Education minister wants support for Russian children learning Estonian

The Estonian Language House opened on Wednesday.
The Estonian Language House opened on Wednesday. Source: ERR

New Minister of Education and Research Liina Kersna (Reform) wants to find finances from the state budget to support learning in Estonian as the national language in those schools where there are many Russian-speaking students. The educational institutions are fully supporting the idea, ERR reports.

Estonian-language education is a central Reform Party policy, but the party is now in coalition with Center, whose support base has traditionally included the bulk of Estonia's Russian-speaking voters. This support has been diminishing in recent years, however.

In the (Latvian-Estonian) border city of Valga, there are a lot of Russian-speaking and bilingual families. There are four nurseries in the city, of which three are Estonian-language, and the fourth Russian. However, many Russian and bilingual families want to place their children in the Estonian nursery.

"The situation is that about 50 percent of the children are from bilingual or Russian families, while some are Latvian," the principal of the Valga's Estonian nursery, Maila Rajamets, said. Valga lies right on the border and is twinned with a Latvian town of the same name, Valka.

Rajamets admitted that the skill in speaking Estonian isn't the same for all children - some children from mixed families speak better Estonian, and some worse. This difference makes it more complicated when acquiring the curriculum in Estonian.

"Then they don't understand, will disturb each other. It is good when a child comes straight to the first nursery group and then gradually move on. Acquiring the language is definitely different for children," Rajamets said.

There have been enough finances to purchase language learning tools, but more Estonian language teachers are needed.

"We are lacking human resources. The situation is complicated, we are a border city," Rajamets said referring to the fact that there not many people interested in coming to teach Estonian in Valga.

"We only have a less than half-time Estonian teacher who plays with the older group Russian children," Rajamets said.

This means that every week, the young and energetic teacher plays Estonian games with the Russian children for three-and-a-half hours, which supports learning the language. Children like this a lot, she says. However, the need is bigger than this provides. The nursery has asked the city to raise the workload of the Estonian teacher, but the city hasn't been able to find the necessary finances.

Additionally, there is one full-time music teacher who also teaches non-Estonian children. The nursery is grateful that the city has been able to offer them that.

Rajamets thinks that there should be fewer non-Estonian children in a group for them to learn Estonian quicker. But the nursery can't decide this.

"It is difficult to regulate it that we won't take you because you are non-Estonian and the quota is full - the groups form as they form, there are groups where more than a half of the children are non-Estonian. And then they. Then they form groups and speak in Russian with each other, this is their mother tongue. Some children are in both groups who speak better Estonian," Rajamets said.

She finds that the state's attention to regions where are more Russian families, like Valga and Ida-Viru County, would be very necessary.

Russian children need support because without speaking the language, they are slower and stay behind other children. This decreases motivation and complicates acquiring the language for the whole group.

"When they are together with Estonian children, he comes to the group at the age of four or five, then he thinks slower and the Estonian children answer all the questions - how much can the Russian child speak then," Rajamets said.

Currently, the Ministry of Education and Research supports the multi-language groups, but Kaseke is a regular Estonian nursery. There are significant numners of Russian children learning there.

Acquiring the curriculum lags behind language skills

There are two basic schools active in Valga: An Estonian school and the Russian school. Even though the level of the Russian school is considered good, many parents of Russian children prefer to continue their children's education road in the Estonian school.

The basic school is also worried about how the Russian children cope with learning because due to the language level being uneven.

"The level is very different. They are extremely good, but there are also a few examples where we recommend seriously considering a Russian school if the first grade child still does not understand the simplest commands the teacher tells him, such as "Take the notebook out of the bag", principal at Valga Basic School, Hannely Luik-Strogov, said.

This makes the teacher's work very difficult because if some children do not understand Estonian, they cannot move forward with the curriculum. The whole class suffers.

Teachers do extra work with Russian children, they are given language lessons outside the lesson plan, it is also possible to stay in a long-day group where they can help the teacher. However, not all families use this opportunity.

"Then they have either a music school or a training, the child does not stay after classes," the principal said.

"Teachers do this work for symbolic income, state support would be needed. Today, teachers are overwhelmed. No teacher has to work 30 hours a week, but they do it of their own free will. It's not really right because what quality and teacher self-development can we talk about then?" Luik-Strogov said.

In the primary classes, the whole class studies together, the children of Russian families receive additional attention from a special staff member, and a speech therapist, they have speech development lessons for a couple of students. From the fifth grade onwards, classes are divided into language learning groups according to level. The more help a child needs with Estonian, the smaller the group size.

The principal acknowledged that while there is a shortage of teachers in larger schools, there are finances behind smaller ones. In any case, support by the state is needed to facilitate the learning of the state language in regions with such differences.

Although Luik-Strogov confirmed that the level of immersion there is very strong, he pointed out three reasons why parents of Russian children do not always want to place their children there and prefer Estonian basic school.

"Parents' fears are that what will happen after the primary school class, when teachers start to alternate - then not everyone will be able to use the immersion method," the principal stressed.

"Another thing is the question of prestige:" My child must go to an Estonian school! "Luik-Strogov said. "The third reason, which I really understand: the parent says:" I understand that my child is not doing so well, but if we go to the store or pharmacy, he can do it in Estonian. I can't, but he can. "They are okay with it being hard for a child at first, but they want the child to learn that elementary language."

Kersna: We are looking for funding

The new Minister of Education and Research, Liina Kersna, says she believes that Estonian schools, where a large proportion of Russian-speaking children study, need state support, which would help them to get along with children's language learning.

"Those schools with more Russian-speaking children need additional support in Estonian. The state currently provides additional funding for Russian-language schools for additional Estonian language studies, but for Estonian-language schools with more Russian-speaking students for additional Estonian language studies. does not give money," Kersna outlines the problem.

She said that it is nice that Valga's parents trust the Estonian-language nursery and school, but these educational institutions need extra money for language learning.

Kersna believes that the search for additional finances cannot be left to local governments alone, the state must also support it.

"This is necessary in order for the Russian-speaking children to receive education in Estonian," Kersna said.

"There are about twenty schools in Estonia with at least 20 percent of students with another mother tongue. In order for the children to progress well and be as ready as possible to study subjects in Estonian, they temporarily need more Estonian language teaching and the state should encourage it," says Kersna.

"We are looking for these opportunities. Nothing can be promised today, but we are aware of the problem, we are looking for solutions," Kersna said.

She plans to raise the issue later this week in meetings with the Estonian School Directors Association and next week with teachers' representative organizations and school psychologists.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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