For Russian youth, attending Estonian high school opens doors to society

According to the researcher, it is important for Russian and Estonian students to study in the same classroom.
According to the researcher, it is important for Russian and Estonian students to study in the same classroom. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Tartu University researchers examined the impact of Russian and Estonian high schools on the social integration of Russian young adults. They found that Estonian schooling and an Estonian partner increase the integration of Russian youth into an Estonian-speaking environment.

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Tartu examined how the language of instruction in school influences a person's choice of community in adulthood.

The researchers focuses on Russian-speaking graduates of Tallinn's general education high schools during 2005/2006 who resided in Russian-speaking neighborhoods.

They were able to track people from childhood to adulthood as they had access to diverse datasets from different periods of time and could link them together. The study incorporated information about 5,000 people.

A child's future is significantly affected by whether they attend an Estonian or Russian school, the study revealed. If a Russian-speaking child attends an Estonian-language school, that child is more likely to live in an Estonian-speaking community as an adult. If a child attends a Russian-language school, he or she is far more likely to remain in a Russian-speaking community.

Kadi Kalm, a human geography researcher at the University of Tartu, explained that while Estonian and Russian schools are often found in the same neighborhood in Tallinn, 94 percent of young Russians residing in these areas choose to attend Russian schools. When they reached the age of majority, 87 percent of students who had attended a Russian school lived in a Russian-language environment. Thus, a bilingual education system insures that Estonian and Russian speakers will continue to live in distinct areas. 

Why parents enroll their children in one school versus another is another issue. These factors were also mentioned briefly in the research article. Possibly, cultural paradigm plays a role; for example, parents may want their children to speak Russian and maintain their cultural identity. "They may be concerned that their children will lose their national traditions and cultural identity if they attend an Estonian school," Kalm said.

Despite the fact that very few young Russians had attended Estonian schools, the survey revealed that they were significantly more likely to settle in an Estonian-speaking environment in the future. "This shows how the school environment plays a crucial role in breaking the vicious cycle of segregation," Kalm said.

The vicious circle of segregation can also be described as a vicious circle of inequality, in which inequality is passed down from generation to generation and place to place, and in which Russian-speaking children frequently find themselves.

"A young person who speaks Russian is more likely to have grown up in a Russian-speaking environment, to have attended a Russian kindergarten and basic school, and to have learnt Estonian as a second language. Due to a lack of language skills, they have significantly fewer prospects for further study and work than the average young Estonian speaker," the researcher said.

Young people often remain in the neighborhood where they grew up, due to the social networks that establish in a mostly segregated community and in Russian educational institutions.

In light of this, Kalm thinks the planned transition to teaching in Estonian in all schools is crucial. Also, the fact that Russian and Estonian young people would be able to study together is very important. "It serves little purpose if Russian native speakers continue to attend distinct schools and classes. The emphasis of school reform should be on nurturing relationships; not only language acquisition is important," she said.

Over 50 percent of the people surveyed lived in the same neighborhood as children and as adults. "This could also be due to the fact that they are young adults who have not yet moved out of their parents' home. However, this is more indicative of the influence of living in a Russian-speaking environment," the researcher explained.

According to the report, when Russian youngsters make a friend among Estonians, they are more inclined to relocate to an Estonian-speaking environment. While when people of the same nationality live in the same neighborhood, there are sometimes not enough connections for finding a partner of a different nationality.

National segregation dates back to the Soviet era. Hundreds of thousands of people from other Soviet republics migrated to Estonia in a short period of time, whereas today people often decide where to reside based on how much they can afford to spend. Because immigration was tied to industrial development and military activity, it was mostly concentrated in cities where industry was developing.

Immigrants who arrived in Estonia without a home were given priority for new apartments in new communities.

Minorities tend to reside in specific places in other countries as well. The situation in the Soviet Union, however, differed from that in the United States or Western Europe, as minorities in the Soviet socialist republics often did better than the majority population during the Soviet era. Minority neighborhoods are typically formed when a person moves into an area first, followed by his relatives, friends, and acquaintances.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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