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Anastassia Kovalenko-Kõlvart: Language Act amendment is electioneering

Anastassia Kovalenko-Kõlvart
Anastassia Kovalenko-Kõlvart Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Estonia's political parties have embarked on a race to see who can establish the strictest language requirements, in so doing "strengthening the position of the Estonian language," Center Party MP and Tallinn city councilor Anastassia Kovalenko-Kõlvart writes.

For a long time now, no one has argued about the relative importance of knowledge of the state language, but these types of initiatives always seem to start from the wrong end.

Minister of Education and Science Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) recently produced draft amendments to the language law, aimed at improving the Estonian language skills of employees using digital platforms (such as Bolt and Wolt – ed.).

However, in reality it is a slogan bill, one which only duplicates the existing requirements and does not alter anything.

Isamaa's initiative will not affect Bolt food couriers or taxi drivers, but it will instead force officially registered taxi drivers to switch to the digital platform.

A further over-amplification

The current regulations, which deal with language requirements for employees, already stipulate a language requirement of B1 level (from the Common European Framework of languages – ed.) for service and sales employees whose tasks include direct and regular customer service, the communication of work-related information or responsibility for occupational safety. 

The question is, however, do food courier or a ride-sharing platforms driver fall under this category?  Up until now, they have not, since they do not actively deal with customer service.

Will the new regulation change this in some way? Let us look ore closely. According to the new draft, Estonian language proficiency requirements will be established for employees working via the digital platform, if this is justified as being in the public interest. 

This wording does not specify that couriers or drivers working via the digital platform are referred to, so it cannot be concluded that this creates any new requirements which could not already be derived from the current regulation.

Since, generally speaking, a food courier or ride-sharing platform driver does not have to be in constant communication with the service user - plenty of information is exchanged via the digital platform - it is questionable whether he or she can even be qualified as a B1 level service and sales employee. 

In addition, what aspect of public interest is fulfilled here is open to question.

Indications have also come that the public do not need direct communication with a courier or driver, as they can see everything they need to via the app. 

Representatives of the digital platform have also referred to the argument about constant complaints as having been exaggerated, while in general customers have not been having issues with the employees. 

In addition, digital platforms have invested in a proper customer service support team, where communication in the national language is offered (and also in English – ed.) and the customer can get quick answers to their questions.

Taxi drivers facing a language exam

However, we begin to face another phenomenon; that this bill aims to establish a B1 level requirement for taxi drivers via another act, the Public Transport Act. 

In fact, this requirement is also already derived from the regulation, i.e. it is another duplication. 

However, after a change like this, "official" taxi drivers must prove that they, too, have passed the B1 language exam in order to obtain a license. 

Those who already have an activity license must also do so by January 1, 2024.

What will the outcome of all this be? Taxi drivers following the so-called "traditional" form of work will simply switch to a ride-sharing platform, if they have not already done so. 

For a start, language requirements there are not unambiguous, and second, there is no need to take a language exam there. 

There is no need to be fearful that Language Board (Keeleinspektsioon) inspectors will come to fine you in the near future, because the priority is currently schoolteachers, and their language skills.

The political parties have started a race to see who can establish stricter language requirements, in order to "strengthen the position of the Estonian language". For a long time now, no one has argued about the importance of knowing the national language, but such initiatives are constantly begun from the wrong end - not on how to ensure that different social groups have the opportunity for language learning, but a more radical path is immediately taken instead.

It is worth recalling that these types of initiatives can put the more vulnerable groups in society into an even more difficult situation.

Naturally, if the wish is that there be fewer foreign national in Estonia, plus that it would be even harder for local businesses to cope in a crisis, then initiatives like this one will certainly fulfill such a goal.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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