Language Difficulties for Minorities

School in Lithuania / J. Stacevičius/LRT

Vida Montvydaitė, head of Lithuania’s Department of National Minorities told that since 2013, all students including those that attend minority schools take the same Lithuanian language exam as every high school graduate. However,  students whose native language is not Lithuanian consistently underperform, and most of them score 30-40 percent. In 2020, 19.7% of minority students failed the Lithuanian language and literature exam, according to the National Agency for Education. Among native Lithuanian students, the rate of failure was 9.2%. Montvydaitė noted that the situation is the same in Klaipėda, Vilnius, and Visaginas regions, with the latter having a high number of non-Lithuanian speakers.

Most Polish students in Lithuania are multilingual, as they understand Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, and English, but they have difficulty switching between languages, according to Irena Masoit, an associate professor at Vytautas Magnus University (VDU) in Kaunas. The worst results are in tests where they have to memorize information in the language they have to present in.

According to Montvydaitė, the state could tackle discrepancies in exam performances if it provided proper training to teachers that work with students whose native language is not Lithuanian. The pedagogical institute that trained teachers for national minority schools does not exist anymore, and young teachers are not prepared to meet students’ needs, she explained.

The Lithuanian parliament is considering increasing Lithuanian language teaching to preschool minority groups from four hours to five per week. According to Montvydaitė, an additional hour will not change much for students from such towns as Šalčininkai and Visaginas, where the majority speaks Polish and Russian respectively, and where Lithuanian is akin to a foreign language.

The Polish minority in Lithuania constitutes 6.6% of the population, according to the 2011 census, while the Russian-speaking community makes up 5.8%. When Lithuania declared independence 30 years ago, in March 1990, it brought unease to the country’s Russian minority, remembers Pavel Lavrinec, the head of the Russian Department at Vilnius University. He explains that those who stayed in Lithuania after the independence “ended up in a strange situation – they live in the same apartment, but in a different country. It wasn’t a personal choice and it was difficult to adapt to.” The Russian language enjoyed an official status in Soviet Lithuania, but that changed, and concerns arose as to what would happen to Russian-language media and Russian schools. Many Russian speakers were worried about their future in Lithuania, as were some Ukrainians, Belarusians and other people from Soviet republics. The question of identity became more pertinent and the issue of a second mother tongue came into play. The Russian language remains the key marker of identity among the Russian minority, according to Lavrinec.

Meanwhile, the Polish minority has to work overtime to preserve their identity even 30 years after the independence, said journalist Evelina Mokrzecka, a Lithuanian Pole. Although Polish communities have lived in the eastern part of Lithuania for centuries, they lost some of their identity during the Soviet occupation. During that time, the Russian language seeped into their everyday language.

Another Language Issue?

Lithuania has yet to pass a so-called National Minorities Law which would regulate the spelling of people’s names and the names of ethnic minority villages and towns in their original language. The law, which has been 10 years in the making, would also establish funding for minority communities.

The name-spelling issue is particularly important. In official documents, Polish-speakers have their names spelled according to Lithuanian phonetic rules and not in their original spelling. Other EU citizens also face obstacles with regard to having their nam

es spelled originally in their passports and ID cards if they contain Latin-based characters that are not in the Lithuanian alphabet: q, x or w. Lithuanian courts at various times ordered institutions to issue documents with non-Lithuanian characters. But the Lithuanian government institutions were not consistent in their practices. The courts are in chaos over what has been a sensitive issue for decades. At least a year ago, the European Commission asked Lithuanian institutions for measures to resolve it. Many cases are still in the courts, with claims of rights-abuse and discrimination pointing to impediments that are not linguistic but political.

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