Estonia prepares for language changeover in Russian-medium schools

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Feb 3 18:17:17 UTC 2005

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Forwarded from Eurolang

Estonia prepares for language changeover in Russian-medium schools
Tallinn 1/31/2005 , by Alexander Shegedin

Estonia is following Latvia's example over education in Estonia's
Russian-medium schools. As a result, 60% of subjects in these schools will
be taught in Estonian and only 40% in other languages, that is Russian.
The reform will take effect in 2007, but according to a new opinion poll,
some teachers, parents and schoolchildren oppose the reform.

In the course of reform some exceptions will be made, said Minister of
Justice Ken-Marti Vaher. However, it is quite hard to understand what kind
of exceptions the Minister means. According to reform regulations,
municipal schools may ask the community councils to delay the changeover
to 60% Estonian-medium teaching only if they are not properly prepared for
it. Then the community councils, if they agree, have to apply for
permission to delay.

The language changeover problem is highly politicized and pressure for it
from central government is very strong. Furthermore, teachers and schools
directors are dependent on the Ministry of Education and fear being fired
if they oppose reform.

The school reform in Estonia will be implemented gradually. In 2006 twenty
Russian schools will pass through a language immersion system. It means
that about 500 Russian-speaking children will receive education in
Estonian-only from the 6th grade.

In 2007, the reform covers mainly pupils from the 9th grade, who, while
continuing their education, pass from basic school to gymnasia. They
number around 5,000 pupils. From 2008, the 60/40 scheme is compulsory for
10th and 11th grades, and for the 12th grade in 2009.

The main problem is the shortage of Russian-speaking teachers who can
teach subjects (especially natural sciences) in Estonian. The opponents of
reform predict a severe deterioration of education for Russian-speaking
schoolchildren. Northeastern Estonia, near the border with Russia, is the
most problematic region. For example, about 95% of the population of Narva
are ethnic Russians, and they practically have no language skills in

The Estonian Language Inspectorate (ELI) constantly check Russian-language
teachers command of Estonian. In January the ELI continued inspecting
Russians schools in northeast region. Inspectorate officers had examined
55 teachers from the Ahtme gymnasia in the town of Kohtla-Jarve. 49
teachers failed to pass the Estonian language tests. According to Estonian
legislation, these teachers are violating the Law on Language and,
therefore, they may be fired or fined. If fined, they then have an
obligation to learn Estonian and pass the special exam. For these cases
the ELI has set a deadline for January 1st 2006.

There is some progress, and we are glad to see any small step forward, but
in general, the command of Estonian, as demonstrated by teachers, is
surely not good enough, said Leho Klaser, Chief inspector of the ELI.

Perhaps surprisingly, according to the latest opinion poll conducted by
research company EMOR, 83% of Russian schools directors and 71% of
teachers welcome the reform. The poll covers 82 directors and 239 teachers
at 82 Russian-medium schools.

Some subjects are already taught through Estonian in 68 of these schools
(83%), and 72% of the schools are going to extend the number of subjects
taught in Estonian next year. The lowest use of Estonian-medium teaching
is in the northeastern schools. Only 23 of 31 schools in this region have
any kind of Estonian language education.

However, the poll is a little misleading. Estonian is used in Russian
schools mostly on subjects such as labour training, gymnastics, and music
while chemistry and physics continue to be taught in Russian.

As the poll shows, the choice of Russian or Estonian language depends on
the availability of the Estonian-speaking teacher for a given subject in
the school, but not at the pupils or their parents request. A great
majority of them want Estonian-language teaching only for such subjects as
Estonian literature and Estonian culture.

Also, while parents and pupils consider command of Estonian as very
important, they do not see the need to change school subjects to Estonian
medium. In additon, according to the poll, only 31% of teachers said they
are ready in general to teach subjects in Estonian.

Only 8% of Russian schools directors share an optimistic approach to
reform and consider it necessary, 63% think it in principle necessary, but
a difficult decision, and 29% directors are pessimists, who are against
reform because of its difficulties and, as they see it, irrelevance.

The launch of school reforms in Latvia provoked the strong growth of
interethnic tensions in the summer and autumn of 2004. Estonian
authorities hope to prevent similar tensions by launching reforms step by
step. About one third of Estonian residents are Russian-speakers.
(Eurolang 2005)

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