Education minister: Dominance of Russian, English in schools needs revision

Education Minister Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa).
Education Minister Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa). Source: Ministry of Education and Research

Education minister Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) has criticized the dominance of Russian as the primary foreign language in Estonian schools, calling the situation 'abnormal' and the result of force of habit rather than necessity.

The changed security situation in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from February 24 has in particular caused the teaching of Russian in schools to come under scrutiny.

Speaking to Vikerraadio show "Vikerhommik" Wednesday, Lukas said: "The dominance of the Russian language in Estonia as a 'B' language is not normal. It can be observed that, for instance, Russian tourists can also speak English, since it is the number one foreign language in Russia, so they will not be left without communication options here."

Lukas told "Vikerhommik" that the Estonian education system had hitherto been simplistic in that English is the dominant, "A" foreign language, with Russian following close behind as the "B" option – this should be changed in both cases, he added, listing French and German as possible alternatives.

"When it comes to the role of the Russian language, it seems rather accepted that the schools are used to offering it. They have available Russian language teachers who need a workload, while smaller schools have not been able to recruit German or French teachers at the same time," he went on.

Schools should find solutions in line with the wishes of parents, he added, and could offer students a wider range of language courses accordingly.

At the same time, de-emphasizing Russian language will not change anything substantively for schoolchildren, Lukas thinks, as the idea that the Russian language is necessary in order to get by in Estonia is simply one which has been created.

"Within Tallinn city government's service system, based on this idea, they have started to require Russian language skills from job applicants, but nowhere is it stipulated that this should be the case," Lukas said by way of example.

Lukas, who became minister last month, also stressed that languages were not being politicized or weaponized.

He said: "Language itself is not to blame for anything; we are not at war against any languages. It is simply the case that there should be a wider choice available and we should ensure children do not simply stick to one or two languages, ​​so our society does not develop the opinion that these languages ​​are now somehow so critical that we cannot make do without them. This is how we make the world a much poorer place for ourselves."

In many schools in Estonia, pupils can choose Russian as a foreign language from 6th grade, though in some cases it can be studied earlier. The current invasion of Ukraine has led to many parents expressing a reluctance towards their child studying the language, however.

The argument that Russian language teachers are easier to find and therefore the language should be provided more frequently is not overly compelling, Lukas added, while, as a "much easier" language, Lukas said, English can be relegated from its current "A" position also, not least given its ubiquity. This could make way for other foreign languages such as French or German.

Neither the state nor legislation prescribe one way or another, Lukas said, meaning that it is an issue schools should look at more broadly.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mirjam Mäekivi

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