Thus, from the very beginning of the process, several characteristics of the Lithuanian view on the language situation appeared clearly.
Three main sectors are distinguished and separated for the analysis as well as for the definition of strategies for the future (cf. 1.1.: The demand).
There is a definite awareness of the political importance of language education and of choices pertaining to this domain.
With regard to the Lithuanian language and to the languages of the minorities, several laws and Government’s resolutions have been published since 1992. They tend to specify objectives and norms concerning the use and the teaching of (or in) these languages. And foreign languages are also seen as a strategic matter.
There exists a certain number of issues identified by some of the documents to which the Expert Group has had access and underlined as well during the visit in May 2004.
However, before taking a closer look at these perceived issues, it seems appropriate to recall some main aspects of the sociolinguistic distribution of the population of Lithuania, in regard to the history of the country and the recent trends of its evolution. It is indeed within this general context that the linguistic challenges of today can be situated and put in some perspective.
2.2. Elements of context for the linguistic scene
The purpose of these few general remarks is to present a background for the analysis and comments which will follow. These will have to be qualified later, but they bear on factors which have a definite influence on the issues that the language policy faces presently in Lithuania, notably, but not exclusively - with regard to the education system.
Of the 3,5 millions of inhabitants of Lithuania (about 70% in urban zones), 83,5%.state their nationality or ethnic group as Lithuanian (census of 2001). Russians (6,6%) and Poles (6,7%) are, at that same date, the largest minority groups, before Belarussians, Ukrainians and others. It is to be noted that the declared Russian population has steadily decreased from 1989 (9,4%) to 2001. It declined by 36% in this period. By contrast, the Poles (7,0% in 1989) declined by only 8,9%5. These variations are clearly to be put in relation with the consequences of the independence of Lithuania in 1990. Among other factors, part of the Russian population (mainly urban and spread in different counties, notably the troops and the families of soldiers) left Lithuania, whereas the Polish population (more rural and mainly concentrated in the County of Vilnius and the south-eastern part of the country, close to the Polish border) did not have the same reasons to leave, even if their country of origin had also regained its full independence.6
Due to the complex and often dramatic history of the region, Lithuanian is a language which, for a very long period, has been confronted to other languages of then higher or dominant status (namely Polish and Russian, at times when the country was under the influence or the rule of one or the other of its powerful neighbours). The written language was codified relatively late and, still in the XIXth century, when Prussia and Russia occupied most of the territory, publication of books and newspapers in Lithuanian somewhat appeared as an act of resistance.
Even if its origin, history and characteristics have been of deep interest for the specialists of linguistic description, Lithuanian cannot claim presently an international position. Its first and central importance has to do with national identity and unity and with social cohesion within the country. And even if national minorities “weigh” quantitatively less in Lithuania than in some other Baltic States, their demographic, historical and cultural presence cannot be but recognized – with their various languages - as a heritage of the past and as an active component of the fast moving present Lithuanian society.
There are several socio-regional varieties of Lithuanian. One has been chosen as the standard for the official language taught in schools and normally used in the media. This does not mean that variation is not attested and recognized, but, necessary as the choice of a variety was, it can put native users of other varieties to a slight disadvantage and place them occasionally in a position of linguistic insecurity.
For populations that were long deprived of the full use and recognition of their native Lithuanian language, it has now become, understandably, a precious (re)conquest, to be asserted, protected, developed, learned and taught as such. And for a large part of the populations that, not long ago, were in a position allowing them to live and work in Lithuania without learning the Lithuanian language, what is at stake now is a form of integration that implies both the acquisition of Lithuanian as a second language and the preservation of their first language and culture.
Whereas the rich and conflictual history of Lithuania has to be taken into consideration to examine the multilingual society of today and though the past has some definite impact on the present language policy, the future perspectives are certainly not absent from the issues discussed. For the national language as for the languages of minorities, the question is not only just one of defence and valorisation within the limits of the country, but also, as for the foreign languages, a matter of evolution and of mobility, of cognitive and socio-economic progress. This is true at both the individual and the national level in a new and more open international environment in which diversified language competencies are felt as being more and more a necessity. The values and the rules of the game are not quite what they used to be, just a few decades ago, in a different geopolitic organisation and balance.