Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Latvian Language Conundrum

What language should a foreigner learn in Riga? The question isn't as straightforward as it sounds: over half of the city's population speaks Russian as their first language, and though all children take school leaving exams in Latvian not everyone remembers it a few years later. Only one person from the school's admin staff is a native Latvian speaker; seven of my eight classes are made up of people who speak Russian. "Use English," my students advised. "All young people know it."

Most Latvians, a linguistic minority in their own capital city, would react differently. Some take it to extremes. One of my workmates tells a story about a woman asking him directions to the ferry terminal. "I knew enough Latvian to understand the question but not enough to answer it so I explained very slowly in English. She stopped me halfway through, "You are in Latvia. Speak only Latvian." I gave her a crash course in bad language. In English."

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