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The fundamental principles of Latvian language policy, expressed in the Language Law of 1989 and included in the Guidelines of the State Language Policy for 2015–20 – are as follows:

  • the Latvian language is the state language in Latvia
  • the state guarantees to Latvian minorities the opportunity to preserve, develop and use their languages in certain functions

These basic principles enshrine the idea of the coexistence of languages, guaranteeing the state language the highest position in the language hierarchy. 

Language legislation promotes the successful realisation of the targets and formulations of language policy, namely:

1) judicial (consolidation of the status of the official language in laws and other normative instruments)

2) pedagogical (teaching Latvian to Latvians and to minorities living in Latvia)

3) linguistic (scientific research, standardisation of the Latvian language, publication of the sources of norms and informative literature)

The precise number of Latvian speakers cannot be defined, as it does not coincide with Latvia’s total population. Additionally, there is incomplete information regarding the number of speakers for whom Latvian is a native language outside Latvia’s borders as well as regarding the number of speakers for whom Latvian is a second language (approximately 90% of the ethnic minority community in Latvia claim knowledge of Latvian). However, approximate statistics are available. As of June 2015, the population of Latvia is 1,979,400 ( and it is estimated that approximately 370,000 Latvians live outside Latvia ( Therefore, Latvian is spoken by at least 2 million people. Latvian is spoken as a mother tongue by approximately 61% of the inhabitants of Latvia (in 2015). According to the Ethnologue, there are only 394 languages, or 6.8% of the total 7,102 living languages in the world today, which are spoken by more than 1 million people. This means that through its total number of speakers, Latvian finds itself in the top two hundred languages in this list, which is an excellent indicator. Languages spoken by more than one million people are mostly classified as members of the “safe” language group. However, it must be noted that Latvian competes with at least 2 of the 6 global mega-languages (Russian and English), and therefore its total number of speakers is only one factor to be taken into account when judging its competitiveness.

In addition to Latvian, the state ensures the maintenance, protection and development of Livonian, the language of the indigenous (autochthonous) population in Latvia that is spoken today by few people. Latvia’s minority population extends to approximately 40% of the total population and includes Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Roma, Germans and Estonians, among others. The minorities live mostly in the largest towns of Latvia and to a large extent speak Russian as their native tongue.

The position of Latvian in the world, as evaluated according to various sociolinguistic criteria, is well-established and stable. However, taking into account the intense competition which exists among languages in today’s world due to economic value as well as changes in society’s linguistic views, one cannot depend on the ability of the Latvian language alone to meet these challenges in these circumstances. Instead, Latvian requires institutional support as well as the support of every speaker.


Legal framework

The Latvian language was first attributed the status of the official language of the Republic of Latvia in the 1922 Constitution (Article 4). After the Soviet occupation, the status of the official language was re-attributed to Latvian by the Language Law (entry into force 5 May 1989) in the initial stage of the restoration of independence, also called the Third Awakening in Latvia. The amendments to the Language Law on 31 March 1992 after the regaining of independence displayed the changes in the legal status of Latvia and strengthened the legal hierarchy of languages, respectively determining the priority of Latvian as the official state language. In 1998, Article 4 declaring Latvian to be the official state language was included again in the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia.

On 9 December 1999, the new Official Language Law was adopted (entry into force 1 September 2000, available at Section 3(1) of the law states that Latvian is the official language of Latvia. This confirms the high status of the Latvian language and determines its use as the official language and the language of public communication in the country. In addition to Latvian, the Official Language Law stipulates the maintenance, protection and development of Livonian, the language of the indigenous (autochthonous) population of Latvia (section 4), and the Latgalian written language that is a historic variant of the Latvian language - more precisely, a written language that was derived from the Southern Latgalian vernaculars in the 18th century (section 3(4)).

The main aim of the Official Language Law is to turn Latvia into a monolingual state with a multilingual society. The law defines the use of Latvian without regulating the use of minority or foreign languages. It is characteristic of Latvia that the concepts of minority language and foreign language overlap, e.g. Russian, Polish, Lithuanian etc. meet both minority and foreign language criteria. For this reason the concept of foreign language is generalised in the law, indicating the hierarchical relationship between Latvian and other languages. Latvian language policy aims at developing an integrated society that secures the competitive capacity of Latvian, guarantees the minorities the possibility to maintain, develop and use their languages in certain sociolinguistic functions and ensures the protection of their linguistic human rights.

