Culture minister: Language board could better protect Estonian language

Culture minister Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa).
Culture minister Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Speaking at Isamaa's extended board meeting in Tartu Saturday, culture minister Tõnis Lukas told ERR that there was a need for a government agency to help defend and protect the language, along the lines of the National Heritage Board (Muinsuskaitseamet), including the legal basis to do so, and replacing the existing inspectorate (Keeleinspektsioon), which can mostly only conduct checks and issue fines.

"The Inspectorate has less power at the moment than other departments. We want the [proposed language board] to be a strong fist, which would protect the Estonian language," he noted.

Continuous analysis, for instance in developments at higher education institutions which might be a threat to the Estonian language, is missing and needed, Lukas finds.

"It is vital to us that Estonian be the language of communication between peoples in Estonia, as it is that everyone has the right to an education in Estonian. If there are any threats, a language board would have more rights to intervene than the [current] language inspectorate," said Lukas.

The culture minister also noted that the proposed board would require a bigger budget than the existing language inspectorate, but saw this as necessary.

"This simply needs to be done, since we are at a turning point - we will either keep the Estonian language alive, or it will decline," he said, adding that he believes the current government would take the language issues increasingly seriously.

Creeping invasion of English requires intervention

The culture minister also said that Estonian language learning required a boost within the Russian-speaking population, as well as at the expense of the English language, which Lukas says constitutes an invasion.

In order to fulfil its aims, Isamaa, which has 12 seats at the 101-seat Riigikogu, intends to initiate the transition to Estonian-language education at local authority level, starting in Tallinn, Tartu and Haapsalu, and then elsewhere.

This should address a "creeping transition to the English language, which needs immediate intervention", according to the party, and would make an Estonian language proficiency requirement within a three-year period part of contractual obligations for foreign lecturers at higher education institutions, as well as making Estonian the mandatory language of administration at public higher education institutions.

"Over the next few years, the increasing share of English in Estonian-language curricula and business administration may become self-evident and it will be increasingly difficult to reverse this trend," an additional Isamaa statement on the issue said.

The "required level" would hinge on whether the lecturer or academic in question was teaching Estonian-speaking students or not, Lukas told ERR.

"(Every) lecturer coming here for an extended period of time should be able to communicate at an elementary level so that, for him or her, meetings at the institution, for example in English, are not required," Lukas said, noting that many higher education institutions already have the three-year proficiency clause in their contracts.

When asked how exactly the state could oblige universities to follow its line in contractual language requirements, Lukas told ERR that since universities have administrative contracts with the state, state funding terms can be written into these, including the language requirements noted above.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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