Language Board chief: Russian, English both put equal pressure on Estonian

Ilmar Tomusk.
Ilmar Tomusk. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

In an appearance on ERR's "Otse uudistemajast" on Wednesday, longtime Language Board director general Ilmar Tomusk noted that it makes no difference whether it's Russian or English putting pressure on and displacing Estonian, and noted that the board has proposed legislation that would extend Estonian language proficiency requirements to taxi drivers and delivery couriers as well.

"I am an Estonian language and literature teacher, and õigesti ['correctly'] and õieti ['in fact'] are not synonyms to me," Tomusk said. "I have to be able to tell students what is right and what is wrong. I want words to have clear definitions. Words' definitions change, of course, but with education in mind, we should have a defined language standard."

The Language Board director described himself as "orthodox" when it comes to language.

"I have complaints for the [Dictionary of Standard Estonian] as well," he said. "One day they came up with the idea that riigikogu [the name of the Estonian parliament] should be written with a lower case [R], as it's a common noun. I believe it should be capitalized, as it's a proper noun."

He doesn't believe that language is defined by the way it is spoken either. "Even wordplay loses its meaning if language standards disappear," he added.

"The secret of my longevity as director general of the Language Board is lawfulness," Tomusk said. "During a recent meeting with colleagues, I said that the law is my shield and sword. Regardless of what decisions I make as an official, I consider everything in terms of the Constitution. I never mix my personal and political views with the leadership of my board. I keep my political convictions private."

According to the director general, the cityscape in Estonia has changed over the past couple of decades.

"When I traveled from Kadrina to Tallinn in 1995, there were a lot of Russian-language and bilingual signs," he recalled. "We got rid of them by 1996, and we were happy. Soon enough, however, we ourselves started putting up English-language signs. It's like we believe that one language that puts pressure on the Estonian language is more sacred than another, but when it comes to the Estonian language, it makes no difference whether it's displaced by Russian or English. The role of the English language has grown significantly, and it plays a much greater role than a couple of decades ago, and the Estonian language is suffering as a result."

'Complaints help us work'

He noted that when it comes to foreign-language brands, current legislation allows for Estonian-language information to be included anywhere. "We've submitted a proposal regarding this that the Estonian language should be equally prominent," he said. "Then we'd make Estonia's bigger cities more Estonian-language."

Tomusk acknowledged, however, that a return to the language requirements of 1995 is no longer possible under Estonia's current legal system. "In that case, we'd have to write a foreign language ban into the Language Act, which we cannot do according to the Constitution," he explained.

People can submit complaints via the Language Board's website.

"In the private sector, we step in on the basis of complaints; we don't just enter a company and start inspecting," he explained. "We rely on citizens' complaints on that front, as only 18 people work at the Language Board. People submitting complaints help us work."

The board typically responds to all complaints, he added.

Ukraine refugees to be given year to learn language

According to the director general, both English and Russian are cause for concern in Estonia.

"English is a concern in ads; Russian wants to start dominating in the service sector," he said. "Refugees from Ukraine have arrived here as well. They've found work in the service sector, and that means that there is a lot of Russian-language service, and people are submitting complaints about that. They have one year to get settled here, and then we'll revisit the topic. If they don't speak Estonian by then either, we'll start issuing them precepts."

Tomusk recalled that in late 2015, the state repealed a requirement according to which employees working under a taxi driver's service provider card had to prove their Estonian language proficiency.

"We've submitted a proposal to reinstate this requirement," he said. "They should have to pass the B1 language exam. Regarding couriers, we've also proposed an amendment that would place platform workers on equal footing with other employees in Estonia." He believes these amendments could pass right now, as he senses politicians' support for these proposals.

The Estonian language proficiency of council members is an issue as well, the director general said. "This language [proficiency] requirement was imposed at some point, and in 2001 this language requirement was repealed," he explained.

"I met with the minister of justice in September, and changes may be made here — a candidate would have to know that they have to be capable of doing their job in Estonian," Tomusk said. "Supervision would be handled the same way it applied through 2001 — when running for election, one would check a box indicating that they can manage certain activities in the Estonian language. There would be no supervision, but if it becomes apparent in the work of the council that they can't manage, the Language Board could assess their language proficiency and submit their opinion to a government committee. Preliminary checks would constitute discrimination."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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