The Ministry of Education and Research has submitted to its partners for opinions a bill of legislative amendments to the Language Act and the Public Transport Act that would, among other things, affect Estonian language proficiency requirements for food couriers, audio ads in shopping malls, foreign-language brand names, state and local government institution URLs as well as communications with public institutions.
According to the ministry, the change is aimed at bolstering the position of Estonian as the country's official language as well as increase the visibility and audibility of the Estonian language in public spaces.
The legislation would amend the current Language Act, while the bill to do so would need to be debated at the Riigikogu, pass three Riigikogu votes, and receive presidential assent before entering into law.
Minister of Education and Research Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) says the Language Act in its current incarnation must be brought into line to reflect changes in society. "Estonian must be the primary language of information and communication in Estonia, and in every field," Lukas said.
Lukas' ministry has sent draft amendments to the act, and also to the Public Transport Act for coordination and opinion.
The law would address, Lukas said: "For instance, the low or non-existent knowledge of Estonian by many employees in the service sector, and advertisements in several languages in large shopping centers.
"With the amendment to the law, on the one hand, we are protecting the interests of Estonian people as consumers, and on the other hand, it remains crucial to bolster the position of the Estonian language as the sole state language, and to increase its visibility, making it dominant in public spaces, as can be seen in the Estonian language development plan.
The amendment to the Public Transport Act would require, for instance, a taxi driver to provide proof of Estonian language level to B1 in the Common European Framework (which ranges from A1-A2 beginner and pre-intermediate levels, through B1-B2 to C1-C2, which are the proficiency levels – ed.) ahead of being issued a permit to drive a taxi.
Those who already hold such a service card (Teenidajakaart) issued to them before the proposed legislation comes into force must also submit documentation proving an Estonian-language level of B1 or higher.
This change, if comes about, would in fact be a return to the status quo before March 2016, when taxi drivers were required to have B1 level Estonian or higher.
The bill will also cover audio advertising, which has not been covered by the relevant legislation to date. While commercials convey information to consumers via audio ads in, for instance, shopping malls, these are often in a foreign language such as Russian or English, meaning that a person who spent only a short time in the mall could potentially only hear foreign-language advertising, the ministry argues.
Foreign-language audio advertising is not completely banned under the proposed legislation amendments, but must not exceed 20 percent of the total volume of audio advertising, i.e. 80 percent of aural advertising and marketing to the public must be in the Estonian language.
The bill would also require internet domain names and email addresses of state and local government institutions only, with only Estonian words and abbreviations to be permitted in that case.
This is also a new innovation and would address several state institutions which do indeed have a foreign-language domain name, for instance rescue.ee is the Rescue Board's (Päästeamet) Estonian-language page domain name, while the Ministry of the Environment (Keskonnaministeerium) uses envir.ee.
Furthermore, goods or services, and placed of business, must have Estonian-language text in as visible a location and in the same field of view as any text in a foreign language, according to the draft, which will issue rules on this which currently do not exist.
This primarily refers to foreign-language trademarked businesses, such as KFC.
No re-branding would otherwise be required.
The bill also provides for violations of these norms including the issuing of fines in the case of the use of foreign-language naming conventions; at the same time the amendment would eliminate penalties being issued where these norms are not mandatory, but relate to best practice – for instance signage in public places or outdoor advertising.
The draft bill also lists those working via digital platforms who are required, in the public interest, to have Estonian-language skills, including a requirement to improve these where necessary.
The Language Board (Keeleamet) says that complaints it has received on language skills of, for instance, taxi drivers or food couriers using a mediating digital platform suggest that these platforms provide no scope for resolving these issues and any misunderstandings which can arise – for instance pick-up or destination addresses or times.
In some institutions administration in Estonian will be mandatory, including public broadcaster ERR, the National Opera (Rahvusooper), the National Library (Rahvaraamatukogu) and all public universities.
These will be added to a list which under current law already incudes state institutions, local government institution and any state-owned (ie. the state has a majority stake) companies, state foundations set up by the state and non-profits whish see state participation.
This would, for instance, mean that Estonian is guaranteed to teaching staff at public universities operating in Estonia as a means of conducting their activities and exchanging professional information, while the options for foreign students to communicate with that university in a language other than Estonian would be barred, should the law enter into force.
The education minister noted that, per information provided by the Language Board, issues have arisen in the past decade since the Language Act was last amended which were not relevant at that time.
Wolt: Couriers not currently subject to customer service rep proficiency requirements
Liis Ristal, general manager for Wolt's Baltic region, told ERR Tuesday that upon initial review, the wording of the bill in question is unclear regarding on which workers and at which businesses the legislative amendment hopes to impose additional language proficiency requirements. She added that the company is awaiting clarification of the bill and wants to contribute to the debate on this issue.
Nonetheless, Ristal also stressed how important the existence of fast and efficient Estonian-language customer service is to Wolt. She explained that the company offers real-time Estonian-language customer service through which clients can speak in Estonian to customer service representatives within half a minute, and added that the duration of the provision of services is covered by the presence of customer service specialists.
"As far as the couriers delivering shopping or food bags, customer service representative language proficiency requirements do not apply to them under current law, as they are not considered customer service representatives," the general manager explained. "Generally speaking, our customers don't have any concerns about this either. Within each calendar month, we receive five to six instances of critical feedback regarding communication issues between a client and a courier."
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mirjam Mäekivi