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Today, the Riigikogu deliberated the matter of significant national importance “The situation around teaching Estonian language in schools with other languages of instruction (insight of the Study Committee on the Development of Estonian Language Instruction)”, initiated by the Study Committee on the Development of Estonian Language Instruction.

Tiiu Kuurme, Associate Professor of Educational Sciences at the School of Educational Sciences of Tallinn University, Birute Klaas-Lang, Professor of Estonian as Foreign Language at the University of Tartu, and Mihhail Stalnuhhin, Chairman of the Study Committee on the Development of Estonian Language Instruction, made reports.

Associate Professor of Educational Sciences Tiiu Kuurme emphasised that language training was not just about technologies. “This is a question of collective experience, you could even call it a collective traumatic experiences, attitudes, and, of course, by default, the tradition of homes,” she said. The educationalist sees our national case as a success story. “We do not have a conflict between the Russian and the Estonian speaking communities. Many native Russian speakers want to study Estonian and an increasing number of Russian parents want to send their children to Estonian medium schools,” she said. “And yet the Estonian community is still feeling that their survival is in jeopardy. There are concerns about the status quo in Estonian language skills,” she added.

Kuurme spoke at length of the RITA-ränne project and its uniform Estonian school models. The Associate Professor raised the issue of the future outlooks and preservation of the Estonian culture.

Kuurme emphasised that the preservation and prospering of a language and culture depends very strongly on the deep internal wish of the natives to the culture, their spiritual power, emotional qualities, pride and love for their language, and perception of their language as an integral part of their being. “It is clear that we cannot expect the new residents to Estonia fully comprehend what the Estonian language means for us,” she said.

Professor of Estonian as Foreign Language at the University of Tartu Birute Klaas-Lang spoke about the education of teachers of Estonian as second language, as well as about expectations and needs for changing teacher training.

The Professor has noted a deterioration in the Estonian language skills of native Russian speaking youth over the past two years, but particularly over the pandemic. While in 2020, the average exam result of Estonian as a second language was 67.8 points, this year it has fallen to 63.5 points. “I feel very sad for our young people. Young people graduate from the gymnasium without being actually ready to continue their education in Estonian, or ready to work anywhere outside their Russian speaking bubble,” Klaas-Lang said.

In her opinion, another problem is that the local governments can choose the language of instruction at the basic education level – if the local government so decides, this can well be Russian. The Professor referred to Latvia as a positive example: three bilingual education models are used from grade one, from grade seven practically everything is taught in Latvian, and the gymnasium level is completely taught in Latvian.

The schools with other languages of instruction are more successful if they are trying to ensure an Estonian communication space in addition to teaching Estonian, either by integrating language studies with subject studies, or in the shape of various projects. “I firmly believe that a language is learned through use,” she added. The Professor also sees a problem in the language skills of teachers in Russian-medium schools – very few have at least C1 level Estonian language skills or are native Estonian speakers.

Klaas-Lang also presented proposals that would support students with a different native language in Estonian medium schools, and would also make learning Estonian as a second language in a different medium school more efficient. She stressed the importance of ensuring that subject teachers had language teacher competences, and that teacher training should be enhanced with courses that train the ability to work in a multicultural classroom and offer support to students with a different mother tongue to study other subjects in Estonian. “Any subject teacher is also a language teacher,” Klaas-Lang emphasised.

The Professor feels that we also need to develop a module of Russian langue and culture for native Russian speakers who go to Estonian medium schools, along with the relevant study materials. She also sees a need to introduce a compulsory minimum amount of subjects studied in Estonian in all basic schools with a different instruction medium. Klaas-Lang emphasised the need for a precise schedule and agenda for transitioning the Estonian school system to the Estonian language of instruction.

The report of the Chairman of the Study Committee on the Development of Estonian Language Instruction Mihhail Stalnuhhin synthesised all the conclusions drawn by the Study Committee, and touched on the challenges in language policy.

The Chairman of the Committee spoke about how 20 years ago the Riigikogu plenary shone a light on problems that needed to be resolved to allow a successful teaching and learning of Estonian in Russian medium schools. “20 years later I am sad to admit that all the problems whose quick resolution I was talking about at the time are still alive and kicking, and that there is no indication that someone is working on putting an end to them,” he said.

Stalnuhhin listed three main challenges to teaching Estonian – the quality of the study materials, the lack of a common methodology, and the preparation of teachers of Estonian as a second language.

He presented the proposals of the Study Committee that would help to improve the teaching of Estonian in schools with other languages of instruction. The Study Committee sees a need to create working groups of competent specialists to develop methods, study materials, etc. Stalnuhhin also called for a state supervision over the quality of the study materials and for extraordinary measures to prepare Estonian language teachers.

The Committee thinks that the curricula for “Estonian language teacher in school with a different language of instruction” need to be developed in cooperation with universities, and these must be assured state financing in the sufficient amount to satisfy the need across the country. Finally, a competence council needs to be formed as soon as possible of experts, practicians, and politicians, which would take responsibility for the implementation of the proposals and would conduct its work publicly.

During the debate, Jürgen Ligi (Reform Party), Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa), Jaak Valge (Estonian Conservative People’s Party), Eduard Odinets (Social Democratic Party), Peeter Ernits (Estonian Conservative People’s Party), Andrei Korobeinik, (Centre Party), Heiki Hepner (Isamaa), Margit Sutrop (Reform Party), Mihhail Lotman (Isamaa), and Tarmo Kruusimäe (Isamaa) took the floor.

Verbatim record of the sitting (in Estonian)

Video recordings of the sittings of the Riigikogu can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/riigikogu.
(Please note that the recording will be uploaded with a delay.)

Riigikogu Press Service
Liisa Johanna Lukk
Phone: +372 631 6456, +372 53 310 789
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