Maarja Vaino: Transition to an Estonian society

Maarja Vaino.
Maarja Vaino. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The transition to so-called Estonian education must happen hand in hand with a transition to an Estonian society, Maarja Vaino finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The somewhat lazy summer has been spiced up by the incoming coalition's drawn-out talks. On the surface of it, progress has been slow and we have heard precious little about the agreement via the press. But a few bits and bobs can be found. For example, the sides have agreed to switch to Estonian language education from 2025. I would like to know more about it and in greater detail.

The entire concept is absurd in its phrasing. The Republic of Estonia has Estonian language education as Estonian is the country's official language. The Education Act has long since stipulated that "in the territory of Estonia, the state and local governments offer the chance to obtain an education in Estonian in public educational institutions and universities and on all education levels," and that "the Republic of Estonia ensures that Estonian is taught in all non-Estonian public educational institutions and non-Estonian-speaking study groups."

Therefore, talking about the switch to Estonian education, we should add a few important words: "in non-Estonian schools." This concretization is seldom used. Why is that? Is the aim to express oneself more briefly and conveniently or is this omission in the service of the so-called common Estonian school idea? This solution to reform our education, presented a few years ago seemingly as an academic study (or a commissioned work meant to arrive at a specific conclusion?) proposes putting all children in a single school irrespective of their mother tongue. Common Estonian school in other words stands for Estonian-Russian mixed schools, while this is bound to do language training no favors.

The question of how to imagine the switch to Estonian education, for example, in Maardu or Sillamäe, where only a small part of children speak Estonian, remains. Can anyone really imagine kids there conversing in Estonian during recess or being equally successful at learning subjects in Estonian? And which language will Estonian-speaking kids really obtain in such a situation? It requires a real knack for wishful thinking to see this situation as a switch to Estonian education. It is clear that different study aids and methodologies are needed for Estonians to study their mother tongue on a deeper level and for children from other language backgrounds to learn Estonian. It shouldn't even have to be mentioned!

It is also a misconception that every person off the street can just become a teacher overnight – a cast of mind presented as innovative in the conditions of chronic teacher shortage. The status of teacher of the official language was passed in 1998 and comes with relatively strict requirements. For example, philological (Estonian) and pedagogical training, proficiency teaching a second language, at least three years of experience teaching Estonian to non-Estonians etc.

How many teachers do we have who can rise to that status if any? Not to mention that more than a few teachers have recently decided to switch careers after being told about new and utopian requirements for teachers. Therefore, I would very much like to know what the coalition agreement means when it mentions switching to Estonian language education.

On the other hand, the expression "switch to Estonian language education" is telling in itself. For example, it could inspire our universities that hitherto have mostly concentrated on switching to English education. I had to read several times to comprehend a sentence by Aune Valk from a recent article: "Naturally we cherish the Estonian language, it seems self-evident, but how and unto what and does it come at the expense of something else?"

Is this really a sentence befitting the vice rector for academic affairs of an institution that is called the Estonian national university? Perhaps education decisions should not be made by people for whom Estonian is something that comes at the expense of something else and presumably more valuable? I find this way of thinking nothing short of scandalous and believe that universities should take a break from worrying about their finances and look in the mirror. To paraphrase Valk: Naturally we value universities, they are self-evident, but how and unto what should we support universities that train foreigners in English for the rest of the world's labor market and continue to render Estonian higher education increasingly English-speaking?

In addition to universities, switching to Estonian should also be practiced by major cities. Urban spaces are full of ads and information in foreign languages, it is often impossible to order in Estonian in cafes and restaurants, while it is increasingly difficult to find someone fluent in Estonian working in a grocery store.

One glances at the recently expanded Estonian Language Institute but quickly realizes that instead of cherishing and cultivating the official language, it is spending its energy canceling the Õigekeelsussõnaraamat (Estonian grammar dictionary) …

A switch to so-called Estonian language education hand in hand with a switch to an Estonian language society. Our problem is much bigger.


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter 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: