Minister: No extra year needed for Russian-speaking pupils in basic schools

Kristina Kallas.
Kristina Kallas. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonian Minister of Education and Research Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) believes that basic school children from Russian-speaking families do not need an extra year of studying only Estonian in order facilitate the switch to Estonian-language education, as the language immersion method allows them to learn both the language and their regular subjects at the same time. Kallas added however, that a year to study only Estonian may be necessary for basic school leavers

"We have planned the transition to Estonian language learning in stages, starting with kindergartens. This is precisely in order to prepare children for the transition to learning in an Estonian-language school environment. It means kindergartens will have to switch to Estonian-language education as soon as September 1 next year," Kallas told ERR's Russian-language news portal

"First grade classes will be transferred [to Estonian-language instruction] separately. There, I don't see the need for an extra year for them to learn only Estonian, because we have a methodology for teaching Estonian to children who don't speak the language. It's language immersion and we've been using it for 23 years. The first grades have to start with this methodology, which helps pupils to both master their subjects and learn Estonian. We know how to do it and we are preparing for it," Kallas said.

"It's the same for fourth grade classes. They will also move to [Estonian-language learning] and there, too, the children will start learning according to a specially-designed methodology. Teachers are prepared - they know how to teach Estonian to children who may not speak the language. Every year, the first and fourth grades start in Estonian. Within six years, we will have reached the stage where all classes have switched to Estonian. Those children who started learning in Russian this year or last year, who are not in language immersion, will continue learning in Russian and will also finish school in Russian," Kallas explained.

The minister was speaking in response to ERR's request for a comment on the idea proposed by President Alar Karis to give Russian-speaking pupils an extra year to only study the Estonian language.

"I have proposed taking a year to only learn Estonian. A young person can learn a language in a year, half a year even. And then they could go back to studying the other subjects in Estonian. Spending a year on it would not be all that bad in the modern world. Young people go abroad all the time as exchange students and then come back. I believe it is worth considering as a way to speed up the transition," Karis told ETV's "Pealtnägija" in an interview on Wednesday.

Kallas, however, said there was no need for this type of gap year for basic school pupils.

"If the president meant that there should be a "year zero" for those entering the first grade, then I disagree. There, a child does not need an extra year, he or she is able to master both the subjects and the language at the same time. Of course it will be slower, but we have the methodology and we are working on it," the education minister said.

Kallas added however, that a transition year program will be prepared to cater for those basic school leavers who do not have sufficient knowledge of the Estonian language.

"The problem is that there are quite a lot of ninth-grade graduates, who do not speak Estonian at a level that would allow them to, for example, enter a vocational school. To deal with this, we are currently developing a year-long supplementary program, which we are going to call the supplementary year, for these children, so that they can spend a year learning Estonian and then go on to study for a profession," Kallas said.

Last December, the Riigikogu passed legislation requiring Estonian to be the only language of instruction in all schools and preschool educational institutions in Estonia. The first to make the switch will be kindergartens, along with basic schools in grades one to four, starting in the 2024/2025 school year.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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