'AK. Nädal': How Tallinn's switch to Estonian-language education is going

First graders starting school in Tallinn. September 1, 2022.
First graders starting school in Tallinn. September 1, 2022. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Next fall will mark the start of the long-postponed transition to Estonian-language education at Estonia's Russian-language schools and kindergartens. "Aktuaalne kaamera. Nädal," the Sunday edition of ETV's nightly news, took a closer look at how the transition is going in Tallinn.

In schools, this nationwide transition will begin with the first and fourth grades switching over entirely to Estonian-language instruction.

While kindergartens are slated to transition to Estonian in full by fall 2024, parents in families who speak other languages are already increasingly interested in getting their children started learning Estonian early.

Rõõmupesa Kindergarten in Tallinn's Mustamäe District is an Estonian-language kindergarten. Half the children in its Naerulinnud classroom, however, are from families with a different home language — and this is pretty typical in Tallinn.

"This is a trivial, typical sort of situation in Mustamäe, Lasnamäe as well as Central Tallinn," said Tallinn Deputy Mayor for Education Andrei Kante (Center). "I just now immediately thought of a specific kindergarten where instruction takes place in Estonian, but only a couple of children speak Estonian at home. [This kindergarten is in] Lasnamäe."

Kante acknowledged that in such cases, it's Estonian-speaking children who are at a disadvantage, as their native language is unable to develop age-appropriately in a Russian-language environment. The Naerulinnud class teacher likewise admitted that native Russian-speaking children still talk among themselves in Russian.

Which is why no one has any illusions that Estonian will actually be heard spoken everywhere once the country's kindergartens officially transition to fully Estonian-language kindergartens from next fall. Kids will still speak their native language among themselves, even if their teachers acquire the necessary language proficiency.

"Kindergarten leaders' position is that nearly 300 teachers won't be continuing in the system from next year because they simply aren't capable of bringing their language qualifications up to the required level," Kante said.

Beyond Estonian-language kindergarten, many Russian-speaking families also want their children to continue their education in Estonian-language schools.

Located in Lasnamäe District, the Estonian-language Kuristiku High School is already attended by more kids from non-Estonian speaking families than Estonian-speaking kids — and their share of the student body has risen by the year. Riina Raaga is Kuristiku High School's learning support teacher and speech therapist, and she reviews all children entering the first grade.

"I saw 113 first graders this year," Raaga said. "And among these were 31 children whose native language, home language is Estonian. Among these were [also] 13 children who didn't speak or understand Estonian."

Raaga is also a third grade class teacher.

"Of 19 students, six are native Estonian speakers," she highlighted. "The current trend is that the number of kids coming from Russian-language kindergartens has gone up. As the percentage of children with a different home language is increasing, teachers are having a very hard time helping all of them — and they do need help."

According to the speech therapist, there is a big difference in whether a child attended an Estonian- or Russian-language kindergarten before starting school.

"The hardest thing is that they don't understand [teachers'] instructions, speak nothing of the texts; we're [working with] literary texts in first grade already," she pointed out. "And language learning doesn't take place via literary texts; language learning is done through lessons."

Raaga believes that children from families with other home languages should ideally have an extra year at the elementary school level dedicated purely to learning the Estonian language. Only then could you start teaching a child in any meaningful way, she stressed.

"How they'll manage in fourth and fifth grade, for example, where there is more text analysis and more literary texts, we don't actually really know yet," she admitted.

The more Russian-speaking children in a class, the more Russian you'll hear spoken around the school as well.

"Their language of communication at school is their own native language, naturally," Raaga said. "Of course we suggest that they try, try to talk in Estonian as much as possible, but kids want to feel comfortable."

"If we compare [ourselves] with some other country somewhere where it's said to be well organized — why they begin right away, why their new immigrants start speaking their official language relatively quickly and ours don't — but we have a social environment, and that's what's holding children's development back," she said, noting that often enough, these kids' parents themselves don't speak Estonian either.

Kuristiku High School organizes learning support groups to help children catch up with their Estonian skills, but as always, money is tight and teachers have to shoulder this additional burden without any additional pay. Raaga believes that the Ministry of Education and Research has no idea what circumstances they're facing.

"When you have kids with various linguistic backgrounds all in one classroom together, there needs to be an assistant teacher in that environment too, and we've taken as much into account in drawing up our action plan," said Kante.

The deputy mayor, however, believes it would be more suitable for children from Russian-speaking families to start out in language immersion schools. It is precisely this route that journalist and soccer referee Dmitri Kulikov's family elected to take when their child started school this year — although they had been considering a nearby Estonian-language school as well.

"For the first two years they attended a Russian-language kindergarten, and then we transferred to an Estonian-language kindergarten, with a 50-50 proportion — 50 percent were Estonian-speaking kids and 50 percent were Russian-speaking kids," Kulikov said. "It was a good experience, and I thought it would be a good one to continue."

Like in most other Russian-language schools in the Estonian capital, Tallinn Pae High School has immersion classrooms as well.

"The entire process for them is in Estonian," Kulikov explained. "And it's a really good environment, because their friends from kindergarten are in the same class as them. And that was what the child wanted. There's less of a chance that the child will be bullied because of their language."

While he himself is a Tallinn native, Kulikov didn't learn Estonian in school; he attended a regular Russian-language school.

"In school I learned a little grammar in fourth grade, and the rest of my knowledge [of the language] came from the real world, so to speak," he recalled. "Our courtyard was 50-50 Estonians and Russians. We were always playing soccer, basketball, we fought, we drank beer and we did everything together."

Teachers at Pae High School are skeptical, however, about what Estonian-language instruction will look like for kids who have never attended a language immersion class or Estonian-language kindergarten.

Kante acknowledged that merely knowing Estonian isn't enough for teachers; to be able to teach your subject in a foreign language takes much more time than merely language studies.

The capital's deputy mayor is in favor of the school reform, but he considers the pace thereof unrealistic.

"We need to think about where, very practically, we can acquire teachers that will be joining schools as well as kindergartens next year," he stressed. "In Tallinn's case, we've estimated that we'd need nearly 140-150 additional teachers a year capable of teaching a subject in Estonian."

He's also concerned by the fact that the law is requiring that specialized schools transition to Estonian-language education as well. Students at these schools, however, are those for whom attending a regular school even in their own native language is a challenge. Nonetheless, he promised, Tallinn will continue striving to ensure a successful transition.

"I just get the feeling that right now, certain political forces are pushing for Tallinn to fail in implementing this reform," Kante said.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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