Engaging in exchange

Multilingualism is the goal

Until recently, Dr Heiko F. Marten ran the DAAD Information Centre in Riga. In our interview he talks about the importance of the German language in the Baltic states following the invasion of Ukraine and why it is important to protect minority languages.

Issue 1 | 2023

Interview: Sabine Giehle

Dr Marten, until recently you were the head of the DAAD Information Centre for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in Riga and have spent many years living in Scotland, Norway and the Baltic states. How important is the German language in the Baltic states?

German plays a significant role as a kind of supplementary language. In other words, many people speak it – even pretty well in many cases. German is the most important foreign language after English and Russian and traditionally an integral part of the school curriculum. German is viewed extremely positively.

Why is it important to promote the German language at the local level?

From the perspective of the Baltic countries, it is a matter of anchoring themselves even more firmly in Europe and the West, which is why they are keen to further strengthen their political and academic ties to Germany. For the Baltic states, Germany is the most important country in Europe – as well as being close in both cultural and geographical terms.

How has the war in Ukraine changed the relationship of the Baltic peoples to German?

Russian, whose role has always been highly ambivalent from a political perspective, has become noticeably less important. And Latvia for example has introduced a policy specifically aimed at greatly reducing the presence of Russian in schools. German is likely to profit from this. That said, people’s image of Germany suffered considerably following Russia’s attack because the German government’s position was seen as being overly cautious. At the same time, Germany is of course a very important partner. People wish that Germany would do even more for Ukraine, yet overall the relationship with Germany remains very positive.

You also studied minority languages such as Latgalian in the Baltic states. What situation does this old language find itself in and why is it important to study it?

Linguistic diversity is a positive thing in all kinds of respects: on a pragmatic level it enables communication, yet language also contains cultural information, traditions and customs passed down from one generation to the next, thereby helping one to understand a country and its people. At the same time, major languages are putting pressure on minor languages all over the world, with the result that the function of many of these languages is declining. Language must have a role, however; people must have the opportunity to live in this language. Latgalian is an old regional language that has its own writing tradition. It is not about distinguishing oneself from Latvian but about regional identity – it is comparable to the relationship between Low German and Standard German. Roughly a third of people in the Latgale region in the eastern part of Latvia still speak Latgalian.

You now work for the Leibniz Institute for the German Language in Mannheim where you engage with language policy, among other things. How do you view the international role played by German?

Language policy plays a far more subordinate role in Germany than it does in other countries. Related issues are often discussed under different labels – such as the role of Anglicisms, the current gender debate or within the framework of the discussion about immigration and integration. That said, the DAAD and other cultural mediator organisations do pursue an intensive German language policy internationally. This is not only a question of promoting the German language, however, but also of supporting German speakers with learning other languages. There are historical and quite understandable reasons why Germany is less forceful in its efforts to push German than for example France is with French, though there is no need for false modesty. Ultimately, multilingualism is the goal.

About the researcher

Dr Heiko F. Marten was Director of the DAAD Information Centre for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in Riga until 2022 and is now a research associate at the Leibniz Institute for the German Language (IDS) where he is responsible for “Language Minority and Majority Constellations including German”. Besides English, he has a good command of Norwegian, Danish, Latvian and French, and also speaks some Estonian and Spanish.