Third generation “latvianness” in Australia — what lies beneath?

Latvians Online interviewed Australian-Latvian living in Sydney – Linda Ozers – who is currently undertaking PhD studies at University of Technology Sydney. The topic of Linda’s thesis: Ethnic identity and heritage language in the third generation: the Australian Latvian experience.

Latvians Online: Please tell me a bit about yourself and  your area of study.

Linda: After spending many years working in various roles in secondary education I returned to university to do further study and to work helping students with academic writing. During my Master in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages course, I discovered that most immigrant languages are lost by the third generation. This caught my interest and I started to ponder the fact that there are third generation Latvian speakers here in Australia. I started to wonder what motivates them, how do they identify and how do they use Latvian?

You’ve been an active member of the Sydney Latvian community for many years. Has this contributed to the reason for wanting to tap into the “psyche” of the younger generation in the community?

Growing up as a second generation Australian Latvian there were periods when I questioned my own identity and when I spoke no Latvian. At the time the Latvian community was much bigger and more active. My Latvian upbringing was fairly typical in that I went to Saturday school and participated in folk dancing. I was also in the Latvian girl guides, played kokle and volleyball, belonged to the Latvian Youth Association of Australia, organised meetings, conferences, events etc. From a young age my main interest has always been acting in the Sydney Latvian Theatre ensemble and this has given me many opportunities to use Latvian. Young Australian Latvians today are part of a generation with interests and opportunities that are perhaps different from previous generations. I am interested in how they see their “latvianness” – and what role their identity and Latvian language has in their everyday lives.

The topic for your PhD that was presented to youth at the Summer High School was: Ethnic identity and heritage language in the third generation: the Australian Latvian experience. You conducted individual and focus group interviews. How many youth members of the community have you interviewed so far? Please share some of your preliminary findings.

The study has 2 parts – focus groups and interviews. Focus groups were held at the Summer High School to initially help identify what are the important issues for this adolescent age group. I’m just starting the interviews. They will be used to probe deeper – especially with the older youth (20+) group. I am seeking to gather views from as wide a range of young people as possible – those who do and those who don’t speak Latvian, participate in the community and so on.

52 young people participated in 8 focus groups at the Summer High School. The students were very articulate and willing to share some deep, and at times humorous, observations. As the research is still underway, I can’t reveal too much of what I am finding, as it may influence other participants. As a general observation I can say that 2 very powerful messages that came from these focus groups were the importance of friendships and the role of various community activities in the formation and maintenance of their “latvianness”.

Did you have an initial hypothesis that you wanted to test? Has is been confirmed or refuted?

I deliberately approached this research with no hypothesis. There is little research around topics of adolescent and young adult ethnic identity and heritage language use in the third generation. My study is very much exploratory and follows what is known as a “grounded theory” approach. Data is gathered and analysed revealing theories and findings.

Have your questions proved a challenge to answer for your interviewees? 

The one question that proved to be somewhat challenging for the focus group participants involved their views on what would happen in the fourth generation. They obviously hadn’t considered this scenario, but after some thought many answered that they would try to pass on as much of their heritage and language as they could.

Have your preliminary findings conformed to what happens with other cultures and languages in a similar situation?

There are many variables that influence what happens not just within different ethnic groups, but also with individuals. One important aspect is to do with how a particular ethnic group values their language and culture. There was some research done in the late 1970s in Australia, across a number of ethnic groups, indicating that for Latvians their language was very important – more so than for many other groups. There is some evidence that having refugee origins results in quite different migration, adaptation and assimilation motivations and experiences than for other migrants. For the first generation it was important to maintain and pass on the language and cultural traditions from Latvia’s independence period between the two World Wars. The question is whether this motivation continues into the second and third generation.

I am still seeking young people to interview. If you are interested and have at least one Latvian grandparent who came to Australia post World War 2 and at least one Latvian parent who was born in Australia, please contact me to see if we can arrange an interview Paldies!


Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.

2 thoughts on “Third generation “latvianness” in Australia — what lies beneath?”_en

  1. Hi Linda, my partners grandfather Peteris Capus was Latvian and immigrated here in 1948. His son Peter was born here in Australia and my partner Peter is the third Generation. Yes is confusing with them all named Peter! We are currently tracing his family genealogy and trying to understand why he left his homeland to come to Australia. I’m sure he would be happy to help with any questions.

  2. What happened to a great many of the Latvians who came to Australia in the late forties and early fifties all happened in the context of history of those times. So what was/is the relevant history? For a start, there was the declaration of Latvia as an independent state on 18 November 1918, Independence Day, following the collapse of the old Russian empire ruled by the tsar. Latvia flourished, but that did not last for long.

    Some 20 years later, in 1939, Germany invaded Poland in collusion with Soviet Union, and that started World War II. It is now not generally recalled that Germany occupied the western part of Poland only – the Soviet Union grabbed the eastern part. Subsequently, England declared war on Germany but not on Soviet Union. A year later, as part of its deal with Nazi Germany, Soviet Union occupied all three Baltic States.

    There is a book, The Real History of the Cold War, by Alan Axelrod (published in 2009 by Sterling Publishing) which which describes the times the Latvian migrants lived in, and the events that therefore shaped their lives. It contains what I think are some inaccuracies, but does present the overall picture very adequately, including a brief description of how the Cold War came about – and why many Latvians left Latvia before 1945, and made their way to that part of Germany occupied by the ‘Western Powers’ (USA. Great Britain and France).

    After spending some years in ‘DP Camps’ (DP stands for ‘displaced persons’), most of the Latvians who had fled subsequently migrated, mainly to USA, Canada and Australia when it became clear that Latvia was to remain firmly under the thumb of Soviet Union.

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