Linguists want to keep separate mother tongue question in population census

September 1st marked the traditional first day of school for children entering into the first grade across Estonia.
September 1st marked the traditional first day of school for children entering into the first grade across Estonia.

The national population census is the most reliable way to gather data on the mother tongue of Estonia's inhabitants, linguistics academics say.

While previous population censuses have been specifically polled respondents on their mother tongue, this is not planned for the next survey in 2021.

In an appeal to the Minister of Population Riina Solman (Isamaa), the academics write that according to the current plan, there would be an entry in next year's survey where all languages a person can speak, including their mother tongue, need to be noted. A special question which would reveal if the person considers themselves as having one mother tongue or two, however, is not planned.

The letter notes that this question - largely pertaining to bilingual Estonian and Russian speakers, but also to minority languages such as Seto and Võru - has been asked in every census since 1959.

"Data, which is gathered through the surveys, allow us to see to what extent language changes in Estonia are happening, as speakers of smaller languages are changing their definition for the benefit of more widely-spoken languages. The data gathered during the population census is actually the only source which allows for identifying such shifts," the appearl reads, according to ERR's online Estonian news.

In addition, the linguists said that based on this data, the Estonian language development plan for 2021-2035 can be evaluated. Adequate language information helps to assign the funding of language and education politics areas, they claim.

Signatories were head of the Insitute of the Estonian Language (Eesti Keele Instituut), Arvi Tavast, head of Language Council (Keelenõukogu) Birute Klaas-Lang, Doctor Margit Langemets, Representative of the Association for Applied Linguistics (Rakenduslingvistika ühing), Professor Helle Metslang of the Mother Tongue Society (Emakeele Selts), Professor Reili Argus of the Institute of Humanities at Tallinn University, Professor Karl Pajusalu of the Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics at the University of Tartu and Rainer Kuuba from the Võru Institute.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino, Andrew Whyte

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