Lithuania: Fostering National Language
7 June, 2017

The question of language quotas is a trending topic in Ukraine today. On May 23, Ukraine's parliament endorsed a draft law on the introduction of a 75% Ukrainian language quota for state television. The law would obligate television broadcasters nationwide to air a minimum of 75% of its programming in Ukrainian between 7:00 am and 10:00 pm.

Lithuania had dealt with a similar issue of establishing the titular language status of Lithuanian following its independence in 1991. In Lithuania, language quotas does not exist. However, policies exist governing language in all audio-visual media which requires all foreign language media to be either subtitled or dubbed. Commissioner Daiva Vaišnienė states that while “they are expensive,..we are talking about values and about status.” It is important to invest in promoting Lithuanian language.

For the language policy to grow alongside the language and its users, Lithuania has both a language commission and a language inspectorate to deal with different aspects of policy and implementation. On paper, “the language commission is something like a language parliament. We are adapting our documents, legal acts as recommendations, as legal provisions, as advice for politicians and for state institutions”; while the state language inspectorate is responsible for “implementing legal acts and they control language usage.” Ultimately, the role of the language commission and inspectorate is to ensure that there is one language for public communication as well as facilitate the environment for its correct, suitable, and clear dissemination.

With the development of technology and the digital world, the media and professionals play a crucial role in creating new terms with roots in the titular language.

For Daiva Vaišnienė, it is important for everyone to learn foreign languages as “English language is our reality". Nevertheless, it is up to the government to faciliate the usage of the titular language, and citizens to prioritize their own language abilities.

Hromadske discussed Lithuania’s linguistic transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the role of experts and the media, and the new problems languages face in the digitalizing world, state of Russian language in the region with Lithuanian language commissioner, Daiva Vaišnienė.

One of the most discussed questions now in Ukraine is Ukrainian language quotas. I mean quotas in the media, on TV, on radio programs. How was this question solved in Lithuania?

We haven’t such quotas in Lithuania, in fact. But still all audio-visual programs on TVs, radios should be subtitled or dubbed. Of course, the exception is for those programs which are for ethnic minorities, or for learning purposes.

So, even if you have a guest who speaks, for example, Russian or English, and you know that the audience understands him well. Even in this case, you have to subtitle?

Yes, it should be translated in all cases when your communication is open and for all. It is not private communication. And in all of its cases, in cinemas as well, it should be translated. All the citizens of Lithuania have right to understand what it said.

Law on state language has been adapted in 1995, right after gaining our Lithuanian independence. And first of all, status of Lithuanian language, of course besides Russian language, has been settled in our legal acts in 1989. It was one of the first proposals and demands of our Lithuanian scientists.

Isn’t it too expensive for TV channels or radio channels to subtitle every speech, every product in different language?

Some provisions of policy, and we are speaking about language policy as a part of state policy. Sometimes, they are expensive, but we are talking about values and about status. You cannot achieve status of state language if you do not use it.

And what was the way which Lithuanian language first after the collapse of the Soviet Union? We know that Russian language, of course, dominated and the Russification was very strong. So what happened after independence?

I suppose in Baltic states Russification wasn’t so strong as in some republics of Soviet Union. And after gaining our Independence, as I told, one of the first steps and demands of our scientists, I mean, reforms, was to establish the status of Lithuanian language in public administration, in legal acts, in public communication as well. And when in 1989 this regulation has been implemented, after Russian language had to pass away from most of public communication areas.

What are the main functions of your commission?

Our commission consists of 17 members. We are scholars, linguists. Most of them, from research institutions, from universities. We are dealing with the implementation of language policy. We are acting like an institution for experts in language policy. We provide some recommendations on language usage, and recommendations of codification as well. And of course, we are advisors for our parliament. We are under the parliament of the Republic of Lithuania. And of course, we give advice to our government and other institutions, and for society as well. We have a consultation group, and usually we receive 200 questions about language usage per day.

For example, we can advise on which provisions of our language law should be improved, what terms should be used in legal acts for our system of approving and harmonization of terms in legal acts in Lithuania. We have laws on the term bank, and all legal acts should be provided by legal terms approved by the language commission. So, we are working with European Union institutions, with translators in the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament. We are acting as an one-window system. They are asking, for example, for terms for other language issues and we usually answer.

Language commission is something like a language parliament. We are adapting our documents, legal acts as recommendations, as some legal provisions, as advice for politicians and for state institutions. And state inspectorate is an institution for implementing legal acts and they control language usage. In Lithuania, we have provisions about correct and suitable language. The language inspectorate is involved in preventing language incorrectness in public signs, for example, in public communications, in books, and in other implications.

It is a very important question now, because we know that new technologies just now are talking to us in mainly English. It is a problem of how to translate it into national languages?

Only some of them are translated in Lithuanian, because if we have no such word for a new device or new technology. Sometimes, it is good to create new word, but sometimes, it is not suitable, or even society can reject it. And in these cases, we are proposing new words.

Are there, in Lithuanian society, people who are fighting for correct language? In Russian or Ukrainian, we call them “grammar Nazis”.

Of course, there are a lot of names for that activity in Lithuanian as well. Still I think, there is no modern language without language or grammar norms. We should be wise, and we should be careful about the language. It is not something that we should reject. We should learn language at school to such a level that it wouldn’t cost us a lot of (time) in our work, in our job, in our studies. So, the main purpose of language policy, in this aspect, is to make the Lithuanian language useful and suitable for all communication activities. And we should use one language in public communication. In private communication, of course, there are a lot of varieties of language. And in private, we can speak dialect or slang, however we want.

What do you think, now, is the English language a threat for Lithuanian? And how do you deal with it?

I think that there are no languages as dictators and no languages as victims. There are only people who make one language dominating. But still, English language is our reality. And of course, in our day, society – Europe - you should know English.

But at the same time, we should develop our national languages.

Yes, of course. And our concern is about Lithuanian language and Lithuanian language policy. We should create such conditions for Lithuanian language could be equal in all European language community. Lithuanian language should be used in information technologies, in virtual space as well, because a lot of our social life is on the internet and social networks nowadays. We should worry about it; how to create more convenient possibilities to use Lithuanian language, to localize, for example, computer programs, how to create machine translations. We are involved in such activities and these activities are supported by the European Commission. How to create international open digital services, public services, in all spaces of the European Union, which gives possibility to use Lithuanian language, for example, to ask for help in Ireland, in Spain, or another country. We cannot, unfortunately, learn all languages, but we can use our language to gather more knowledge from other languages and communicate in other languages.

Written by Chen Ou Yang