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LSM's English language audit

There is a good deal of discussion in Latvia at the moment about the English language and its correct use... or should that be usage?

On one hand there is an effort to promote use of English in a quasi-official capacity to attract overseas investment. On the other hand there is a row about whether heads of academic institutions need to be able to speak good Latvian.

What is beyond doubt is that Latvia needs to communicate effectively with the outside world. And for a large part of that world English is either a first or second language.

We at LSM have an obvious interest in the use of the English language in a Latvian context, so we thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the official websites English-speakers are likely to encounter to see whether they offer English-language pages and, if so, what sort of content is available and how often it is updated.

We steered clear of tourism websites if only because we would expect them to be excellent -- though whether that is the case is another matter.

Nor were we particularly bothered about the variety or standard of English used -- if information is understandable, it's acceptable.

Here is what we discovered on a quick trip through cyberspace. We spent just a few minutes on each site, trying to find useful information, as a casual visitor might. Our conclusions are subjective and far from exhaustive. But we hope they will be of some interest and perhaps even of some use to the powers that be.

 

1) Official state e-portal

Latvija.lv is the official state e-portal, though when you open it up the address bar declares it to be the "State Regional Development Agency" (in English). Selecting the 'EN' option (RU is also offered) opens up the same content as the Latvian site -- only machine translated into more or less meaningless English. As a result it is pretty much impossible to navigate or find any comprehensible information. The bottom of the page is dominated by messages, mainly in Latvian, informing the user that the site is experiencing technical problems.

As material on the site appears not to be dated, it is difficult to say how often it is changed. We clicked on a link saying "Come and see the video of Latvija.lv" which might appeal to an English speaker and were taken to a video about the site dating from November 2015. In short, a complete waste of time.

2) Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Foreign Ministry offers English and Russian in addition to Latvian. Clicking on the English option brings up a full parallel site which reproduced all the major press releases and announcements of the Latvian site, usually with a lag time of 1 day. It is updated several times per day. Links to Twitter, Flickr and other social media accounts are prominent.

Though some of the stories in the scrolling gallery at the top of the page are a little old (e.g. last year's China summit) we also particularly like the fact that the "What to do in an emergency" section on consular and travel advice is available in English.

The division of news into Ministry news and Embassy news is also indicative of some genuine editing taking place. All in all, excellent! 

3) Finance Ministry

Want to know about Latvia's economy or budget? Let's try the Finance Ministry. The good news is an EN option is offered at the top of the homepage. Opening it reveals a greatly reduced version of the Latvian site with just a couple of English-language news items added each month (almost all of which could be described as putting a positive spin on events).

Slightly strangely there is a 'News' section and then below it an 'Industry News' section with no content. Clicking on the Industry News archive link just brings up a blank page.

One good feature is the availability of macroeconomic data (in PDF files) which seem to be up to date with the most recent being for December 2016. However the 'Main Macroeconomic Indicators' link which would be of interest to many has data only from June 2016 (though confusingly a note at the bottom of the page also mentions September 2016).

Worryingly, the information about tax rates appears to be out of date. For example it states that microenterprise tax is charged at a rate of 9% when since January 1 it has actually been 15%.

A bit of a mixed bag. It doesn't scream "slick" to the English audience.

4) Economics Ministry

As the ministry currently pushing the introduction of English in the areas of tax and business set-up services, you might expect the Economics Ministry to be championing the use of English on its own site. You would be wrong.

An English site is offered in addition to Latvian, but it barely merits the name. True, there is a January 4 press release about the English-language innovation, but the previous news release in English was in October and the one before that in July.

The prominent section of 'Important Information' on the left of the screen contain information dating from 2015 only, suggesting that was the last time anyone thought seriously about an update.

The 'Macroeconomic Review of Latvia' appears to be reasonably up to date, providing information up to the third quarter of 2016 in PDF form. Similarly the 'Report on the economic Development of Latvia' dates from June 2016.

The video section of the site contains nothing more recent than Latvia's EU Presidency in 2015. 

5) Defense Ministry

A slightly small Union Jack icon on the Defense Ministry's homepage (will it change to the Stars and Stripes after Brexit?) tells us there is an English option available. Clicking on it brings up some fairly recent press releases, though the dates attached to them suggest these seem to appear in fits and starts and by no means all the releases from the Latvian site are translated. The most recent release was about 2 weeks old.

There is also a link to some biographical details of the minister and a fragment of his schedule which is several weeks old. Towards the bottom of the page is a puzzling section headed 'Main events' which contains information no more recent than 2015.

On a more positive note, access to recent photo galleries is good. There are also some excellent English documents on the regulatory framework within which the armed fores operate, though it takes a few speculative clicks to locate them.

