Language Board after deadline for obtaining Estonian at the workplace

Ilmar Tomusk.
Ilmar Tomusk. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The Language Board wants to introduce deadlines by which employees must learn the official language. Right now, inspectors must keep in mind language training opportunities and people's ability to learn. Since the latter tends to vary wildly, it can take some six months and others six years to learn Estonian.

Last year, politicians weighed giving Ukraine war refugees more time in which to learn Estonian. While this did not culminate in an amendment, the Language Board held off on punishing refugees for failure to speak Estonian at the workplace.

"We reminded people of language requirements and the obligation to learn Estonian when we received a complaint about customer service agents' language skills during the first year," head of the agency Ilmar Tomusk said.

Once a person has spent a year in Estonia, they will no longer be eligible for exceptions. The Language Board has also started consulting the population register in terms of whether Ukrainians in Estonia who claim to be war refugees really are what they claim as there have been cases of people who moved to Estonia long before the full-scale war started.

Tomusk said that based on current legislation, if an inspector orders an injunction, they must consider how long it takes the person to learn the official language, while this time can vary wildly. "It could be six months, while it could also be six years for some."

He added that the law should lay down deadlines, and that, ideally, an employee's Estonian proficiency should have to meet requirements by the end of the standard four-month probationary period.

Lea Kimber, head of HR for supermarket chain Maxima, employing hundreds of Ukraine refugees, considers the idea to be sensible.

"We have also decided to give our employees another chance to catch up with their language studies during the year when Estonia has started promoting the use of Estonian in schools and in education in general. We set our sights on a one-year period," Kimber said.

But four months is not enough for learning a language, the HR specialist suggested. A hundred people have started learning Estonian at Maxima, with new groups to start this fall.

Minister of Education and Research Kristina Kallas believes changes to be necessary.

"I also believe we should elaborate on those rules. Not just because of more effective supervision but to make it clearer for those who must comply," the minister said.

Kallas said that while amendments to the Language Act are in the pipeline, their sweeping nature means more time is needed.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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