I recently took the B1 Estonian language exam, primarily because it was simply there and doesn't cost any money, but also to investigate how practical setting that level as the citizenship benchmark is.
My results arrived a bit before Christmas. Nothing in the post and no printed certificate, you just get an email and can print it off yourself if you wish, I suppose. British modesty would preclude me from announcing what my final result as a percentage was so we'll have to assume I was happy with it and that it was a pass.
The percentage is given on the final certificate as a range, so for instance 91-100%, or 61-70%, etc., which could be frustrating if you just missed out on the next highest bracket; the pass mark is 60%.
There weren't any big surprises with how my results panned out in any case; as predicted, I did a bit better on the productive skills of writing and speaking than on the more regurgitating-based listening and reading, but there wasn't a huge difference. Considering I need the latter two skills more for my work, it might be better being the other way round.
B1 as threshold
What is next? The obvious progression would be to tackle, well, B2. As I suggested in a previous piece, the step from B1 to B2, of the common European Framework A1/2 (basic user), B1/2 (independent user) and C1/2 (proficient user), where A1 is a beginner and C2 is proficient, is a hefty one, but things are looking a lot more hopeful than they once were. I may come to regret this assertion, but B2 will probably be achievable by around autumn 2019, so that is the intention.
It's nice to finally be able to say "I am this level and I can prove it," I have to say, rather than just estimating what the level would be. B1 is described as being able to, amongst other things, "understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc." and be able to "...produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest." Which is good to know — I'm not even sure whether I can do that in English, to be honest.
B2 is more of the same really, only the user should be able to communicate about more abstract themes and, most crucially, communicate with native speakers "without strain to either party" — in other words, without annoying them, which is motivation enough to get to B2, since I work in an Estonian-language office. Black sheep syndrome is not much fun, but on the other hand, I count my blessings, so to speak, working here and not one of the many English-language only offices that the startup scene has spawned over the past decade and a half. The startups may in some way benefit Estonia, but I'm not sure they do so for overseas staff to the same extent.
Is B1 the right level for citizenship?
Is B1 sufficient for citizenship, though? Or is it too difficult, or the procedure not conducive to getting a sufficient number of people there given the large number of "stateless" persons living in Estonia? An MEP here told me that the procedure was too difficult both in terms of the process of registering for and carrying out the test as well as the content of the test itself. We can see that this has been refuted. Far from being technologically beyond the ken of older people in particular, the level exam is very old school. Yes, you have to register online, but I don't accept that this is a barrier, either intentional or incidental, which excludes anyone.
As to the charge (made by the same politician) that the exam rationale is unrealistic, on the grounds that a taxi driver, say, hardly needs to be producing essays or something, I don't accept that either: the writing component of the test is very short — two pieces totalling about 150 words. If you write a short note to someone on a post-it, it's likely to come close to, say, 50 words. Moreover, the exam is aimed at testing all aspects of a person's language abilities; we can't just pick and choose or deconstruct things. The experience should also be standardised, so that taking an Estonian language exam is more similar to than different from taking one in any other foreign language within the EU or beyond. That means there can't be any idiosyncracies. But I feel that even if the supposed gripes were dealt with, new ones would be raised given the political capital that is to be had from manufacturing an aggrieved segment of the populace. Certainly none of the (overwhelmingly Russian-speaking) people taking the test with me seemed to have any problems with its format or execution.
I actually think that B1 is too low of a bar for attaining citizenship. You still can't participate in Estonian society on anything other than a superficial level as noted above, so I'm not sure how you can constitute a "citizen" on that basis. Naturally there has to be a high degree of arbitrariness, and that's precisely the point — whilst B1 level might be sufficient in German or French (I understand that it is the benchmark level when applying for citizenship by naturalisation of those countries too), Estonian is, well, much harder than those two languages and, far from making B1 the greater "achievement," in fact means that a B1er is still going to flounder in everyday situations much of the time. And that's even before we get on to people who just take the test simply to scrape through.
An alternative might be to judge cases on their individual merit, which is always a nice thing to suggest but likely to be found wanting in terms of resources.
If and when I should get to B2 in Estonian, I'll revisit the topic and see if my own citizenship level demand hasn't pushed the bar even higher, to C1. Hopefully not!*
*C1 is the end of the line so far as exams go; there is no C2 level test on offer in Estonia at present.
Editor: Aili Vahtla