In order to reach the targets of the state language policy and to undertake coordinated activities to carry it out, the Cabinet of Ministers accepted the Guidelines for State Language Policy  2005–14 on 2 March 2005. The main policy-planning document from 2015 which defines the basis and fundamental principles for implementing Latvia’s language policy is the new Guidelines for State Language Policy 2015-20. This document describes the main directions of work required to ensure the full functionality of Latvian as the state language. Based on the goal of state language policy, i.e. ensuring the long-term viability of Latvian and its linguistic competitiveness in the marketplace of languages within Latvia and around the world, the following directions for implementing language policy are defined in this document: 

  • Providing a legal foundation for state language status
  • Ensuring proficiency in the national (i.e. Latvian) language by promoting the necessity of Latvian language proficiency, continuing the improvement of the Latvian language as a medium of education, promoting Latvian language acquisition among members of the diaspora (i.e. the Latvian emigrant community abroad)
  • Ensuring and promoting the scientific study of and research into Latvian
  • Ensuring the participation of society in implementing state language policy
  • Ensuring the presence of Latvian in literature and the arts

The Cabinet of Ministers is responsible for adopting essential regulations and legal acts based on the Official Language Law.

Several laws are closely connected with the state language policy: the Education Law (entry into force 1 June 1999, available at; the Immigration Law (entry into force 1 May 2003, available at; the Citizenship Law (entry into force 25 August 1994, available at

It is important to note that the Latvian Language Agency (a direct administration institution supervised by the Minister of Education and Science) is responsible for the study of the situation of the Latvian language and the dynamics of sociolinguistic processes in Latvia. From 2004 a number of studies have been implemented. An extensive study was published by the Latvian Language Agency in 2011 on the language situation in Latvia between 2004 and 2010 (the summary in English available at A new study on the language situation between 2010 and 2015 was published in 2016 (the full version in Latvian available at, and in 2017 the English version of this study will be available in printable and electronic versions.


Institutional body with responsibility for developing, implementing and controlling linguistic legislation

The main institutional body responsible for developing, implementing and controlling linguistic legislation is the Ministry of Education and Science. Since 2011 the Ministry of Culture has been responsible for societal integration, its implementation and coordination. Some other institutions involved in developing and implementing language policy include:

  • the Latvian Language Agency – subject to the supervision of the Minister of Education and Science; enhances the status and promotes the sustainability of Latvian by conducting research on the sociolinguistic processes of the Latvian language and providing support for the development and acquisition of Latvian in Latvia and abroad
  • the State Language Centre – subject to the supervision of the Ministry of Justice; supervises the compliance with the Official Language Law
  • the State Language Commission – established at the initiative of the President and the Prime Minister of Latvia; identifies strategic directions for language policy, supervises the implementation of the State Language Policy Programme, and takes part in the drafting of legislation in the relevant area
  • the Latvian Language Expert Commission of the State Language Centre – codifies the norms of the Latvian literary language
  • the Terminology Commission of the Academy of Science of Latvia – determines the development and use of Latvian terminology
  • the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs – subject to the supervision of the Ministry of Interior; implements state migration policy
  • the National Centre for Education – subject to the Minister of Education and Science; organises state language proficiency testing


Legal provisions concerning the linguistic integration of migrants and public linguistic training facilities available to them

The linguistic integration of migrants and members of different minorities is regulated by the Official Language Law. In addition, the Citizenship Law and the Immigration Law define the levels of knowledge of the official language, the procedures for testing language skills and cases in which people are subject to exemption from language testing for the acquisition of citizenship or a residence permit.

In 1995 the Latvian Government set up the National Latvian Language Learning Programme and in 2004 the programme created the National Agency for Learning Latvian offering free Latvian language courses to professionals who were obliged to speak Latvian, such as the police and medical staff but also other employees. Public language learning was provided for certain social groups (parents of pre-schoolers, teachers of schools with the minority educations programmes etc.).

Since 2007 several language and culture training opportunities for migrants have been implemented with the support from the European Fund for the Integration of Third-country nationals (administrated by the Ministry of Culture of Latvia). The Latvian government provides aids for learning Latvian (such as teachers, books, teaching aids etc.). Everyone who wishes to learn Latvian can participate in language courses financed by different EU Structural Funds or learn the language at a private language school and cover the learning expenses themselves. The children of migrants are included into the state education system.

A new issue came to the fore in 2015 in the context of global migration – ensuring language acquisition for refugees and asylum seekers. The number of asylum seekers in Latvia is still fairly small, although this number increases slightly each year. In addition, in 2015 Latvia began accepting asylum seekers as part of the European programme for migration; however, the number – 531 asylum seekers in two years – will not significantly affect statistical indicators. This fact is significant in another respect, i.e. with regard to language acquisition and integration given the prior educational experience as well as cultural and social differences of these individuals. At present each asylum seeker and refugee has to attend an introductory language course provided by the Latvian Language Agency. As this is a completely new experience not only for the responsible institutions in Latvia, but also for Latvian society, the attention devoted to this question at the end of 2015 (and afterwards) has been considerable. It seems fair to say that the question of refugees and their integration, notwithstanding the small number of such individuals in Latvia, will continue to be topical for a long time to come.


