To Teach or Not to Teach Estonian? That is the Question. (12)

Photo: ERR News Labs
9/18/2013 1:00 PM
Category: Society

Kristina Kallas is a management member and Kristjan Kaldur an analyst at the Institute of Baltic Studies. The authors discuss their findings and the new direction of Estonia's language and integration policy, switching from a focus on Russians in Estonia to one on newly arriving immigrants.

Teaching the Estonian language for non-natives has been the foundation of Estonian integration policy for the last two decades. For example, in recent years language teaching has been given 6 million euros of support through the language learning development programs (in 2007-2010 and 2011-2013).

The new integration program, currently under development, marks the transformation of the emphasis in language teaching. Whereas the previously focus was only on teaching and on checking of language requirements, now the direction has been shifted to the promotion and use of language.

At the same time, there has also been a change in the target groups of the integration policy. So far the target of integration has been the Russian-speaking population (for well-known reasons), but recent years have marked the emergence of the question of the knowledge and use of Estonian language among a new target group: newly arrived immigrants.

In the context of the Estonian migration policy (which favors highly skilled immigrant workers and foreign students), the objective is to provide newly arrived immigrants a favourable living environment as well as to promote their integration. It's not news that language skills are one of the most important factors in the adaptation and integration of foreigners - the better the knowledge of the local language, the more secure the person feels in the country, the longer he intends to stay and the higher his overall satisfaction and integration in the society.

Yet learning the language is a very time-consuming and resource-consuming undertaking, both for the learner as well as for the implementer (in this case the Estonian state; and as for the expenses, the Estonian taxpayer). Learning the language is also stressful for both parties if success does not come as quickly as desired, and failure may leave serious scars on the self-esteem of the person. After all - and this is known to all of those who have once tried to learn a foreign language - language can't be learned quickly and easily. Much time and money will be spent and finally, if one throws in the towel, self-esteem suffers.

However, when leaving aside for a moment any discussion of the motivators (or the lack thereof) that might encourage foreigners to learn Estonian, we will focus on the targets that the country should set when teaching Estonian to immigrants. Is this group of newly arrived immigrants - many of whom probably won't stay in Estonia for too long a time - an important target group at all? Should the taxpayer's money be spent on teaching them Estonian? Perhaps it would be much cheaper to just print out English booklets with the minimally sufficient amount of information?

Unlike the Russian-speaking population, newly arrived immigrants are linguistically a very diverse group. Coming from all continents, they are on one hand highly skilled specialists, scientists and students and their family members, and on the other hand, and to a smaller degree, refugees.

In 2013, the Praxis Center for Policy Studies and the Institute of Baltic Studies carried out open forums on integration, called "Shared Future." In these discussions, it became apparent that for the newly arrived immigrants the knowledge of Estonian is part of cultural adaptation, and access to language teaching and its quality needs to be improved.

Both for newcomers as well as for the Russian-speaking population, the high costs of language courses are one of the main worries, but also the limited choice of English-based language courses and an uneven quality of courses that are available. Other concerns were the tediousness and bareness of teaching materials, and complaints were made over the fact that the choice of language teaching methods are quite often made by the teacher herself. It was emphasised that combining different courses could be much more consistent.

One of the major conclusions resulting from the open forums was that newly arrived immigrants in general are not yet ready to pay for their own Estonian language instruction. Here the question arises: whether and to what degree should the Estonian government bear the costs of teaching Estonian to foreigners?

The Estonian state has declared, as per its constitutional goal, that it will develop the state with unwavering faith, which should guarantee the preservation of the Estonian nation, language and culture through the ages. In addition, the Constitution of Estonia also states that the official language of Estonia is Estonian. Thus, it is quite explicitly written that the goal of the Estonian state is also to teach the language in which its culture is functioning.

However, in today's globalized world, the transmission of the language is not being done only through and by the Estonians, but this means also using it among all the people who live and work in Estonia. The group of newly arrived immigrants who come to Estonia to live and work is this one and equally important part of the people who are using this language in this land. During the Soviet period, the foreign power had no interest nor will to demand or teach the Estonian language to immigrants - this mistake should not be repeated by the Estonian state. Therefore, teaching the Estonian language, so to say at the cost of the state, is the activity in the integration policy that furthers the most important goal of our country.

Participants at the open forums came to the conclusion that despite the presence of native language speakers, it is still hard to create opportunities for practicing actively the Estonian language. In another words, Estonians are rather poor supporters of the language teaching to immigrants, because they tend to switch at the slightest opportunity to a foreign language.

It is most welcoming that much more attention has been paid to this issue in the new integration strategy. However, it is not yet very clear which concrete measures and activities will be carried out to support the practical use of the language. But it is important not to forget that using the language is essential not only for the learning of the language, but that it also provides means and possibilities to get closer to each other and to be mutually involved in the public participation process. This is especially important among the newly arrived immigrants, since there have been signs that making friends with Estonians is sometimes difficult.

Estonians obviously tend to communicate with each other in Estonian, and to become, so to say, one with them, one should be able to participate in Estonian-language discussions. The feeling of exclusion deriving from the lack of language skills leads to the same isolation experienced by the Russian speaking population. This is a very important signal coming from the open forums, to which much more attention should be paid. Whereas for years the main focus has been mainly on creating opportunities for language learning for the Russian speaking population, then now the focus should be on the newcomers. Thus, to teach or not to teach the Estonian language is (hopefully) not the question. The question is how to teach, and how much Estonians themselves - whether as taxpayers in financial terms or teachers in the classrooms - are willing to contribute to this process?

The authors drew their conclusions following the Open Forums on Integration, a project funded by the European Fund for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals, the Ministry of Culture and the Integration and Migration Foundation.


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