On August 23, 2004 the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies and the Information Office of the Council of Europe with a financial support provided by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the French Embassy to Latvia organised a seminar ‘Plurilinguism in Teaching in the European Context.’
Participants of the seminar represented a number of authorities and organisations, that directly or indirectly deal with language issues in education. The Ministry of Education and Science, the Secretariat of Minister for Special Assignments for Societal Integration Affairs, National Programme for Latvian Language Training represented state authorities, while LASOR (Latvian Association for Support of Schools with Russian Language Instruction), School Support Centre, public policy centre ‘Providus’ represented the NGO sector. Representatives of the University of Latvia and the Baltic Institute of Social Sciences also took part in the seminar. Participants were addressed by the organisers of the seminar, the former staff member of the French Embassy to Latvia Nicolas Auzanneau, Council of Europe experts and professors of the University of Upland Michel Barbier and Carin Soderberg.
The director of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies opened the seminar with the speech ‘Plurilinguism in Europe: Reality and Value.’ In her speech Ilze Brands Kehre outlined the topic of the seminar and pointed at the values required for provision and promotion of plurilinguism. The speaker stressed that by joining the European Union Latvia has demonstrated her determination to promote democratic and liberal values while emphasizing diversity. In the opinion of Ilze Brands Kehre the ability of Latvia to become a full-fledged player in the common European political life depends largely on Latvia’s ability not only to preserve already existing diversity, but also to look at it as a beneficial aspect for the country. One of the key prerequisites to preserve diversity in Latvia as well as in Europe is the development of tolerance towards language and plurilinguism in the form of skills and values. Schools were noted by the director of the LCHRES as key target audiences in the field. Not only competences of a number of languages but also the ability to develop intercultural relations are and will be important skills required for school graduates to integrate successfully into ‘new’ Europe, that is, to adopt European values, work and study in other countries and become actively involved in social and political processes in Europe. I.Brands Kehre concluded stating that ‘there are no contradictions between the plurilinguistic policy and social integration policy of Latvia and Europe, which include state language skills and a set of specific common values.’
Next speaker Nicolas Auzanneau in his speech stressed his privileged position, in particular his job experience in the French Embassy to Latvia during eight years, academic education and his interest in language issues and personal relations with Latvia, which allowed him not only to express his views about the language policy in Latvia but also take the position of a ‘critical friend.’ Acknowledging some positive aspects, Nicolas Auzanneau pointed at the most serious issue concerning the education reform at minority schools: discussions about education lack transparency and openness. The speaker, however, did not see threats in the protest actions. On the basis of the experience of France, where protest actions in the realm of education are among the most common, the speaker described protest actions against education reform in Latvia as ‘simple strolling,’ which, in fact, is necessary to build tolerance. Not only did Auzanneau express criticism, but also he came up with solutions for further actions, such as, change of the parameters of the discussion concerning the education reform, professionalisation of the education reform, work/dialogue with pupils so they would be aware that they might become objects of political manipulations. The speaker also advised to take advantage of available instruments created by the Europe Union, in particular, the State Report in the realm of language, in drafting of which Latvian experts could consult with long-term experts from the Council of Europe. In the conclusion N. Auzanneau expressed a hope that Latvia will be able to exploit her valuable experience in multilingual sphere and develop it further, thus becoming an example of good practices and helping other countries to deal with these issues.
Although both next speakers – experts from the University of Uppsala at the very beginning of their presentations noted that they did not want to discuss language issues in the political context and based their presentations on discussions about the process of learning in general and also rather briefly in Latvia, during discussions some questions regarding the Latvian language policy were raised.
The experts indicated that experts from the Council of Europe focus their conception of plurilinguism on understanding the term as competence as well as value of each person. M. Barbier, judging from his 40 years experience in language teacher training and also knowledge of the situation in Latvia, pointed at those aspects in language training which people in Latvia maybe are aware of, however, have forgotten or have not appreciated – advantageous geo-political location of Latvia, events taking place in other countries reflect in a smaller and manageable scale in Latvia; on contrary to many other countries language is a topical issue in Latvia; to smaller or bigger extent all languages in Latvia are found in one territory. The expert repeatedly stressed that in Latvia there is a historically developed possibility to learn languages, therefore Latvia should develop such instruments, which may be used by all its residents. He continued with a brief description of instruments developed by the Council of Europe and suggested specific ones, which could be used. In the expert’s opinion one of such instruments is the European Language Portfolio. The European Language Portfolio is a self-assessment of individual’s language skills. Barbier believes that the Portfolio is a very positive instrument because its application raises individual’s responsibility for his/her language skills, while a majority can use it as an instrument to build a dialogue with minorities. The expert also agreed with the previous speaker on positive features of another instrument – the State Report in linguistic realm.
In her turn, Carin Soderberg looked at the issues directly related to acquisition of languages. The expert introduced to the changes which has occured in the CoE’s approach to the language teaching policy in the last 20 years. If traditionally languages were taught by building language skills from small pieces of different themes, then the new approach places the stress on a communicative approach. When the communicative approach is used, language is acquired continuously and all language aspects are covered simultaneously. The expert stressed that teachers and policy makers play very important role in building motivation to learn languages. The task of teachers is to find motivation and create interest about learning languages – ‘learning languages should not be described as a boring and impossible process.’ The expert repeatedly called participants to view language acquisition as an integrated process, which takes place outside the school.
During discussions participants tried to find answers to the questions raised during the seminar. Representatives of the Ministry of Education and Science partly agreed with the criticism expressed by speakers towards the existing examination procedure of Latvian language proficiency. Officials stated that the lack of academic research and funding are the key sources of indicated shortcomings. They, however, noted positive developments in the sphere – a new examination model has been developed and it contains better elaborated criteria; while modern and new methods are applied in teaching Latvian as a second language. Positive developments have taken place also regarding the content of education in general and it is foreseen to be reviewed and re-elaborated in the closest future again.
Although the experts repeatedly emphasised that they do not want to look at language training issues from a political perspective, they and local experts, however, could not avoid touching the issue. An NGO representative noted that it is not possible to discuss the issue without touching politics, because the fact that the state has not allotted sufficient amount of money to deal with this issue is a demonstration of state’s attitude. While foreign experts wanted to learn views of participants about the examination of state language proficiency - whether it is necessary at all and if yes, in which cases.