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At today’s sitting, the Riigikogu discussed challenges in transitioning to Estonian as the language of instruction as a matter of significant national importance. The discussion had been initiated by the Study Committee on the Development of Estonian Language Instruction.

The Chairman of the Study Committee on the Development of Estonian Language Instruction Jürgen Ligi laid out the timeline of the decisions connected to transitioning to Estonian as the language of instruction. He stressed that studying Estonian as a language was not enough but that we also needed Estonian-medium education to prevent polarisation. Ligi admitted that the road to the transition had been long. “Indeed, big changes are not possible before the majority of the political community agrees to these, more pressure is created by the general public, and there is awareness of the depth of the problem,” the Chairman of the Study Committee noted.

In response to questions, Ligi stated that the decision was now final and that the transition would benefit the Russian speaking community the most but would also improve social cohesion. “We have now come to the practical challenges of implementation where the Riigikogu has little to do other than exercising supervision. This is where school operators, Ministry of Education, parents, and school councils get to work,” Ligi said. He admitted that the situation was not without its complications but that any alternatives would be much worse. Future success depends on strong planning and implementation.

The Chair of the Estonian Language Council and Head of the Department of Applied Linguistics in the Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics of the University of Tartu Birute Klaas-Lang, who is also a Professor of Estonian as Foreign Language, said that although 76% of the Estonian population spoke a foreign language, 40% of the residents from other ethnic groups did not speak Estonian, as shown by the last census. She sees huge problems with segregation in Tallinn. Klaas-Lang compared the transition processes in Estonia and Latvia, where the transition to general education in the official language will be completed in 2025.

Klaas-Lang spoke about a survey conducted among the students at the University of Tartu who had passed the state examination of Estonian as the second language with excellent marks. The responses showed that the current 60–40 studies are not working and that the Estonian medium instruction in bilingual schools might not be conducted in Estonian. She emphasised that the Estonian language skills depended on the interdependent impacts of the language environment, school, and motivation.

The Professor sees a huge problem in the vague impression that schools and educational institutions have of transitioning to Estonian as the language of instruction. There are myths circulating in schools about studying in a different language, such as the impossibility of speaking a different language in school and at home. Klaas-Land also evoked the need to explain the topic better to the teachers and to improve their language awareness. She stressed that every teacher of a Russian-medium school or kindergarten needed to be approached individually to discuss their career path because many of them were worried of being demoted to assistant teachers because they felt that they would be unable to learn the language. There are also teachers who have very high language skills but who are scared to speak the language.

Klaas-Lang emphasised that home had the biggest impact on a student, which is why parental support would be vital during the transition process. The parents want their children to become fluent in Estonian but are also afraid that this would disconnect them from the Russian identity, language, and culture. “This is where we all have a lot of work to do, explaining that the national identity can be different from ethnic identity, that these cannot be the same and that this is not even expected.”

Associate Professor of Estonian as Foreign Language in the Department of Applied Linguistics of the Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics of the University of Tartu Mare Kitsnik focused her report on the three pillars of school education, which are study methodology, learning materials, and teachers.

As far as methodology is concerned, students should be able to communicate with each other as much as possible, i.e. learning should be communicative, meaning that the teacher must create an atmosphere where the students can also be active and use Estonian a lot. Kitsnik added that the language should be used outside the school but definitely in the school as well. Learning must also be interesting for the target group and correspond to their abilities. “If learning is not made interesting for the target group, the material will largely go in one ear and out of the other. We need to find the appropriate teaching method for each age group,” Kitsnik said. She added that teachers needed to assess the abilities of the children and adapt their teaching methods accordingly. Kitsnik admitted that this was a challenge to subject teachers who had only taught native Estonian speakers so far.

The schools have the learning materials but a lot of these are not communicative or interesting. We should develop learning materials that are modern, linked to everyday life, captivating, and communicative, and we need additional materials that would help students learn from the schoolbooks. However, we need professionals who can put together the study materials, and this would take at least a year and a half in itself.

Concerning teachers and their training, the numbers have increased slightly this year, which is a positive sign, and micro degrees are underway, although these need to be developed further. Training for teachers of Estonian as second language could be improved by a better instruction in the principles and didactics of learning a second language. The conductors of the training also need systematic training themselves. Universities need new lecturers with practical experiences and a relevant doctoral degree.

The Head of Narva Estonian State Secondary School Irene Käosaar explained that the objective had been to open a school that would bring together children from both the Estonian and Russian speaking communities. She added that this was an Estonian medium school where only a negligible percentage of students came from Estonian speaking homes. Käosaar focused her report on the school, the environment, and the reasons why teachers were leaving the school.

Although teachers are clearly vital for transitioning to Estonian as the language of instruction and they need to be professionals, it is possible to introduce a wider instruction in Estonian and a broader daily use of it even if some of the teachers are missing. Teachers need space to develop, and meaningful and well thought out work. The school operator should be a demanding but supportive creator of opportunities.

Käosaar emphasised how important it was for the whole school to occupy the same value space, which would allow the parents and students to understand what was being done and why, and what was their role in that. “The graduates must have learning skills, self-determination, future skills, they must be able to manage their own time and choices. They must be wholesome, optimistic, health conscious, with a faith in their future and big dreams. To change the world, they must definitely have knowledge and skills, attitudes and values, courage, foreign languages, and, needless to say, curiosity. All this is what we also talk about when we talk about Estonian language of instruction,” Käosaar said to highlight the importance of school culture and value space.

During the debate, Toomas Jürgenstein (Social Democratic Party), Jaak Valge (Estonian Conservative People’s Party), Üllar Saaremaa (Isamaa), Margit Sutrop (Reform Party), and Maria Jufereva-Skuratovski (Centre Party) took the floor on behalf of their factions. Member of the Riigikogu Mihhail Stalnuhhin, Maris Lauri (Reform Party Faction), Peeter Ernits (Estonian Conservative People’s Party Faction), Eduard Odinets (Social Democratic Party Faction), and Tarmo Kruusimäe (Faction Isamaa) also spoke.

Verbatim record of the sitting (in Estonian)

Photos of the sitting (Author: Erik Peinar, Chancellery of the Riigikogu)

The video recording of the sitting will be available to watch later on the Riigikogu YouTube channel.
(Please note that the recording will be uploaded with a delay.)

Riigikogu Press Service
Merilin Kruuse
Phone: +372 631 6592, +372 510 6179
E-mail [email protected]
Questions [email protected]