Egils Levits
Egils Levits

Good morning everyone here at the Riga Castle and watching us online,

Dear Madam Speaker, Madam Minister for Education and Science,

15 October will from now on be the Official Language Day in our national day calendar. As we prepared for the celebration, it seemed important to start a new tradition of holistic, action-oriented annual discussion about the state of official language, development trends, influences and obstacles.

Why Latvian as the sole official language is so important for Latvian people and state? Why Estonians care about Estonian? French about French?

Language is one of the main elements of every nation and unique characteristics and identity of any state. When Latvians decide to use their right to self-determination to create own state in 1918, they had to find an answer to the question, who are the people who want to determine their own future?

Our founders acted based on their right to create a unified state by consolidating lands historically inhabited by Latvians.  Lands that have been ruled by other countries throughout centuries, influenced by different cultures, spoke different dialects and variations.  Kurzeme, Zemgale, Vidzeme and Latgale – lands bound by people who mostly spoke Latvian.

Physical borders of Latvia established in 1920s are almost exactly the same as in the late 19th century map created by Baltic German priest Bielenstein to show how Latvian evolved. Latvia’s geographical shape is determined by the Latvian language, so as the state itself.

Without a nation speaking Latvian and its political will to unite the lands inhabited by Latvians into a single state there would be no Latvia.

Latvian State was founded to give a nation speaking Latvian language a place for democratic self-determination and self-governance.

It became the fundamental goal of the Latvian State. It became a part of our national DNA and is replicated in every generation. It determined the specific national and cultural identity of Latvia. And this identity is essentially Latvian. Latvian is the sole official language because Latvia is a nation state.

Given the enormous significance of Latvian language for our statehood, the preamble of our constitution (Satversme) expressly stipulates that Latvian State has been established to ‘guarantee the existence and development of the Latvian nation, its language and culture throughout the centuries’. Perpetually, forever.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me share my thoughts on the following six issues or challenges for the development of the Latvian language.

First, there is still a discriminatory requirement to know Russian to be hired even after 30 years since we regained our independence. Job seekers are not likely to complain or go to court when they are trying to find job. But this is a problem that we need to solve at the national level. We should not hold ourselves back.

Constitutional court has ruled that all people living in Latvia must learn Latvian and should be able to use it freely. All residents, irrespective of their ethnic origin, share official language in common. Democratic decision-making and participation require common language.  That is the very purpose of official language. It brings people together. Therefore, according to Constitutional Court, narrow interpretation of the official language policy is considered to be a threat to democratic institutions. Russian is just another foreign language spoken in Latvia. Claims that you should know it are legitimate only if your work involves handling partners or clients in other countries where it is spoken.

Second, English is the primary  foreign language taught in Latvian schools. It is because English is the lingua franca of the 21st century. And I firmly believe that Latvian schoolchildren should be given a choice to learn one of the official European Union (EU) languages as the second foreign language, especially one of the big languages like German, French and Spanish. Historically and geopolitically, we are a part of Europe’s cultural space, and knowing European languages would be good for our ability to meaningfully contribute to this space. I urge the Ministry of Education and Science (MoES) to develop a dedicated programme for achieving it. I have officially reached out to MoES and we have started negotiating how that could be done. Let us see what it comes to!

Third, we need to promote the status and prestige of the official language. We must use official language in a public discourse about public matters. We cannot speak different languages. We need a common language. Latvian is such language, which is available for all citizens and residents.

On the other hand, we can often hear young people mixing together Latvian and English words in an incomprehensible gibberish. That, no doubt, is harmful for the Latvian language and its structure. Families and schools can help avoid that. Maybe we even need special campaigns with slogans like ‘Latvian is best, not just cool’. But I suppose I do not have to explain this to you, dear language practitioners. That is something that you should discuss, however. We must also take care of how our language develops. Does it have the means to precisely describe the modern world, realia that young people see? We need to make language more ‘youthful’, strengthen it in the virtual domain where most of these digital natives reside. We should spare neither our intellectual nor financial resources to achieve that.

Fourth, our long term objective should be to strengthen the digital presence of Latvian language. Give it the same profile as big languages have. This will help us avoid the digital divide and ensure language equilibrium online. We are not alone in this regard. Many EU countries and smaller languages face the same challenge. We can work together with them. European Parliament has raised this issue several times already. We must find our way to contribute to language equality in Europe through stronger Latvian.

Fifth, Latvian language is not flat. Different dialects and variations of Latvian contribute to richness of our national identity. These small linguistic quirks allow us to immediately recognise who comes from Kurzeme or Sēlija, or Vidzeme, or Riga. Latgalian definitely adds some spice to Latvian. We have diverse language that needs to be promoted through targeted official language policy initiatives.

And, last but not least, sixth, as Article 4 of Satversme says, ‘the Latvian language is the official language in the Republic of Latvia’. The key word here is ‘is’. “Is” is present continuous – timeless, eternal. However, to survive, it must change.

19th century Latvian would have a hard time understanding most of the words we use today. 21st century people would have hard time understanding 19th century words that describe 19th century realia like farmstead activities. Language is the same, but it has been greatly enhanced by time and people. Poetry, prose, translations and periodicals foster generic growth of language. I am highly satisfied that government has decided to support my proposal to apply reduced VAT rate on books and periodicals. It is also important to keep public funding flowing into cultural publications.

Our constitution regulates that government must take care of our language and culture. It is the inexorable core of the Latvian State. That is why it exists and why we need it.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I hope to see 15 October becoming a day when all Latvian schools and regions engage in a nice new tradition of uncovering previously unknown depths of our language and celebrating them. 15 October should be a constant reminder of our joint obligation to take care of Latvian as our sole official language. Nurture it. Use it. Let it grow.

I wish all of you a productive discussion and many interesting take-aways from this conference.

Thank you!