Following the switch to Estonian as the only language of instruction in schools, children from Russian-speaking families will not have to learn the Russian alphabet in Russian language classes alongside their Estonian-speaking classmates. According to the Ministry of Education and Research, Russian-speaking children will be given the opportunity to learn their first language and culture in separate classes.
The transition to Estonian-language education in Estonia will start in 2024. Ingar Dubolazov, head of the Language Policy Department of the Ministry of Education and Research, told ERR's Russian-language service, that discussions are currently under way regarding how to preserve the identity and culture of Russian-speaking children during the transition.
"The learning of a language and culture other than Estonian starts (in Estonian schools) from the 1st grade and it certainly plays an important role in the formation of a student's identity," Dubolazov said, explaining that in the future, Russian will no longer be a compulsory subject in schools where classroom instruction is entirely in Estonian.
"However, if a student's first language is not Estonian and there are at least ten children with the same first language in the school, they will be allowed to study their first language and culture for two hours per week starting in the 1st grade, if both the students and their parents wish," explained a representative of the Ministry of Education and Research.
However, the representative emphasized, that for this to happen, there must be a minimum of ten children, all with the same first language at the same school. According to the ministry, should the number be below ten, students and their parents will instead be advised to contact minority associations in their local area, should they wish to study their first language and culture in a formal setting.
Each school has its own approach
At present, Russian-speaking students are not exempt from Russian language lessons in Estonian schools, with teachers adapting the materials used in class as required.
"At Kohtla-Nõmme School, all the children attend Russian language classes. The teacher uses different textbooks and selects material according to the children's abilities and skills," said Mariliis Oder, headteacher at Kohtla-Nõmme School.
Oder explained, that the children are divided into three categories according to their Russian-language ability. First, there are those who have experience of being immersed in the language, then there are those who began learning it from the fifth grade. Finally, there are the children who require additional support.
Oder pointed out that children are not exempt from Russians lessons just because they speak the language at home. She explained, that while native Russian speakers have good speaking and listening skills, they often require support with writing and grammar.
"What is most important is the achievement of learning outcomes. In Kohtla-Nõmme School, not all children who speak Russian as a first language have the skills to be able to drop (Russian) lessons for other lessons," said Oder, explaining that, in the teaching of foreign languages, stronger pupils often adopt leadership roles in the classroom, in a process which assists their own learning and that of their classmates.
"It's not the (students') first language that matters, but achieving the learning outcomes. Just as in Estonian lessons, where native speakers of Estonian learn Estonian. We usually discuss these kinds of issues in parents' meetings, and in this way the parents become more aware of what goes on in the classroom and why," Oder said.
At the Kohtla-Järve high School, students who completed their primary education at Russian-language schools, study Russian in separate classes from Estonian-speaking pupils.
"Our school curriculum is in Estonian. We are an Estonian-language school. This means that all subjects (except foreign languages) are taught in Estonian," explained Hendrik Agur, director of Kohtla-Järve High School.
"However, at the same time, schools here in Ida-Viru County cannot ignore the presence of Russian-speakers, and, if we want our country to produce civic-minded, state-conscious young people who fully appreciate the values of the Estonian state, the development of their first language and mindset must also be supported in every way possible," said Agur.
According to Agur, approaches taken toward the teaching of Russian at Kohtla-Järve High School, depend on the type of education students received at primary school. Students from Russian-speaking families who attended and Estonian-language primary school, may for instance take courses in Russian literature. However, Russian-speaking pupils whose primary education was conducted entirely in Russian, are taught Russian language and literature at Kohtla-Järve High School, separately from their Estonian-speaking counterparts.
"(Russian) will certainly be taught by teachers whose first language is Russian. Russian-speaking students must not lose their ability to use their native language, and this must be supported at school. Ida-Viru County has a large Russian-speaking population, 70 percent or more, so this situation cannot be ignored," Agur stressed.
Different tasks for children at different levels
At some schools, including Meremäe School in Võru County, children are given different tasks in Russian language classes, according to their ability in the language "(Russian-speaking students) are also given extra tasks: they write stories and essays, as well as do their own grammar exercises," said headteacher Leelo Viidu.
"For example, a (Russian-speaking) boy in the sixth-grade recently wrote a story (in Russian) about his day during the school holidays, while the other pupils are still learning the Russian alphabet.
There are also Russian-language games in the classroom, which can be used to develop students' abilities to express themselves in the language.
Ingar Dubolazov, from the Ministry of Education, said that in schools offering Russian as the first foreign language, students who are native Russian speakers, can instead opt for English, German or French.
"(For such students), the learning of a second foreign language can be replaced by studying their native language and culture, in which case, such students will definitely not be in the same groups as beginners," said Dubozalov.
"It is important to bear in mind that the target level and learning outcomes are different for those learning a second foreign language, compared to studying one's native language and culture. It is certainly not the case that native Russian speakers will be studying the Russian alphabet in classes alongside native Estonian speakers," Dubolazov added.
Editor: Michael Cole