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Thread: Linguistic situation in Riga

  1. #1
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    Linguistic situation in Riga


    I may have, next year, the opportunity to spend a period in Riga, and since I am studying Russian I want to ask to who has been there (or, even better, is Latvian) how much is Russian language spoken in this city, expecially among younger people.

    Is this a kind of city where you can linguistically " feel " almost like you are in Russia (like in Belarus or some Ukranian cities) or not?
    What to expect?

    In short, is it realistic to hope to improve your Russian in Riga?


  2. #2
    I've been there a few times. Realistically, it's bilingual city and the mother tongue split for Riga itself, is probably 50 - 50.

    It does not feel like Ukraine or Belarus. It feels like a mix of any city on the Baltic sea (architecturally) and from the looks of people, also a little bit Scandinavian. Also there is German influence and a fair bit Soviet architecture. It's a quite sympathetic mix really.

    All official signs are in Latvian only though. But about half of the people are speaking Russian between themselves.

    As you may have heard, Latvia is trying to ignore the fact that close to 40% of the population have Russian as their mother tongue. There is a bit of politics around this question and you'll be surprised how many Russian speakers live there, with seemingly no consideration to their language preference on road signs, commercial signs etc.

    They are very tourist oriented in Old Riga and will speak English/Russian and sometimes German as needed , with tourists who are spending money. Baltic people are very good at foreign languages. A lot of people want to practice/show off their skills in English or German and will be just as keen to speak to a foreigner in these languages, as you are to practice Russian!

    The market is run by almost only Russian speaking people.
    These market vendors were the first Russian speakers who could easily guess that I was Swedish from looks and accent when I spoke Russian. Apparently tons of Swedes turn up at this market and practice scraggly Russian skills there. These people do not speak English, so it's a good place to practice Russian. Good value for money, friendly vendors and a large selection of stuff available - pretty good market.

    As for the rest of it; I think the city is split into Latvian and Russian speaking areas, with some overlaps. For example; in the area where my hotel was located, all local people were speaking Russian in shops and between themselves, whereas in the city centre I heard more Latvian spoken. So if you are going to stay there long term, just find out which areas are fully Russian speaking and get a flat there. To some degree you can guess from people's facial features and sometimes their style if they are Russian speakers or Latvian speakers. Probably locals have a good radar for this. I was in Liepaja too, and there it was totally impossible to tell any physical difference between the groups. For some reason it was easier in Riga.

    Young Russian speakers in the Baltic states are more or less bilingual though; and 35+ aged Latvians speak Russian to a near native level. Personally I couldn't tell that they were not native speakers.

    If you want to be in a Russian speaking environment, in the EU / Baltic states, then go to Daugavpils in Southern Latvia. Rather nice city and it's more or less fully Russian speaking. Not street signs though, but all the people are speaking Russian between themselves. That city feels quite a bit like Belarus which is nearby.

    No doubt you can take private Russian tuition while in Riga. If you plan your social life accordingly you can spend your free time with native Russian speakers.
    Lampada and Basil77 like this.

  3. #3
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    you meant the Riga central market right?

    thanks for the tips

    p.s. Apart from the vendors did you always try to speak to them in Russian and then if necessary switch to English? Did they ever frown at you because you started a conversation in Russian?

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by klopp View Post
    you meant the Riga central market right?

    thanks for the tips

    p.s. Apart from the vendors did you always try to speak to them in Russian and then if necessary switch to English? Did they ever frown at you because you started a conversation in Russian?
    Nope, nobody switched to English. They can hear I have a foreign accent so whatever ideas they have about it doesn't apply to me. I just tried to communicate with people. As far as I was concerned I could have spoken English but in general they are much better at Russian. For my main stay there, I was mainly just in Latvia to get a suntan on the beach, mull over a few things and check out Riga... I didn't care massively what language I spoke there, but it ended up being Russian.

    Twice I had a problem: Once I hadn't bought a ticket for the tram. The conductor had a right go at me and I think she believed I was faked poor Russian and no Latvian. She wouldn't have a second of it and told me off in both languages. I ended up just paying the penalty fee.

    The other time, I went into the optician. When the optician (a young woman) noticed that I was struggling in Russian, she switched to English and was totally delighted for the opportunity to practice.

    I think they reserve any negative feelings they have about the Russian language for actual Russians.
    Nobody expressed any views or comments on my language skills.
    Twice I witnessed some very insensitive and rude behavoiur towards native Russian speakers.

    It's obvious that the majority (60%) take out their historical grievances against Russia on the Russian speaking part of the population without reflecting on how unfair and illogical that is.

    The other thing is that most people speak quite poor English and it's just not an option for them to switch to English. Whereas most people speak Russian to a very good standard. I think everyone above 30 is at near native level. I spoke to some teenage boys who spoke better Russian than English, but I their vocabulary in Russian was not much better than mine.

    Be aware that occasionally people will try and charge you higher prices when they realise you are from Western Europe. Either check the price beforehand do a bit of research, or accept that you might end up paying double for un-marked items. This didn't happen to me in Ukraine or Belarus, that I noticed, but it happened a few times in Latvia and it took a while before I clued up to it.

    The other thing that surprised me as I was spending a month and a bit in Latvia was how much poverty there is. I had read a lot about the "Latvian miracle" and sure, I saw some expensive sports cars in Riga. But the rest of the people were definitely quite poor (comparatively). The countryside was in worse shape than for example Belarus. Lots of regular perfectly competent people seemed to be out of work. You'll see "EU sponsored project" signs just about everywhere. There are lots of dilapidated buildings, and there are Russian speaking people around who live in old army housing in absolutely squalid conditions. There is a Stockmann department store in Riga that sells the regular European brands of clothes and electronics. Most people shopping there were Scandinavians, Germans and Russians from Russia. Regular people get their clothes from low price outlets and the market.

    Also: Be a bit decent and allow nice people who ask for it to practice English with you. It may be their only opportunity.
    Or give it a go for five minutes and then switch over.

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