The problem of bilingualism in Lituania today

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This is an unofficial English translation of "Le problème du bilinguisme en Lituanie aujourd'hui", an article found in a special issue of the OQLF's Revue d'aménagement linguistique published for the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Québec's Charter of the French language in 2002.

By Jonas Žilinskas, lecturer at University of Šiauliai, in Lithuania.

Throughout its history, the Lithuanian people and Lithuanian language have gone through periods of greatness and decline. Since the XIXth century, the originality of the Lithuanian language catches the attention of linguists in the whole world. It was codified at the end of XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century.

During the Sovietic period, the Lithuanian language was replaced by Russian little by little. Russianization was even harder than during the rule of the Russian tsars. A policy of bilingualism expressed only by the obligation made to Lithuanians to learn Russian while Russians did not bother to learn Lithuanian was proclaimed. If the written Lithuanian language were more or less protected by writers through newspapers and publishers, the spoken Lithuanian language was degraded. Often, in the institutions, it was only a language of oral communication, the greatest part of technical documentation and correspondence being written in Russian.

The school was powerless to oppose the propagation of this false bilingualism. The number of hours devoted to the teaching of Lithuanian fell: Russian was taught even in kindergartens. The remuneration of Russian teachers for the same number of hours was higher than that of the teachers of Lithuanian. The majority of the textbooks for the other subject matters being taught were translated from Russian to Lithuanian, not always correctly.

Research by Lithuanian linguists was controlled by "the party and the government" that often saw "premises of nationalism" in them. The majority of scientific fields were completely Russianized: exact sciences, natural science, political sciences, diplomacy, military sciences... Researchers in all fields, Lithuanian ones included, were obliged to prepare and defend their doctoral theses in Russian.

The knowledge of Russian had become a social need and, towards the end of 1980s, there were already approximately 90% of young Lithuanians from 16 to 25 years old who usually spoke Russian. The Lithuanian people became bilingual while the Russian speakers in Lithuania spoke only Russian. This "bilingualism" degraded the phonetics, morphology, syntax and especially the vocabulary of Lithuanian.

A great part of the Lithuanian intellectuals were always worried by this problem. This interest became manifest especially during the period of the "Sąjūdis" popular movement, formed in 1988. It is during the same year, 1988, that the Lithuanian language acquired the status of official language, a fact which started the process of the reconstitution of democracy, leading to the re-establishment of Lithuania's independence on March 11, 1990.

The official language law adopted in 1995 changed the attitude of the population of the ethnic minorities in Lithuania towards Lithuanian. This law regulates the use of language in public life only; it obliges institutions to use only the Lithuanian language for their official documentation and their correspondence and guarantees the right of Lithuanian citizens to have access to information in the official language. It does not regulate the usual communication of the inhabitants of the country. Ethnic minorities learn Lithuanian with interest, but they have also enjoyed conditions defined by the legislation to have access to education and media in their own languages. The person having all possibilities to express himself in his mother tongue, and at the same time having a command of the official language of the country, will always feel better protected as a citizen and will more easily enjoy the rights and accomplish the duties defined by the Constitution of the country. This is the principal component of the linguistic policy of the Lithuanian State.

It is necessary to distinguish state bilingualism from personal bilingualism. In all the world's democratic countries, the conditions necessary, so that all the ethnic minorities can learn the official language of the country and participate in its social and cultural life, are created. In Lithuania, a unilingual country, it leads to personal bilingualism. The Lithuanian state continues to create the conditions for the development of this personal bilingualism from primary school where children of ethnic minorities learn the official language and receive a sociocultural formation. Today, there are in Lithuania 97 schools giving a mixed education of languages (85 bilingual schools and 12 trilingual schools).

At the theoretical and practical levels, one is working out a new conception of the teaching of the official language in these mixed schools. It will be directed towards the learning of Lithuanian but also towards the formation of bilingualism. That means that the objective of people belonging to ethnic minority groups will be to reach the same level of practical use for the two languages: their mother tongue and the official language of the country.

In the pursuit of that objective, the experience of the old traditions of state bilingualism and personal bilingualism in Quebec is invaluable to us. A new attitude towards bilingualism also appears little by little in certain countries of Europe, for example in England, Ireland and elsewhere.

People sometimes worry about the negative interference of languages, but the positive or negative characteristics of bilingualism generally depend on the formation methods, the sociolinguistic situations as well as the very attitude of the State towards this problem, and the principles of bilingualism it defines.

See also