HOW LANGUAGE POLICY AFFECTS SOCIETAL BILINGUALISM: THREE CASES

Language is an integral part of national identity. Presented with the task of choosing the language(s) that will represent their newly independent nations, some governments have adopted drastic, sweeping policies that are far removed from actual patterns of language use by the public. These policies, driven by ideologies, put some languages on a pedestal while downplaying others. Below, I discuss the language policies of three countries—Latvia, Morocco, and Singapore—and their effects on language use.

Latvia

Following a period of Soviet occupation after World War II, Latvia regained its independence in 1991. During the Soviet period, Latvians were required to learn Russian as a second language but Russians did not have to know Latvian. After independence, the Latvian government made Latvian the only official language in an effort to shift the balance of power back to the Latvian side. Many Russians in Latvia who did not know Latvian could not become Latvian citizens because a new law required knowledge of Latvian for citizenship (Dilans, 2009). Russian, which was widely spoken during the Soviet period, is by far the largest minority language in Latvia and is understood by virtually all Latvians who started their education during the period of Soviet rule. However, the official language policy labels Russian as a “foreign” language and discourages young Latvians from learning it.

Latvia is very much a de jure monolingual and de facto bilingual society (Dilans, 2009). Although official policy prescribes Latvian monolingualism in formal education, Dilans (2009) states that there is a trend among Latvians to maintain Russian skills informally. This is because the majority of Latvians still think that Russian is an important language. While many Latvians feel that making Latvian official and de-emphasizing Russian is good for nationbuilding purposes, they also know the practical value of Latvian-Russian bilingualism in the region. Some also fear that the government’s insistence on Latvian monolingualism will lead to the decreased overall competitiveness of the nation. The Latvian case provides an example of a mismatch between what is envisioned by the government (i.e., ideology) and what is practiced by the people.

 
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