don't have that strong bond with Italy, but I do have an extremely strong bond with Latvia. 

About the process for naturalisation, you have a few steps. So the first one is that you need to be over 15 years of age. You need to be permanently living in Latvia for five years. I have been in Latvia for nearly ten years, but only this year will I be permanently here and not with temporary documentation. You need to do a language test, and you also need to pass three written tests. One is that you need to write down the Latvian national anthem, take a test on history and culture, and know the basic principles of the Satversme, which is the constitution. 

Me: Well, that sounds similar to other countries' citizenship requirements. So, not an impossibility - it needs a bit of preparation beforehand, and of course, you need the documentation and the years of residence and things like that.

Tales: If I may make one last comment. Latvia is a wonderful place to live, including for foreigners, even if they don't feel the most welcome sometimes, but I think the country has changed a lot. I think Latvia is a much more open country, a much more welcoming country than it was 20-30 years ago, and I think compared with other countries in the world, this is one of the most, one of the finest places for somebody to live and I really, really enjoy my life here.

Me: Thank you very much.


Latvian is the only official language of Latvia. Government language policy aims to preserve, protect and develop the Latvian language while at the same time helping national minorities integrate into society and allowing their rights to use their native or any other language. So I won't be arrested for speaking English in public places.

As part of a Latvian government-supported programme, I took Latvian language classes for the last three months of 2022. Twice a week, three-hour group sessions online. My fellow students came from Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa, Iran, Taiwan, Estonia and England. The latter being me, of course. All the students had a connection to Latvia, family or work. It was good, and I appreciated the conversational setting while trying to get to grips with Latvian grammar.

I spoke to Inese Rudzite, my Latvian teacher at the learning centre Mensarius, to find out more about foreigners like me who want to learn Latvian.

Me: From your experience, who wants to learn Latvian?

Inese: I think every person who wants to live here or who wants to work in Latvia has a reason for studying Latvian. Sometimes people do it because of work, but sometimes they do it just for themselves, for better integration into local society. In our learning centre, we have students from different countries, mainly from the European Union, and also from many other countries, like, for example, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Great Britain and also African countries. Some of them come here for work, and some have gotten married to Latvians and decided to live here, but some of them have their family roots in Latvia, and now they want to return to their forefather's country.

Me: Thank you. And for all of those students, how easy is it for them to master the Latvian language?

Inese: We know that to learn a language, any new language, we need, and it's necessary to have some motivation and a willingness to do it. For example, these people who return back to their forefather's language, have this motivation, and they want to learn their forefather's language, and they have a big motivation, and they want to know more about Latvian culture, about Latvian customs. Whether it's easy or not, depends on the person who is learning because some of them are ready for communication after a couple of months of studying, but for others, it takes more time and more effort. 

Me: Thank you. That was my experience as well, and it takes more time and effort. Maybe age plays a role as well. When you're older, it's a little more difficult to learn.

Inese: Age and sometimes nationality. Age, nationality, and maybe it depends on how many languages you know.

Me: Also, I think if you're immersed in the language, so if you're in an environment where you have to speak Latvian, then you're going to. If like me - I teach in English all day, although my family is Latvian, it takes a little more effort. Do you have any good advice on how to learn Latvian for someone who's interested? What would be your tips? What would be your advice and suggestions?

Inese: From my own experience, I can say that the most important thing in learning a new language is to practice it. Yes. To practice it. At first, you must get some basic knowledge and of course, you must learn more and more. But then you need to practice it, to practice and practice again. And for example, if you have a Latvian friend or some Latvian relatives, please ask them for help. Ask them to talk to you for maybe 10 or 15 minutes every day and you will become more and more confident. And if some person can help you to improve your speaking skills, yes, please do it. Don't miss it. You can try to talk or to speak at some other places, for example, in the shop or in the market. It will help you as well.

Me: Having some confidence.

Inese: To become more confident. And of course, your effort, your effort to learn. Every beginning is difficult. You know that the beginning is difficult, but don't be scared, just do it. Keep trying and keep studying.

Me: Good advice, thank you.

Let’s delve a bit deeper into Latvian as a language.

Latvian (latviešu valoda in Latvian) is an Eastern Baltic language from the Indo-European language family. As we have said, it is the official language of Latvia as well as one of the official languages of the European Union. There are about 1.2 million native Latvian speakers in Latvia from a population of just less than 1.9 million, plus about 100,000 native Latvian speakers living in other countries.