In contrast, clicking on the 'Procurement' section brings up nothing but a blank page. It feels like the original intention was to provide more material than the site actually possesses now.

It should be noted however that the official military portal sargs.lv does have an excellent and regularly updated English section. Maybe this should be linked to in a more obvious way from the Defense Ministry's English page?

6) Agriculture Ministry

The Agriculture Ministry has LV and EN options (and options for changing the font size, which is a nice feature), but clicking on the English option opens up a world of disappointment.

Foreign companies are big investors in the agricultural sector, but they appear to have been ignored ever since the end of the EU Presidency in 2015 as since then there has been just one news item added to the list that appears, and that is from May 2016.

Clicking the link to the State Forestry Service brings up just a blank page. Clicking on the Agricultural Data Center brings up a Latvian sub-site. But wait! That has an English option too! Let's click it and reveal... that its most recent news item was from 2014.

The site says information about the African Swine Fever is available in Russian -- but clicking on that link just brings you back to the Latvian site.

Verdict: very poor.

7) Latvian Investment and Development Agency

Given that the Latvian Investment and Development Agency (LIAA) is responsible for getting foreigners to invest in the country, you would expect them to have a state-of-the-art website to create a great first impression.

In fairness it's not bad at all. There are up to date links to current and even future events, navigation is quite easy and the site is uncluttered.

Some of the English text could do with an update: for instance airport passenger figures for 2015 are quoted when the figures for 2016 are already available. Other sections are more seriously outdated, such as the business infrastructure section giving cargo figures for the period 2009-12. A lot could have happened in the last 5 years.

Some of the sub-sites, such as the one promoting food products are great and feel much more modern than the main site.

On the whole, quite user friendly but needs a spring clean. 

8) Official Facebook page

When Latvia's official Facebook page launched a few years ago, it had all the hallmarks of something that would be fashionable for a few weeks or months at most, but would fall victim to the common disease of nobody bothering to update it when the novelty wore off. So, did it happen?

Remarkably, no! If You Like Latvia, Latvia Likes You is still being updated on an almost daily basis. On the day we looked, it contained some nice advice on traditional cold remedies. If anything, the tone has improved too -- what started off as rather cheesy and even a bit smug has mellowed into the sort of thing you wouldn't mind appearing in your news feed with an eclectic mix of video, photo and written material.

It's a lot friendlier and more informal than most other national sites and even manages to convince you Latvians have a sense of humor and are quite self-deprecating (while they are telling you how great they are).

Whoever is behind this page (it seems to be chiefly the Latvian Institute) and more specifically, whoever writes the actual updates has done a very good job. 

9) Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs

Many foreigners have dealings with the Office of Citizenship and Migration (PMLP) so it's important they have alternate language information on their website. Russian and English are available in addition to Latvian. 

The English language page gives basic information and though most of the statutory information has clearly been sitting there untouched for quite some time, it does still seem to be applicable, including prices for the services they provide.

As with many of the other government sites (PMLP is part of the Interior Ministry) statistics are outdated. For example, the graphics on asylum seeker applications only go up to 2013. As we all know, there have been some rather important developments since then. 

The news section does appear to be updated reasonably regularly with a new story added about once a month, but by the time they appear some of them are already out of date: for example on January 25 a story was posted saying training days had been carried out for asylum seekers between July and December of the previous year.

A bit basic and blocky, but not too bad.

10) Riga City Council

Most foreigners living in Latvia are in Riga and most foreigners visiting Latvia go to Riga, so it only seems fair to check out the municipality's English-language provision. And it's a strange tale.

Last year saw the launch of the Riga.lv website, full of slick graphics and high-quality photography... but only available in Latvian and Russian at the moment according to the main homepage options.

However, if you do a web search for 'Riga City Council' it seems an English-language municipal portal does exist, even if it looks decidedly dated compared to the new one. This provides very basic information about the council, its composition and responsibilities etc. However, clicking on the 'News archive' link brings up nothing but an error message. Clicking on the promising 'Riga today' tab brings up text apparently designed to say nothing at all:

"Things go with a bang! Riga today is a dynamic and pulsating city. Residents of Riga almost incessantly organize events, participate in them and discuss them. The thing is to learn beforehand WHERE and WHAT is happening. Why is it happening and was it worth it – these are the questions the residents and visitors of Riga are determined to find out for themselves."

There are also links to other Riga-related English-language sites which seem equally adrift. "Invest in Riga" has its most recent item from August 30, 2016 which includes the boast "All of this available in fluent English." The news item before that was from March 2016. But even finding that such a site exists is a journey few web-surfers are likely to take.

But let's finish on a positive note: the 360 degree panoramic picture link is pretty.

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