Marju Himma: National university threatened by poor grasp of Estonian

Marju Himma.
Marju Himma. Source: Kairit Leibold /ERR

The national or Estonian-speaking university recently celebrated its centennial. The anniversary will see debates on the situation of Estonian higher education and research. Whether the onslaught of foreign languages places it in jeopardy? Do researchers still communicate the results of their work in Estonian? To what extent does the trend of internationalization endanger it, Marju Himma asks in Vikerraadio's media comment.

A hundred years ago, foreigners made up 10 percent of the student body of the Estonian-speaking university. That said, the university had fewer than 350 students altogether back then. The University of Tartu has 1,660 foreign students this academic year. That makes up 12 percent of the university's over 13,000 students. Of the university's teaching and research staff of 190 people, 12 percent are foreigners.

But these figures are not important at the end of the day because the background of people who study or teach at the university plays no role in whether Estonian higher education and research will endure.

Rector Toomas Asser said at the national university's centennial ceremony: "A high-level Estonian proficiency is the best way to overturn the growing black and white conviction that internationalization is a threat to the survival of the Estonian language. Of all Estonian students admitted to the University of Tartu this year, 96 percent study in Estonian. Is it really a credible threat to our mother tongue when the remaining 4 percent study in English?"

Let us recall how the Estonian university of 1919 had been exclusively Latin, German and Russian-speaking in the past. This suggests that the language the scholars use to exchange ideas is not important. What is important is whether they can communicate this knowledge in Estonian.

That is why the part of Asser's speech about the survival of the Estonian language spoke to me. I communicate closely with Estonian scientists and see a deepening problem. Every year, we have more people pursuing top-level research, while the Estonian they use is full of officialese and Estinglish, sentences are full of meaningless words and their word order random, making it quite impossible to understand what's being said.

It is not a question of authors overusing technical terms or failing to explain them. The problem is basic Estonian proficiency. The versatility of vocabulary or rather lack thereof.

It starts in basic school. The less children and young people read texts in Estonian and the more they watch English content, the poorer their ability to form clear and expressive sentences in Estonian.

And it shows in how young researchers make use of language.

A national party has proposed making writing doctoral theses in Estonian or at least translating them into Estonian mandatory. I'm not in favor of that. A doctoral thesis is a specific form of communicating research results that is first and foremost meant to be understood and appraised by other scientists.

The ordinary person must be able to grasp a summary in Estonian. However, the latter are often linguistically unvaried, sentences therein too long and full of meaningless words. The influence of English sees them riddled with nominalizations.

Let us take for example the sentence: "In human research involving physical or psychological intervention, ensuring participants have information happens in the form of asking for informed consent, or asking for consent based on previously communicated information." The words that make up the sentence are simple, but the officialese expression makes them difficult to understand.

I would "translate" the meaning as follows: people who participate in physical or psychological studies will be given information by the researcher when they are asked for their consent to participate.

Even though all undergraduate students must take a written and verbal self-expression class, simply brushing up on Estonian grammar is not enough in a situation where one needs to express themselves verbally and in writing in clear and versatile Estonian. Including the use of synonyms and metaphors that lend language variety.

Language is a tool that needs to be developed and constantly conditioned. Researchers and professors must brush up on recent research.

It is equally important they train themselves to be able to communicate the results in Estonian. Whether in the form of a newspaper article, blog entry, lecture or a popular-scientific appearance at a school – they all develop and condition language and help mediate the findings of science to society.

The language the original research is written in or the one used by researchers doesn't really matter that much. I believe that the Estonian-language university will only be fine once our students, teachers and researchers realize the importance of being able to express themselves in beautiful and clear Estonian and work toward it every day.


Download the ERR News app for Android and iOS now and never miss an update!

Editor: Marcus Turovski

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: