Language Education Policy Profile



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3.0 Concluding Discussion


After the first decade and a half of transition and market reforms in Lithuania, the essential (though still evolving) legal foundations for guaranteeing the rights of minorities in the education system have been laid (see Section 1). This report builds upon these foundations and thereby attempts to complement the legal approach with one that puts education for minorities in a broader analytical framework based on the Sociology of Language paradigm.

The report thus provides quantitative data outlining the existing status of minority populations in terms of demographic, social, geographic and sociolinguistic factors (language proficiency, language use and language attitudes). Without measurable data on these issues, analysis becomes a matter of opinion and speculation. From this point of view, this report is a first step in applying the Sociology of Language paradigm to issues of minority education and integration. Using a combination of census, survey and educational data, the report provides at least partial answers to some of these crucial questions. However, the pioneering nature of the research should be stressed. Data on many issues are still incomplete, defective or missing, and these deficiencies are considered more fully at a later point.

This report is based on the premise that the long-term objective of policy efforts – to both integrate minorities into Lithuanian society and, at the same time allow them to maintain their cultural and linguistic identity – can only be achieved by recognizing the full complexity and multi-dimensionality of the problems. The question is not just about curricula, course development, teacher training, classroom practices and assessment. These problems exist, but they form only one cluster of issues in a complex web of systemic causalities, which include demographic, geographical social and political factors. If these issues are not addressed in their full complexities, the policies in the schools adopted are unlikely to be effective.

3.1 Minorities in Society


The report reveals differences in the social structures of minority populations compared to each other and to the majority. It is also shown that these structures have followed different trajectories over time.

In summary, the main points are:



  • Lithuanians were the largest ethnic group by a considerable margin (83.5%). Russians (6.3%) and Poles (6.7%) accounted for over three quarters of the non-Lithuanian population.

  • Between 1989 and 2001, the Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian populations declined by 36%, 31% and 50% respectively. By contrast, the Poles declined by only 8.9%. As a result of these trends, the percentage of ethnic Lithuanians and Poles in the population increased.

  • While 28.4% of ethnic Lithuanians are under 20 years of age, the corresponding figures for the ethnic Polish, Russian, Belarussian and ‘Other’ communities are 23.7%, 18.0%, 10.9% and 15% respectively. Apart from the Poles, these percentages indicate that all minorities are in natural decline.

  • Although constituting less than 20% of the population overall, minorities are in some localities the majority group, because of the uneven distribution of most groups. In the county of Vilnius, which includes the capital city, Lithuanians constitute only 54% of the population, Poles 25%, Russians 11.5% and others 9.5%

  • The 2001 Census data on ‘native language’ indicate that the ethnic language is being maintained by an overwhelming majority (80-89%) of ethnic Russians and Poles. All other groups show evidence of substantial language shift. When compared to the census in 1989, smaller proportions of all minorities, including Russian, claimed Russian as their mother tongue.

  • Lithuanian is spoken as a second language by between 50% and 66% of minority groups. Russian is spoken as a second language by nearly two thirds of Lithuanians, and three quarters of Poles, but by under 50% of other minority groups. Polish is spoken by much smaller percentages of all groups (under 15%), with the exception of 30% Belarussians.

  • Overall, about 17% of the population claim to have the ability to speak English. Most minority ethnic groups are close to, but slightly lower than this average. Poles and Belarussians are the exceptions – only 7-8% claim the ability to speak English.

  • On average, only 8% and 2% overall claim the ability to speak German and French respectively. Differences between minorities, or between minorities and majority, are not as pronounced.

  • Age differences suggest that overall levels of proficiency in Russian and Polish (as a second language) are in long-term decline.

  • The combined data on native and other languages indicates that 96% of the total population speak Lithuanian as a first or second language. This places it some distance ahead of Russian with 68% on the same measures. Polish is at 14%, but has now been overtaken by English as the third most widely spoken language.

  • A majority of all ethnic groups are at least bilingual, and significant percentages are trilingual. In this regard, the Polish community is particularly impressive, with two thirds or more claiming proficiency in three languages – Polish, Russian and Lithuanian.

  • While 33% of Lithuanian native speakers are in ‘white-collar’ occupations, only 18% of Polish native speakers are in these occupational groups. Native Russian speakers (26%), and native speakers of ‘other languages (28%) are much closer to the Lithuanian percentage. By contrast, native Polish speakers are more likely (than native Lithuanian speakers) to be found in agricultural, craft/trade, machine operations or elementary occupations.

  • Irrespective of their social structure, native speakers of all minority languages are far more likely than native speakers of Lithuanian to have been unemployed at the time of the census in 2001. The differences are substantial; 19.7% compared to an average of about 25%.

  • When the figures for both native and second language speakers are combined, it appears that over 90% of those in all occupations, except agriculture and fishing, can speak both Russian and Lithuanian as either a first or second language. In the top three occupational groups the percentage claiming these joint-abilities is, in fact, over 98%.

  • Polish and Belarussian appear to have a completely different status in the labour market. Generally, only about 10-15% of those in workplace have learned Polish as a second language, and the percentages of any occupational group who have learned Belarussian as a second language are under 1%.

  • The distribution of speaking abilities in the two ‘foreign’ languages – English and German – is clearly class related. These abilities are claimed, in the case of English, by about 40% of the top two occupational groups and by less than 10% of the four lowest groups. The pattern for German is similar, although overall percentages are generally lower.

  • Survey evidence, although fragmentrary, would suggest that non-Lithuanian languages, especially Russian and Polish, are strongly maintained in the home, either in a unilingual or bilingual fashion.

  • Survey evidence also suggests that, where minorities form significant proportions of the population, minority languages are being maintained outside of the home domain, i.e. in workplaces and in public places generally.

  • In the 2001 Census of Population there were 2571 persons recorded as ethnic Romani. Of these, some 70% claim Romani as their mother tongue, and 10% claim Lithuanian. As second and third languages, about 67% claim fluency in Lithuanian, 73% in Russian, and 13% in Polish. Some 15% do not speak any language apart from their mother tongue.

  • Media research would suggest that the Lithuanian mass media describe ethnicity as problematic and not as a positive quality of a multicultural society.
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