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Spike in Finnish and Spanish learners after foreign language education reform

A foreign languages classroom in Kiili High School.
A foreign languages classroom in Kiili High School. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Legislative changes that entered into force last fall and no longer allow schools to teach Russian as the first foreign language, with schools obligated to offer at least two options for the second foreign language (B-language), have reduced the number of students learning Russian by 25 percent, while the number of those learning Spanish and Finnish has exploded.

"We can see a big change in terms of how often students pick Russian," Pille Põiklik, expert at the language policy department of the Ministry of Education, told ERR, adding that while 78 students out of 100 in grades 4-6 still picked Russian as their B-language subject last schoolyear, this has now dropped to 59.

Põiklik explained that the first foreign language needs to start in grade three at the latest, while the B-language needs to offered and selected by the end of grade six.

"Because schools are now obligated to offer other languages besides Russian (and English), around 20 students out of 100 have switched from Russian to other languages. To generalize, we could say that Spanish, German and Finnish have gained the most from the changes as they're the B-languages of more students this year."

Initial data from the ministry suggests 1.3 percent of students in grades 4-6 started learning Spanish and 0.8 percent Finnish at the start of the 2022 schoolyear, while this had grown to 7.4 percent and 4 percent respectively by 2023. The share of those learning German nearly doubled, while there were also more students learning English and French as their B-language. Most students in Estonian schools learn English as their first or A-foreign language.

But Põiklik said that there is still considerable interest in learning Russian, which is why Russian teachers are still in high demand. "The change is most visible in grades 4-6, while the decline in Russian is around 5 percent if we look at the whole of the basic school level," she pointed out.

The ministry representative said that long-term conclusions should not be drawn based on a single year's results. While some parents are demanding schools stop teaching Russian in the wake of the war in Ukraine, others believe Russian remains an important subject.

Põiklik added that 80-82 percent of students have learned Russian as their B-language in previous years, while it dropped to 79 percent in 2022.

Counting so-called third or C-languages, students can study over ten foreign languages in Estonian schools.

"Schools usually report teaching 13 foreign languages. But some may also offer elective courses information on which does not reach us. The ballpark is a dozen languages or so," Põiklik remarked.

These can include, in addition to those mentioned, Hebrew, Swedish, Italian, while a few students are also studying Japanese, Mandarin, Korean and Latvian.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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