Financial support mechanisms aimed at encouraging the use of national and regional or minority languages

Funding for Latvian language policy is granted from the annual state budget and it is administered by the Ministry of Education and Science. In addition, funding for cultural and social integration of minorities is administered by the Ministry of Culture and the Society Integration Foundation. Funding available for the implementation of language policy has increased steadily. Funding for language policy activities provided by the state has been at the level of approximately 13 million euros per year from 2011 to 2013, reaching approximately 15 million euros in 2016.

The responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Science and the Ministry of Culture within the field of societal integration is to coordinate and implement the integration policy, as well as providing support for NGOs. This work is funded by the state and external funding bodies (EU Structural Funds).

After the restoration of independence Latvia started to create a new educational system to ensure and promote successful societal integration. The Education Law was adopted as early as 29 October 1998, initiating the abolition of educational segregation and anticipating the creation of a unified educational system. The Education Law is the basis for the formation of the minority education system. It ensures that the minority education programme includes the content that is necessary for passing on the cultural heritage of national minorities and for pursuing goals such as social integration and equal opportunities for every inhabitant of the state.

There are no officially recognised regional languages in Latvia, but education in national minority languages is a precondition for maintaining the cultural identity of national minorities in Latvia. The state finances national minority education programmes in Latvia in seven languages: Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, Estonian, Lithuanian, and Belarusian. In the 2015/16 academic year, 811 schools of general education receive state funding. Several schools provide education to Roma pupils. In the 2015/16 academic year, 59,418 pupils were enrolled in national minority education programmes, accounting for 26% of the total number of students.

Education reform has resulted in an increase in Latvian language proficiency levels among the younger generation of national minorities. If 49% of national minority youth in 1996 rated their knowledge of Latvian as good, then in 2014, according to the findings of a survey entitled "Sense of Belonging to Latvia", 77% of the minority youth aged 18 to 24 replied that their knowledge of Latvian is excellent or good. The results of centralised exams clearly demonstrate that changes to the national minority education programmes concerning the language of instruction and centralised tests have not made a substantial impact on students' academic achievement.


Teaching foreign languages within the education system

The teaching of foreign languages in the education system of Latvia is regulated by the Education Law (passed 29 October 1998, entry into force 1 June 1999) and the General Education Law (passed 10 June 1999, entry into force 14 July 1999). Any languages except Latvian and Livonian are regarded as foreign languages. It is compulsory to learn at least two foreign languages at school.

In 2012/13, approximately 85% of pupils were learning at least one foreign language at school. At the elementary school (grade 1–6) approximately three-quarters are learning at least one foreign language, at primary school and high school (grades 7–12) almost all are learning foreign languages. By far the most popular foreign language taught at school is English (98% of pupils learnt in 2012/13) that is followed by Russian (40%), German (13%) and French (2%). As English language study begins in Grade 1, as of 2014, during the period 2010-15, the majority of students studied English: in 2010/11, 82.2% studied English, but in 2014/15, 91.2% studied English. The second most popular foreign language was Russian; however, the number of those learning Russian is slowly decreasing: in 2010/11, 35.7% studied Russian, but in 2014/15, 32.3% studied Russian. The proportion of those studying German is also slowly decreasing: in 2010/11, 11.9% of Latvia’s students studied German, but in 2014/15, 10.9% studied German. Along with the most popular languages, students were also studying Arabic, Danish, Estonian, Italian, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, Latin, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Finnish, Spanish, and Swedish.


Forthcoming activities in the field of linguistic policy

The principal aims of Latvian language policy are outlined in the Guidelines for State Language Policy 2015–20. The main aim of the state language policy is to ensure the sustainability and the linguistic quality of the Latvian language in order to ensure its competitiveness in Latvia as well as in the rest of the world. To achieve this aim, the state, first and foremost, continues to ensure the legal status of the Latvian language as the only official language in Latvia and as one of the official languages of the European Union. In addition, the state continues to ensure the development and acquisition of the Latvian language in Latvia and abroad. Recently, Latvia’s growing diasporas abroad have become a focal point of Latvia’s language policy, in order to promote the possible re-emigration of Latvians and their descendants. The state aims to foster extensive research on various aspects of Latvian as well as Livonian and to promote the teaching of Livonian. An important aspect of Latvia’s language policy is to shape public opinion on language and language policy issues, to raise the prestige conferred on Latvia and to encourage people to use Latvian on an everyday basis at least in the public domains of language use. 



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