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Education ministry revisits topic of foreign workers' Estonian language skills

Ministry of Education and Research signage. Unlike the other government ministries, which are located in Tallinn, this one is primarily situated in Tartu.
Ministry of Education and Research signage. Unlike the other government ministries, which are located in Tallinn, this one is primarily situated in Tartu. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The evergreen topic of tightening up language requirements, via legislation, for service sector workers in Estonia and in particular those using food courier and ride hailing apps to make a living is leading to a search for compromise, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Wednesday.

One proposal would impose a requirement on all those residing in Estonia to reach a set level of Estonian; another, that the existing Language Act be more properly enforced.

On the other hand, a spokesperson for Bolt, the main provider of platform-based services and used by many non-Estonian-speaking service providers, cautioned against excessively restrictive regulations.

Opposition Isamaa MP and former minister Tõnis Lukas told AK that "Really the current coalition has started to delay boosting the options [for the presence] of the Estonian language within the public arena, while all sorts of reasons are being sought, with the result that these service sector workers do not speak Estonian."

Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Lukas, who has held the culture minister and education minister posts in recent years, added that it is "unlikely" that most of the people concerned will only stay for a short time in Estonia.

Without making changes, "people will come to live in our country and see that we do not consider our language important, and so they will not intend to learn it."

"The state must establish itself first, and employers must also be worthy members of society and also demand the use of the Estonian language. If they are not able to do this by their own initiative, then the law must demand that they require Estonian language skills from their employees," Lukas went on.

The requirements of the Language Act, Lukas said, do not currently apply to employees of food courier and ride hailing app Bolt, while AK reported that Bolt itself does not actively ensure that its employees – meaning those who use the platform to work as taxi drivers or food couriers – know the Estonian language. This means the state must be more demanding, Lukas said.

Bolt's head of government relations Henri Arras told AK that platform employees' lack of knowledge of the Estonian language is not an issue, as only a few complaints on the matter are received in the space of a month.

At the same time, Arras called for keeping bureaucracy and regulations to a minimum.

"Regulations are inherently restrictive and a burden on society. There should be a reason for having them in place," he said.

"Up to today there has been no impact study, no clear analysis, showing a clear and present need for this," referring to stricter regulations.

Kätlin Kõverik, chief expert on language policy at the Ministry of Education and Research, told AK the concern is not that the current Language Act is too lenient, but simply that it is not being enforced or complied with.

Thus was born the concept of ​​setting specific deadlines for language requirements, she said.

Kõverik told AK that: "After a period of stay in the Republic of Estonia lasting some time, you will need to have acquired basic [Estonian] language skills."

Kõverik stressed that the policy is very much at an early stage "as we also have to consider what the sanctions will be if this is not fulfilled," meaning adhering to the regulations.

Kõverik also noted that the digital service solutions sector is developing, to the extent that one day, courier-customer communication might take place via automated translation solutions

"These are making very rapid progress," Kõverik said.

At present, a middle ground is being sought; in contrast to Tõnis Lukas, Kõverik said that app-based couriers and taxi drivers are often people who stay in Estonia for a short time only, meaning they have no motivation to learn the language.

A balance must be struck here, to enable the market to function, so people can cope on their own, rather than restricting them too much with language requirements," Kõverik added.

The last administration, which included Isamaa, had tried to introduce a requirement for the knowledge of the Estonian language for couriers.

The Language Act regards beginner level Estonian as equating to B1 in the Common European Framework (CEF) of language proficiency, while CEF B2 level is seen as intermediate, C1 level as proficient.

B1 is also the level required before attaining Estonian citizenship.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera,' reporter Hanneli Rudi.

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