In a rural country school in Latgale, a region in eastern Latvia, breaks between classes are noisy with the sounds of students joking, laughing, and playing. In class, they speak Latvian, and in the hallways, they speak Latvian and Russian, occasionally testing out an English word. These children come from primarily Russian-speaking or ethnically mixed families, but are enrolled in a Latvian education program at a dual-track school, where Latvian and bilingual minority education programs operate simultaneously. These students flow between languages without any problems and without any hostility. One floor above, students in the Russian minority education program don’t often play with the children downstairs; their speech in Latvian is halting, and their class sizes are dwindling.
More and more families in this area are choosing to send their children to the Latvian stream, even if they speak Russian at home, as do more than half of the population in this particular municipality. They see it as a positive for their children to learn in Latvian, the national language. School administrators agree, “We don’t pressure them artificially. We see that it will happen naturally, without any big conflicts.” This unforced shift happening in one of the most Russian regions of Latvia is a clear example of ethnic school integration that’s working.
Improving education and cultivating integration have long been priorities in Latvia, complicated by a large Russian minority school system preserved from the interwar and Soviet periods. Recently, the Ministry of Education put forward a plan to increase instruction in the national language in minority schools. It has been lauded by supporters as a step toward closing the linguistic and educational gap in Latvian society. Opponents argue it impedes minority rights and is detrimental to minority students. But this discussion—and this reform—misses the point. Bilingual education isn’t the problem in Latvia, unofficial school segregation is.
Around 10% of state-funded schools in Latvia are bilingual minority schools. Of these, 90% are Russian-language schools, including nearly 50% of the schools in the capital of Riga. A handful of minority schools are Ukrainian, Polish, Hebrew, Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Estonian. Another 8% are dual track schools, like the school in Latgale, where mainstream and minority programs operate under one roof. Parents can choose whether or not to send their children to minority or mainstream Latvian programs, often taking into account more than heritage, but also quality of education and future opportunities.
Currently, minority programs are obliged to teach 60% of coursework in the national language and 40% in the minority language (whether these requirements are always met—or if some schools use curriculum unofficially supplemented by Russia—remains a source of speculation.). Proposed changes anticipate a shift to 100% of coursework in Latvian for minority high school programs and a shift to 80% for grades 7-9 by the 2021-2022 academic year. Minority school students will still have access to language, literature, culture, and history classes related to their ethnic heritage in their native language. The reform aims to bolster minority school students’ knowledge of Latvian, which would arguably better prepare them for higher education and the job market in Latvia, and serve as a base for social integration.
Naysayers claim that a switch to all-Latvian instruction will negatively impact minority students, who will have a hard time learning in their non-native language. More extreme reactions have likened the law to ethnic discrimination or even a “holocaust of Russian education in Latvia,” which unsurprisingly is a narrative pushed by Russian media. Moderate concerns focus on the impact reform will have on school staffs and the critical lack of qualified Latvian-language teachers. The Ministry of Education intends to allocate 3.3 million euro to retrain around 800 minority school teachers, some of whom do not speak Latvian themselves.
But by only focusing on language, the real problem of integration in Latvia—actual social contact—is overlooked. In fact, increasing Latvian language in minority schools could unintentionally undercut integration goals. In 2004, reforms that mandated the current 60/40 language split also had the effect of decreasing the natural integration of the school system. Most jobs in Latvia require speaking Latvian, so when learning Latvian in minority schools became feasible, there was no longer a pressing need for minority students to switch to mainstream schools to acquire that skill. Bilingual education in Russian and Latvian (which most minority school students receive) can also be more economically useful. Finding a job in Latvia is much more difficult without both Latvian and Russian in one’s skill set, and young Latvians are increasingly bad at Russian. About 91% of ethnic minorities in Latvia already speak Latvian, most at intermediate or advanced levels. Even more minority youth speak Latvian—88% well or very well—but only 2% speak Latvian poorly. Among young people, “Latvian has already become the language of social unity.” In fact, several minority schools consistently rank among the top schools in the country.
Bilingual education is not the issue, though neither is a push to all-Latvian language education. The problem is not that Latvian- and Russian-speakers can’t communicate—it’s that they very often grow up isolated from one another.
Latvia’s proposed reform looks increasingly like an informal version of “separate, but equal” systems. They appear to turn Russian minority schools into de facto Latvian schools, but without any ethnic Latvians in them. Minority students should absolutely have access to heritage cultural classes—legal and cultural rights for minority populations has long been a valued norm in Latvia. But such access should be achieved within mainstream educational facilities, not as a system of separate institutions.
If a switch to a unified system is the endgame, reform should not only be a top-down mission starting in in high schools—it has to come from the bottom-up, too. Minister of Education Kārlis Šadurskis has stressed that kindergarteners should also be familiar with Latvian, but no plan to push this type of change is yet in place. Latvia currently faces a woeful shortage of public preschool spots; investing more in Latvian-language preschools and kindergartens would both fix the enrollment problem and allow school integration to progress more naturally. Learning Latvian in preschool not only improves a child’s grasp of the language, but it also offers them—and parents—opportunities to socialize and integrate from their very first days, not after they enter college or the workforce.
This may well be the goal of such reforms in the long-run, as politicians, including Minister Šadurskis, have critiqued the existence of two separate educational spaces. But if so, language politics cannot be the only narrative of reform.
In the hallways of the school in Latgale, language politics is usually far from the kids’ minds. They are more excited about an upcoming field trip to Riga or preparing for concerts and competitions. Being part of Latvia is simple for them—it has more to do with the friends they’ve made and the school they’re in than the language they speak. Schools are critical for this type of civic socialization. Contact between ethnic and non-ethnic Latvians will push integration forward. Relying on an antiquated minority school system and overemphasizing language won’t.