Smaller schools struggle to find foreign language alternatives to Russian

Classroom in an Estonian school. Photo is illustrative.
Classroom in an Estonian school. Photo is illustrative. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

A drive to de-emphasize the status of Russian as a foreign language in Estonian schools is proving difficult due to a shortage of teachers, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Tuesday. The issue particularly affects smaller schools.

The Ministry of Education and Research has made it mandatory for schools to offer a choice of two or more foreign languages, as a so-called "B" language, in other words a second foreign language, usually after English.

The choice has been put in place out of a desire to reduce the dominance of Russian as this B-language.

However, at some smaller schools, this has proved a challenge.

The Melliste school, 20 minutes' drive from Tartu, currently only has the resources to offer English and Russian as foreign languages, AK reported.

The school's director, Aile Kilgi, told AK that: "The honest answer would be that we have had this [situation] since time immemorial."

"There was even a time when desires had been expressed for German as a foreign language, which we certainly tried to provide, but since we could not get a teacher and in the years which followed, this did not materialize, while since there was a Russian language teacher available, we continued with Russian," Kilgi went on.

The requirement will be in place from the autumn.

Minister of Education Tõnis Lukas said: "Currently, most schools in Estonia only provide one B-language, which it is mostly Russian. /.../ From autumn, it is mandatory for all schools to offer a second foreign language. The hegemony of Russian as a B foreign language will thus be broken, and the selection will increase."

As for a lack of teachers, the minister said that both French and German language teachers get trained in universities, but a large part of them do not then go on to work in schools, but in cases of schools such as Melliste, a solution might be to send students to another school which can provide an alternative.

"If there are few applicants, pupils can also attend classes at another school by agreement. So these things will probably be resolved and these teachers will be found. The implementation of the curriculum will not be left behind by the teachers," Lukas said.

The requirement at present does not apply to those pupils who are not native Estonian speakers and who study Estonian as a second language, though the transition to Estonian-only education in schools planned from next year means that in effect that schools across the board will have to provide a choice of B languages - in other words schools which currently teach in Russian will have to teach in Estonian, and also Russian will not be acceptable as a sole foreign language.

Aile Kilgi at the Melliste school said that since the workload for a teacher comes to three hours in a week, finding a teacher, in conjunction with other nearby schools, should be viable, though research is also needed on what foreign language, aside from Russian, pupils and parents would prefer as a B language.

Isamaa is in office with the Reform Party, both of whom have traditionally had a commitment to providing education in Estonian-only, even before the invasion of Ukraine in late February last year.

Elections to the Riigikogu take place on March 5.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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