Eduard Odinets: Slogans cannot ensure delegates' language proficiency

Eduard Odinets.
Eduard Odinets. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Naturally, we need to support local government council delegates working in Estonian everywhere in Estonia. The question is how to achieve that, Eduard Odinets writes.

The race is on in Estonian politics for who can lay down more language requirements before elections. The opposition Conservative People's Party (EKRE) was off to an early start with a bill suggesting local council delegates should have the C1 language proficiency level that the Riigikogu debated on November 7.

As Isamaa is woe to appear lesser, Minister of Justice Lea Danilson-Järg said that the party will introduce draft legislation to obligate candidates to have at least the B1 proficiency level.

But what does C1, sometimes described as an educated native speaker's level, entail? Its description is as follows: "A C1 level speaker has the ability to understand long and complicated texts, pick up on hidden meanings, make themselves understood spontaneously and fluently, without having to look for expressions, use language flexibly and effectively."

I can say that I have that level of Estonian. I took the exam and passed, taking 97 points out of 100. It is worth considering how many local council and indeed Riigikogu delegates who speak Estonian as their first language really have that kind of proficiency. I dare say not all.

But how to determine a delegate's language proficiency? Whether we're talking about C1 or B2. There is plenty of confusion. There are suggestions of checking candidates' language skills before or after elections, talk of a language proficiency certificate or asking people to dust off their graduation certificates. Ticking a box or passing an exam or test does not reflect actual language skills or whether a delegate actively participates in the work of the council.

The justice minister said "that a certificate will suffice for those who have obtained the Estonian language." At the same time, secondary education has been fully Estonian for some time, according to the Language Act. What to do with EU citizens and people still attending high school, all of whom have the right to run in local elections? Is it really proportional to require a language level, would it not constrain candidates' constitutional rights?

What would happen to an elected local politician should it turn our they do not speak Estonian well enough? Would their mandate be stripped and votes declared null and void? And what about council decisions they have participated in making? Will we have Language Board inspectors decide who is fit to serve as a representative of the people instead of voters?

Questions far outnumber answers. It seems that the minister is also short on the latter. Unfortunately, the debate is dominated by empty slogans and populism.

I'm in no way contesting that the problem exists and is probably more serious in Ida-Viru County. I have served on the Kohtla-Järve city council for 26 years and seen colleagues with very different levels of language proficiency, including none whatsoever at first. Things have improved a lot since then. But council sittings have never been held in any other language than Estonian in Kohtla-Järve, irrespective of the relative importance of delegates who have the necessary Estonian level.

It is clear that a poor command of Estonian is not keeping delegates from discharging their duties. Non-Estonian-speaking delegates can even be more thorough. They delve deep as a result of having to translate and really concentrate on the nuances. They make very practical proposals and adjustments that can be more elegant than those coming from their Estonian colleagues at times. It is about work attitude.

I'm reminded of how I was accepted to attend university as a 17-year-old Russian-speaking boy from Kohtla-Järve who couldn't even introduce himself properly in Estonian. And I attended university in Estonian. But I was awarded a scholarship because I was one of the few students who really concentrated, translated and memorized things.

The members of Kohtla-Järve, Narva and Sillamäe city councils can do it. They need to be motivated instead of repressed, which is not to say they should not be expected to have Estonian. They absolutely do. I believe that things will be looking better still in future councils as they get younger members.

Instead of dividing delegates into Estonians and non-Estonians and differentiating between real Estonian schools and Russian Estonian schools, we need to consider functional solutions. The personal responsibility of candidates and voters' assessment of their skills and abilities is what really matters. We do not have to "go after" every candidate but ramp up control of local governments' (including councils) use of administrative language. This constitutional requirement must be met.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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