When we think about Latvian language education, we usually think about the network of Saturday or Sunday schools for children of Latvian descent living abroad. But there are also many adults learning Latvian, mostly the non-Latvian parents of those children.
Some non-Latvian parents are very devoted to learning the language, while others are content to learn only a few key phrases. Some are lucky enough to find teachers, but most are trying to learn the language in unstructured environments, which usually means just picking it up from the Latvian spouse at home. Both methods, but especially the unstructured kind, require great motivation on the part of both the learner and the teacher. A bit of linguistic talent helps, too, as does the proximity and openness of an active, local Latvian community.
What follows are a few short portraits of American adults learning Latvian. You probably know people like them, and hopefully their stories will provide encouragement to others in their shoes.
Portraits of Latvian learners
Robert Franklin began learning Latvian at age 24, when he first met the woman who later became his wife. Their whole marriage of 40-plus years has taken place in Latvian. He refused to speak English with a me, even though it would probably be easier for him to express certain thoughts in his first language.
“I say ‘Es nesaprotu’ (I don’t understand) if a Latvian speaks English with me,” he explained with a smile. Many Latvians who do not know Franklin are surprised to find out that he is not Latvian, because he speaks the language so well and has been a part of the community for so long. He recounts a conversation (which took place completely in Latvian), in which his grandson called him a half-Latvian.
“Why do you call me half-Latvian?” Franklin asked him.
“Language,” replied the boy.
Franklin learned Latvian just by listening to and talking with people—no books or courses. He did so he could speak to his children in Latvian.
“And because language is very important,” he added. “Language is a gift, and if we have a gift and do not pass it on to our children, that is a sin.”
He continued: “Children who speak more languages are smarter, and besides, Latvian and Lithuanian are very old and interesting languages.”
According to Franklin, language is the key to a culture. Latvians often wonder why he wanted to learn and use the language, he said, but other than that he has always felt very welcomed by the Latvian community.
Amber Pone spent nine months in Latvia soon after marrying a Latvian-American, and the experience was not always pleasant. But she did take formal language lessons while there, and now—four years and a toddler later—she is still able to take part in simple Latvian conversations. She said she finds prepositions and their corresponding cases to be one of the more difficult aspects of the language to learn. Also, it’s difficult for her to remember to always stress the first syllable in Latvian.
Pone lives in a state with hardly any other Latvians. But when she visits her in-laws, they keep her on her toes regarding language use. She said she finds, though, that her concentration quickly wanes and it is hard to follow a whole conversation in Latvian.
Andrew Ostman has always felt accepted by the Latvian community, he said, but finds that recent immigrants from Latvia become frustrated with him more quickly and switch to English sooner when speaking with him. Trimdinieki (World War II exiles and their descendants), he said, seem to have more patience with him and are more likely to encourage him and push him to speak Latvian—those in the Midwest U.S. even more so than those on the East Coast. They are more willing to rephrase a sentence that he has not understood, don’t mind taking the time to speak slowly, and in general seem more interested in speaking Latvian.
Ostman’s main teacher was his fiancée, who is now his wife. In school he studied both ancient and modern Greek, as well as French and German, so learning a fifth foreign language—even one with seven cases and a pretty awful verb system—did not daunt him. For him it’s harder to learn new vocabulary than the grammar of the language. The key, Ostman said, is constant practice. But although his 3-year-old son speaks beautiful Latvian, Ostman admitted that he and his wife now speak almost no Latvian with each other. Call it “real life.”
Tom Jātnieks said he was shocked when his son corrected his Latvian grammar for the first time—at the tender age of three. But he did not let that deter him, and for many years following he spoke only Latvian with his children.
However, it frustrates him, he said, that he wasn’t able to pass a learning plateau (in grammar, vocabulary and comprehension) that would allow him to take part in “real, intelligent, adult” conversations. Now that the children are at or nearing the pre-teen age, he said he finds it difficult or even impossible to hold whole conversations in Latvian due to his limited knowledge of the language, and so often switches to English.
Jātnieks stressed that fluent speakers of Latvian should not give up so quickly when speaking Latvian with someone like him. They should not switch to English so soon, but instead simplify their speech at the beginning of the conversation to test the waters, so to say, and then gradually work up to normal speaking speed in Latvian. It’s most difficult, though, for the people he’s known his whole life and who always used to speak English with him—for example, his own father (Jātnieks is half Latvian, but did not learn Latvian as a child). Now he would like for them to speak to him in Latvian, he said, but linguistic habits are hard to break.
Because his first-grader son, Kevin Johnson said, is refusing to speak Latvian, he is now finally starting to take learning Latvian more seriously. Johnson has begun listening to a Latvian cassette series while driving in the car. But his three children are used to speaking English with him, and that habit is making real-life language practice difficult.
Jane Straumanis said her husband has been very patient with her desire to learn Latvian, and she considers him her greatest asset in the endeavor. Compared with the Spanish and Norwegian she once studied, she said she believes all aspects of Latvian are very difficult to learn. Most of what she has learned has been chiseled into her mind through tedious memorization, copious repetition of whole phrases, and listening to language tapes over and over again.
Straumanis said she feels that the Latvian-American community has been welcoming, gracious, supportive and kind to her. But it wasn’t so at first. She sometimes finds Latvian-Americans very challenging and not always welcoming of outsiders, Straumanis said. Although it’s still not an easy place to be, things are different now and she finally—after 15 or so years—feels a part of the community. She said she appreciates that Latvians have a strong culture and strong expectations.
What Straumanis finds troubling, however, is the local Latvian school and its attitude towards children who are not fluent in Latvian (for instance, her daughters were given only one line apiece in Latvian school plays during four years of school attendance). Many families from her family’s peer group ended up eventually leaving the school. Straumanis said she thinks that what the community still needs is to create a larger place and role for non-Latvians, open to all who are interested in the culture, regardless of language.
The ultimate motivator
Of the non-Latvians I’ve met, the majority have learned Latvian from their fiancés or spouses. Love is the ultimate motivator, I guess. Problems arise, though, if the Latvian partner is not equally interested in teaching the language. Even if he or she is interested and motivated, just being able to speak a language does not necessarily mean that that person is able to teach it to another, since not everyone is a teacher by nature.
In addition, a relationship’s honeymoon stage inevitably wears off, “real life” eventually takes precedence over language teaching, and—like it or not—discussing family finances turns out to be much easier in English than it is in third grade level Latvian.
But despite the odds, the above people prove that it is possible to acquire at least a usable grasp of the language. So think about the courageous adults learning Latvian around you. Ask them how it’s going, commend and encourage them, ask how you can help, and accept them into your circle.
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