The oldest known example of written Latvian is a 1530 translation of a hymn by Nikolaus Ramm, a German pastor in Riga. The first person to translate the Bible into Latvian was the German pastor Johann Ernst Glück who completed his translation of the New Testament in 1685 and The Old Testament in 1691. Another Lutheran pastor Gotthard Friedrich Stender wrote the first illustrated Latvian alphabet book, the first Latvian encyclopedia and Latvian–German and German–Latvian dictionaries. Until the 19th century, the Latvian written language was influenced by German Lutheran pastors because Baltic Germans formed the upper class of society. In the middle of the 19th century, the First Latvian National Awakening started, led by “Young Latvians”, who laid the foundations for standard Latvian. However, in the 1880s, when Czar Alexander III came into power, the Russification of Latvia started. After the Czar’s death at the beginning of the 20th century, Latvian nationalist movements re-emerged. In 1908, Latvian linguists Kārlis Mīlenbahs and Jānis Endzelīns elaborated the modern Latvian alphabet. Proper names from other countries and languages were altered phonetically to fit the grammatical system of Latvian.

After the Soviet occupation of Latvia, the policy of Russification greatly affected the Latvian language. In Soviet Latvia, the official language was Russian, and most migrants from other parts of the USSR who settled in the country did not learn Latvian. After the re-establishment of independence in 1991, a new language education policy was introduced with a Language Law passed in 1999. Since 2019, Government-funded education can only be in Latvian. 

According to a study by the Latvian Ministry of Culture in 2017, 64% of national minority respondents in the age group up to 34 rated their Latvian language as good or very good. In the age group 35 to 44, it was 56%, while at age 45 or over, less than 40% of respondents considered their Latvian good or very good. More than 40% of national minority respondents aged 55 or over said they did not know Latvian or only had basic knowledge.

Several contests are held annually to counter Russian and English influence to promote the correct use of Latvian. One is "Word of the year" (Gada vārds), organised by the Riga Latvian Society since 2003. The Russian invasion of Ukraine influenced the Word of the year for 2022, and the word is okupeklis (a blending of okupācija (occupation) and piemineklis (monument), which is a reference to the Soviet monument in Rīga that was demolished last year.

Here’s an interesting story that I recently read. In February, the Latvian Red Cross launched Latvian language training for Ukrainian civilians in several places in Latvia. One group meets three times a week in Adamova, near Rēzekne, where 90 Ukrainians live in a former school building. Many arrived in Latvia during the first weeks of the war in February and March 2022 but still know only a few words in Latvian. They say they are motivated to learn but don't need it daily where they live. 18 of the 90 Ukrainians living in the school building have applied for Latvian language courses.

In Adamova, the Latvian language is mainly learned by women, but there are also a few men. Sergei has lived here for nearly a year. Latvian Radio asked him if he understands Latvian already – he said a little. Sergei reads his homework in Latvian: “I live in Kharkiv. I'm forty-four. I have two children – sons.”

Julia is from Kharkiv and has lived in Adamova since June: “We were brought here, and so I stayed with my family, with my husband and two children.” It is difficult for her to learn the Latvian language - Ukrainian and Russian are similar languages. She communicates with Latvians in Russian. “If I thought four months ago that I was going back to Ukraine, then why would I need Latvian? Now I don't know when I'm going back to Ukraine. I might have to stay here, but I have no language.”

All Ukrainians spoken to by Latvian Radio said that while living in the Rēzekne municipality, they did not need Latvian. The Latvian language was only required by Tatiana, who works as an assistant teacher at a school in Verēmu. She said that "It is desirable to communicate with children in Latvian. Being among children, I'm more likely to learn Latvian. I know something, but it's hard. You need to learn words and remember them."

In the kitchen, Latvian Radio met Antonina. She does not attend training. She has lived in Adamova since October. She said, "This is all Russian-speaking. It's enough. We communicate. We are unemployed. Everybody knows Russian and talks to us in Russian. Maybe we'll go home soon. We are from Luhansk County. Our territories are occupied. We hope it may be all right to return by spring."

The Society Integration Foundation organises the most widely available Latvian language training for Ukrainians. From June to December 2022, 3,500 people took advantage of the language courses. The Foundation's deputy director, Reinis Lasmanis, said, “Ukrainian civilians are happy to learn the local language, understand local traditions, and be part of the local community. There are exceptional cases where a person plans to be here just for the short term - and then go back to Ukraine or go on to another European country."

In conclusion

Despite a long-established naturalisation process that has seen some 148,000 people acquire Latvian citizenship since 1995, Latvia's naturalisation rate was the second-lowest in the European Union in 2021, according to data published by Eurostat. Statistics are quantitative. They do not provide qualitative insight into the context and situation or why people do or don’t do something. Yes, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Austria had high naturalisation rates in 2021, with the three Baltic States at the bottom of this league table. But none of the former countries was recently occupied for 50 years. 

Latvia has done much to integrate its resident population. It has trodden the fine line between nationalist assimilation policies and discrimination based on ethnicity. It still has a specific problem in Latgale and a few cities in other regions, with Russian being the language of choice. The allegiance to Russia may decrease as 70-year-old plus Russian citizens will soon die. Is language just a means of communication, or does it provide security and a sense of belonging to a state? In a multicultural society, how important is integration, a policy some might see as assimilation? However, my overriding thoughts are on the love and enthusiasm for Latvia and the Latvian language shared by my interviewees.

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