Opinion: The decline of Estonian as a language of science starts abroad ({{commentsTotal}})

The Estonian language as a language of science is only sustainable in those subject areas that offer undergraduate courses in Estonian, and with which students begin their university education, finds ERR science portal editor Marju Himma.

Every time the universities come up with the idea to add or change a curriculum into English, a few articles appear in the media about how studies in English slow down science based on the Estonian language. Sooner or later, the debate typically leads to the conclusion that graduate and post-graduate degrees should preferably be completed in Estonian.

Drawing on work with young scientists, one can say that Estonia is pulled in two directions. On one hand it is pulled towards Tallinn, together with Harju County. And on the other, it is pulled towards places abroad. And that’s where the disappearance of Estonian-language science begins.

A recent example from a competition for young scientists in Brussels is telling. There were 139 participants fresh out of secondary schools in 40 different countries. They competed with their schools’ science projects. Over three days, I managed to talk to more than half of them, all of them doubtlessly more intelligent and studied than the average student.

About a third of them had just graduated secondary school, and a third had already chosen a subject. And then there was that third that had consciously decided to take a one-year break after school. To the question why they didn’t immediately move on to university, most answered that they needed to choose carefully, and that to do that, they needed to take time off.

The first two groups, secondary school graduates and undergraduate students, have one thing in common: They want to go abroad. And Estonia isn’t an exception here, out of three Estonian participants, two are studying abroad, namely in Aarhus and Manchester.

Talking to students from Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Portugal, Poland, Slovenia, and several other countries, the answer I got was the same. The majority want to go and study at a renowned university abroad.

The fact that getting into such a university requires them to pass exams and show outstanding dedication to their secondary school studies doesn’t deter them, the fact that life abroad will cost a lot more than life in Tallinn or Tartu even less. They are making their choice based on which university tells them very clearly what exactly it teaches, and where the acquired skills can be applied later on.

These youngsters make their decision to study based on interest, deep personal interest for a particular subject. That there might not be a subject area that directly corresponds to their interest doesn’t keep them from pursuing it: If needed, they will study higher mathematics and physics by means of freely available materials of leading universities.

The case of Kristjan Kongas illustrates this fact. Graduating secondary school, Kongas wrote his final paper based on just this kind of material, and did it almost completely independently.

Why is all of this important, and how does it relate to the disappearance of science in Estonian?

Basic knowledge of a subject, along with the necessary terminology, is acquired in undergraduate studies. If these studies are in Estonian, this requires the Estonification of the particular terminology. Estonian teaching materials are part of what is keeping science in Estonian alive.

There’s nothing wrong with offering studies in a particular subject in English if undergraduate studies in Estonian precede them. The majority of undergraduate final papers then are in Estonian, which implies the need to express the result of one’s research in Estonian and use the according terms.

As far as doctoral theses are concerned, translating a candidate’s three academic papers published in English into Estonian, without there being an immediate necessity, doesn’t seem reasonable. The requirement of an Estonian-language summary, that the teaching is done in Estonian, and that the students are guided in Estonian seems enough to keep a certain subject area’s Estonian terminology up to date.

But returning to that second direction in which Estonian students and scientists are moving, namely abroad, the most beneficial thing to do to preserve the science in Estonian would be to make sure that the students acquire their base knowledge here. In other words, make sure that undergraduate studies are in Estonian.

This way, moving on from Estonia to graduate and post-graduate studies abroad, students have the subject-specific Estonian vocabulary that they can round off with what they learn in the future.

In addition, this gives them the opportunity to get to know the Estonian education system, its scientific community, and its teachers, with whom they can work later on, and of course their fellow students, who might one day become colleagues.

Without these connections and acquaintances, returning to Estonia after studies abroad is difficult and won’t seem very motivating, as these graduates won’t know the local situation, people, or the specific language of their subject.

Where do Estonian youngsters as well as those of many other European countries want to start out then?

According to what was just described, they want to start out abroad.

Granted, it would seem that the universities working on the principle of general access won’t have trouble finding students any time soon. For the majority, mediocrity will do. But the more successful and more highly motivated students are looking abroad. And they make their decisions not only based on their interest in the subjects they want to study, but also based on the knowledge they can acquire to build on in the future.

But do Estonian institutions of higher education stress these aspects? Do you know anyone who went to an Estonian university for the reason that thousands of others studied there?

If a student is interested in a particular subject, it would be reasonable to tell them about its strengths. For instance by saying: “You can specialize in physical chemistry, where we are currently the world leaders in superconductor development, and where we urgently need chemists.”

Or by saying: “In cyber defense, you master IT solutions that help defend different countries in the case of a cyber war, and Estonia is the best place in the world to study this.” Or why not tell someone potentially going for Estonian studies that for the language to survive and thrive, copy editors and scientists are needed that do research for its development?

All of these things can be learned at our universities. To say nothing of the economic advantages they offer, like accommodation, reduced prices, international studies, and career consulting, which organizationally are just as important to a prospective student.

The universities of Aarhus and Manchester stress these last points as well. Yes, they’re also busy with their position in the worldwide university rankings, but don’t give it any priority.

But looking at their websites, our universities for some reason first tell entrants about the age of the school and its number of students. Again, do you know anyone who entered one of those universities because there were thousands of others studying there?

And if we now turn back to the original core of this story, namely sciences in Estonian, we see that a lot of what students go abroad for is available right here. The problem is that it is offered in the wrong kind of language.

To make sure that science is sustainable in Estonian, we need to get to a point where youngsters about to graduate secondary school want to continue their studies here, at least for the time being. The local undergraduate studies need to be made more attractive.

Studying at Estonian universities offers substantially the same education as is available abroad. But to attract students, the universities need to start thinking like students, about what they actually show an interest for, and how to respond to that interest.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn

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