Viewpoint: Lingua Franca

There is a lot of talk at the moment about the possibility of using English in a semi-official capacity at state institutions in Latvia. As editor of LSM's English-language service, you might expect me to be all for this. But to tell the truth, I'm not so sure this is a good idea.

The main suggestion, expressed in somewhat vague terms by Economics Minister Arvils Aseradens, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis and Finance Minister Dana Reizniece-Ozola is that English could be used for registering a company and for book-keeping in parallel with Latvian, the only official state language.

The assumption is that this would in some manner stimulate foreign companies to set up shop in Latvia.

This sounds like a progressive move, and it would be a significant break from the monolinguistic tradition. But I have reservations about whether what's on the table is worthwhile.

In all discussions of language and business it is worth recalling the sparkling words of German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who oversaw a significant portion of Germany's amazing post-war economic renaissance:

"If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen sie Deutsch sprechen."

So the first thing to do is decide: who is buying and who is selling? What is the nature of this relationship being set up between the Latvian state and foreign businesses? If Latvia is "selling" itself as a place to set up an international business, then by all means offer the chance of doing business in international languages.

But company registration and tax returns do not constitute an international business environment. Much broader services and opportunities would need to be provided in foreign languages. There is very little point in letting a company set up in English and then having everything else; residency declarations, employee contracts, pension agreements, liability insurance, health and safety regulations etc; in Latvian anyway.

Having tax and registration in English is not such a great incentive. Any company larger than a sole trader will have no trouble hiring a book-keeper or lawyer able to cope with these relatively simple tasks.

What sort of company precisely will decide that there are business opportunities to pursue and money to be made in Latvia, but choose not to do so because of the language barrier? Market traders perhaps, who might be swooped upon by the dreaded State Language Center (VVC) because they talk to customers in English? Certainly not any companies likely to employ more than two or three people.

There are no provisions being discussed to limit the VVC's powers to fine people for using foreign languages, so smoothing the way to registration might only enable the quicker payment of subsequent penalties.

If you need any evidence of the absurdity of current regulations on use of foreign languages, look at the recent decision to fine Jelgava railway station for displaying travel information in English and Russian as well as Latvian.

Jelgava is one of Latvia's major manufacturing centers, has quite a lot of foreign companies already and hopes to attract more. Yet it is penalised because the State Language Center deems it not to be a tourist destination (which is itself ridiculous. I recently went there specifically to look at the Palace and Academia Petrina, both fascinating).

One can only imagine the havoc VVC could wreak if it chose to police the anglophone pitches of Latvian startup companies at events such as TechChill.

On the other hand if the foreign businesses are in the "selling" position -- for example companies from the UK who are desperate to relocate to the EU in order to retain access to the single market -- then they should be expected to play by local rules.

In plain language, the current proposals are just tinkering, not a real shift in the business environment at all. It is hard to see how they could have any major impact, and therefore even if they are introduced, will most likely result in a ministerial shrug in a couple of years' time and "Oh well, we tried, but they didn't come."

Better not to bother at all rather than preside over a half-hearted attempt to do something that is vaguely assumed to provide economic stimulus. 

Crucially these language proposals need to be tied to other reforms allowing businesses to conduct their affairs online. Bureaucracy and the tyranny of the rubber stamp is still one of the most tiresome aspects of doing business in Latvia.

There is more vague information circulating in government about the introduction of 'official' email accounts for everyone in the country.

An e-signature system does exist, but its take-up is limited because it is a paid-for service and it is not actively promoted. It has in some regards been overtaken by the identification possible via e-Banking services in the private sector.

Introduction of e-health services appears to be an expensive shambles.

The English language version of the official Latvian state portal still relies on machine translation, for goodness' sake. Can the current initiatives expect to be taken seriously when the state cannot even be bothered to hire a bilingual human translator?

In short, it's all a bit of a mess. There are lots of initiatives flying around, none of them joined up. It's like pouring the pieces from four different jigsaws onto the table and expecting them to be interchangeable.

Ça ne fonctionne pas

If someone could join these various initiatives together, that would be great. But it would require someone to be given the responsibility and the power to knock heads together across a broad range of state institutions over a clearly-defined timescale.

A possible alternative would be to buy something like the "franchise" of Estonia's e-government system and operate it in Latvia. It seems to work. All the R&D has been done. The Estonians, I am sure, would be delighted to sell it to Latvia as their first customer, using it as PR for their efforts to sell the system elsewhere, and might even have a hand in running it.

Some people will object on the grounds of national pride. Well, maybe. On the other hand, Latvia could claim to be an early adopter. And if countries are willing to sell each other sophisticated technology all the way up to nuclear weapons, the national pride argument has little force. At least you can shift the blame (and possibly have legal recourse) if something does go wrong

And let's also do something the Estonians don't do. Let's think about tying digitization to a business environment in which Latvians make use of their already amazing language skills and companies can use German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Swedish, Finnish -- provided it's by mutual consent. State institutions can demand a translation if necessary.

How better to emphasize that Latvia is committed to a European future and that it wants to be a leader, than to make all of Europe's ways of doing business possible under Latvian law?

English is over-rated anyway.

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