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Expert: Ministers' English skills leave a lot to wish for

Toomas Tõniste.
Toomas Tõniste. Source: (Reuters/Scanpix)

After yesterday’s speeches of Estonian ministers in the European Parliament, philologist Tuuli Oder found that some of the appearances were rather embarrassing—because of their English skills, or rather lack thereof.

Oder said one of the appearances that left a lot to wish for had been that of Minister of Finance Toomas Tõniste (IRL).

“Clearly this was a text that someone else wrote and our minister had learned by heart and then repeated. It came across as rather clumsy, he made mistakes, which shows that his own language level isn’t high enough so he could write such a text himself and present it spontaneously. It was embarrassing that he so obviously learned it by heart, and didn’t manage to respond to any questions, which again showed that unfortunately his language level wasn’t sufficient,” Oder said on ERR’s Vikerraadio on Wednesday.

Minister of Entrepreneurship and IT Urve Palo (SDE) left a similar impression with Oder. Listening to Palo, Oder said she’d place her level at A2 or pre-intermediate.

“The use of language of a minister, especially talking about the European presidency and all that, would ideally be at the C2 level, close to that of an educated native speaker. Not a great many Estonians use that kind of language,” Oder commented, adding that B2 was generally thought to be good enough for a minister to deal with the press.

To be able to talk about a specific subject area, at least C1 level would be needed, Oder said. “We’re all able to read out a text, but if I get a question and my understanding is poor, then for instance at A2 level skills I won’t be able to understand a question asked at C1.”

The ministers’ use of English would have amused one or the other Brit, Oder said. “If I don’t speak German, that’s my problem. But if our ministers go ahead with this kind of English, that’s Estonia’s problem, and something needs to be done there, and fast,” she said.

Estonians aged 45 and older typically had this issue, Oder pointed out. English had come a generation later, and though they might understand a lot, their speaking skills were poor, and their vocabulary unfortunately passive.

In Oder’s opinion, keeping in mind the upcoming presidency of the Council of the European Union, this is a problem that could have been anticipated. It had been clear that Estonia’s ministers would be getting more attention than usual.

“Everyone has individual needs, they should have been put through a communicative language course using a methodology addressing their individual level,” Oder said. At this age, as adult learners, language could be taught relying on students’ high-level ability to reason as well as high motivation.

Tõniste for example should talk to a teacher, and soon. The everyday use he needed could then be practised by means of role plays and similar approaches to make sure embarrassing situations like the one yesterday would be avoided in the future.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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