In addition to the Latvian language tests for Russian citizens who want a permanent residence permit, basic knowledge of the official language is also tested for those people who want to acquire Latvian citizenship by naturalization.
For citizenship, knowledge of the language must be slightly higher than for obtaining residence permits, namely the B2 level. Listening, reading, writing and speaking skills are checked and one must receive two-thirds of the maximum score in each skill.
Citizenship wasn't needed for decades
In the eastern region of Latgale, the only place to take the naturalization exam is Daugavpils.
Three people waited for their turn in the hallway: Vyačeslavs, from Rēzekne, and Anita (name changed) and Valentina from Daugavpils.
Persons aged 65 and over are exempted from the Latvian language writing skill test, but reading literacy or understanding of the text is tested when a person answers questions about a set text, and listening and speaking skills are also tested.
Even though the pensioners have slightly relaxed rules, there is a great deal of concern that the exam will not be passed. When LSM addressed them in Latvian, the answers came only in Russian.
Valentina has failed to pass the exam already twice, but she was in no hurry to head home because she was waiting for her two companions. She was convinced Vyačeslavs would pass the exam because compared to herself, his Latvian was quite good.
The pensioners made comments rather reluctantly. Anita said a little more about herself. She is 70 years old, of which for 30 years she has lived in Daugavpils with Russian citizenship. Anita's children have grown up in Latvia, and have studied in Latvian, but she has failed to learn the official language at the basic level during these years.
Anita acknowledged that life in the city is comfortable enough, both without knowledge of the official language and without Latvian citizenship. But now, under the influence of the geopolitical situation, she is forced to start learning Latvian.
“I have Russian citizenship, I don't want to leave it like that. In the past, there was no need for Latvian citizenship. It was the political situation that we were forced to acquire citizenship. If it hadn't happened so, we would have continued to live as we lived. There is an absolutely Russian environment in Daugavpils. You won't hear the Latvian language anywhere. There was even no need to know and use it during those years. We could go to the shop, other institutions, and communicate in Russian,” said the Daugavpils resident.
For Anita, this is already the third time she has taken the exam, and she thinks the requirements for the naturalization exam are pretty high. “In the exam, if you don't know a word or say it wrong, if you say it in the wrong declension, you fail,” the woman said.
The tasks for testing the language proficiency specified in the Citizenship Law are designed to ascertain whether the language proficiency of the applicant for citizenship complies with the requirements of the Law. Citizenship and Migration Affairs Office (PMLP) spokeswoman Madara Puķe explained that according to the law, a person must be able to read and understand the Latvian language, fully understand municipal and official information, freely speak and respond to common topics, read and understand all ordinary instructions, as well as can write about simple topics.
Learning history is easier than language
Anita and Valentina both said that at such an age it was very difficult to learn even a few new words, not even to mention the language as a whole, because their memories are no longer that good.
The two women acknowledged that the knowledge test appears to be much easier than holding a conversation in Latvian and working with the text. The facts and the national anthem can be learned by heart, but the use of language is not so straightforward.
“Learning history is much easier. It is very bad that they do not let us take the history part if the language check has not been completed first, because I know the Latvian anthem,” Valentina said.
The naturalization exam first tests Latvian language skills. If they are appropriate, the knowledge of the text of the national anthem, the basic rules of the Constitution, the history of Latvia, and the cultural foundations are further examined. The test is designed so as not to exceed the general school program content and to be understood by the elderly. It contains ten questions about Latvia's history and cultural foundations and eight questions about the Constitution.
For the knowledge test to be successfully completed, at least seven points out of ten are required in the history and culture part, but five points out of eight in the basic questions on the Constitution and at least one point in the knowledge of the national anthem text must be acquired.
Municipalities do not fund courses
A woman who had come with Vyačeslavs also got involved in the conversation. She mentioned, as another important problem, that the Russian-speakers in Latgale were not offered language learning and practicing courses.
“If there is an offer, it costs money and it's very difficult to get in. There are no such options in Daugavpils and Rēzekne. If there were, we would gladly use them. It's in Rīga, but how can we get there?” the woman said, preferring to remain anonymous.
Indeed, in Daugavpils and Rēzekne Education Administrations, the portal LSM.lv confirmed that municipalities did not finance preparation courses for the naturalization exam.
The Education expert of the Daugavpils Municipal Education Administration Ilze Onzule said that in other years, free Latvian language courses were available in the city, which could also be attended by non-citizens. "Since 2012, Daugavpils City Council organizes Latvian language courses, where priority has always been given to people who want to acquire Latvian citizenship or language category. This year, this priority changed because it is no secret that as of September this year, the teaching process in pre-primary education and classes 1, 4, and 7 of basic education will only be implemented in Latvian,” said Onzule.
Daugavpils City Council now gives priority to parents and teachers to learn Latvian, so that, on September 1, children in schools and at home will be supported in learning Latvian.
“I believe that since 2012, ten years, these people [non-citizens] could learn the Latvian language at least twice for free. There have been opportunities to learn until now, but this year they are no longer,” said Onzule.
How much do the Latvian courses cost? For example, in Latgale Training Centre, the 120-hour program costs 290 euro for level A2. For level B2 required for the naturalization exam, the price is identical, but for extra money, there is an opportunity to learn in even more hours.
Meanwhile, Vyačeslavs and Anita took the exam and both failed.
“I knew I wasn't going to pass, because the language needs to be better. The questions were pretty simple, more about mundane things, housekeeping. I have a small vocabulary. I guess we'll have to live with Russian citizenship, I'm very sad about it, of course,” the Anita said after a third-time failure.
“I'm ashamed. In fact, it has a great impact on self-confidence. I was always top of the class in the school years, never having trouble passing an exam. Now I'm just reading the text, for example, about pets. I read and as it's as if everything is clear, but I don't know how to respond,” she said.