Audit Office: Estonian language training for adults poorly organized

Estonian lesson. Photo is illustrative.
Estonian lesson. Photo is illustrative. Source: Postimees/Scanpix

In a recent audit, the National Audit Office found that the organization of state-funded Estonian language instruction for adults is fragmented, there is too little training, there is an acute shortage of qualified teachers, and funding for training is too dependent on support from the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa) and the EU.

According to the latest data from Statistics Estonia, around 68 percent of Estonia's population spoke Estonian as their native language, including 16 percent of Ida-Viru County residents and 51 percent of Tallinn residents, for example, the National Audit Office said in a press release on Wednesday

According to a study conducted by Tallinn University (TLÜ) and CentAR Centre for Applied Research, more than 100,000 adults living in Estonia need to learn more Estonian in order to be able to speak and write it at a level needed to get by on a daily basis.

Finding solutions to the aforementioned problems in the organization of Estonian language instruction is difficult, however, as the organization thereof has no clear leader, no one is directly responsible for the development thereof, and there is no systematic coordination of activities between respective state agencies.


The National Audit Office audit indicates that the state supports the teaching of Estonian as a second language to adults via 32 activities across five ministries — the Ministry of Education and Research, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice. Nonetheless, language training has no one clear leader.

Estonia likewise has no comprehensive overview of the measures, outcomes and cost of language training for adults, as it is still being prepared by the ministries.

Dependence on Töötukassa, EU funding

From 2014-2018, the Estonian state financed language training activities in the amount of approximately €21.1 million, €6.6 million of which was covered from revenue, mostly tax revenue, in the state budget. Two thirds of funding, however, came from the Töötukassa budget and foreign support.

Expenses for 2019 alone are forecast at approximately €14.5 million, including €4.3 million, or less than one third, from revenue in the state budget.

The primary reason behind the increase in funding this year is the fact that Töötukassa has increased funding for the language training activities of unemployed persons, working people and employers, the Ministry of Culture has increased funding for the Estonian Language Houses, which are located in Tallinn and Narva, and the Ministry of the Interior has taken measures aimed at supporting Estonian language learning by people applying for citizenship.

Estonian language learning is one of many labor market services for Töötukassa, however, and may come under threat should the economic situation deteriorate and unemployment increase. The National Audit Office has already drawn attention to Töötukassa's ever-growing list of labor market services and the fact that the fund's reserves are spent on the various everyday needs of the state.

The partial funding of language training from foreign support has resulted in uneven funding, which creates obstacles of its own to language instruction. For example, the number of people to whom training can be offered varies considerably in accordance with funding. The risk also exists that companies that provide language training regard state procurements as project-based orders and don't contribute enough to maintaining and improving language teachers' qualifications.

Interested learners outweigh available resources

The number of people prepared to learn Estonian is considerably greater than the opportunities available to learn Estonian with state support as well as the volume of training. Between 2014-2018, and depending on whether and how much foreign support could be used, the volume of language training varied from 2,000-6,000 participants per year.

The study conducted by TLÜ and CentAR indicates that approximately half of adults whose native language is not Estonian, i.e. more than 100,000 people, lack active Estonian language skills, but around two thirds are prepared to learn the language in the next three years. According to the latest monitoring of the integration of Estonian society, the Estonian language skills of people with another native language have improved, but 10 percent of Estonian residents of other nationalities over 15 years of age speak no Estonian at all in their own opinion (as of 2017).

A ministry representative pointed out during the course of the audit that the initial plan upon the launch of training models in 2015 was to have some 540 people attend language instruction. In reality, a total of 5,961 people registered for the first language course — ten times more than expected. Such a significant degree of interest in language instruction arose from the fact that free language instruction had not been offered to learners for several years at that point — in 2013, 2014 and the first half of 2015 — due to a lack of funding.

Holm: European taxpayers shouldn't be paying for this

Auditor General Janar Holm said that the teaching of the Estonian language to adults should not be reduced to being one of many measures funded via Töötukassa in order to help people better cope on the labor market.

"Estonian language training and Estonian language skills have a considerably broader meaning than coping on the labor market," Holm said regarding the situation. "It is a matter of society's field of information, culture, education and mutual understanding. According to current logic, we could teach people to read and write via Töötukassa as well, as these skills are also useful for finding work and working."

In addition to numbers and organizational aspects, however, the auditor general admitted that this issue involved an emotional side for him as well.

"People say that the money comes from the state budget and money has no nationality, but there are certain areas in which it does," he explained. "And when it comes to this, we should have enough national pride to not let the taxpayers of Germany, France, Italy and other European countries to partly pay for teaching our own state language, especially considering the extreme importance of the Estonian language to the Estonian identity. The current situation really wounds my pride as an Estonian."

Lack of qualified teachers

The National Audit Office found that there are too few qualified language teachers in many areas, and this may also have a negative impact on the teaching of the Estonian language at general education schools as well. The matter of the next generation of Estonian language teachers is cause for concern as well.

Following a lack of money, all of the audited ministries found in their replies to the National Audit Office that the shortage of qualified language teachers was the second biggest problem causing difficulties in the provision of language training, and that this shortage may put a massive burden on general education teachers as well. The problem is currently the most serious in Ida-Viru County.

According to the Language Inspectorate and the Estonian Education Information System (EHIS), on average 10 percent of general education school teachers also teach language to adults as an additional job. However, the National Audit Office did not identify any adequate and systematic attempts to find a solution to the problem at the decision-making level.

"In Estonia, we love to offer people 'free' things which are actually paid for by everyone jointly," Holm said regarding the situation. "However, if anything at all should be accessible to everyone interested via joint funding, and guaranteed to everyone at all levels of study, everywhere in the state at any time, and all over the world where there is interest in this, then it should be Estonian language training. And this training should be fully guaranteed with qualified and properly paid teachers. It's a question of the dignity of the Estonian state to ensure that nobody who wants to learn Estonian is deprived of the opportunity to do so because no money has been allocated for this."

No one responsible, no one in charge

According to the audit, omissions and and disagreements between ministries exist in the organization of Estonian language training for adults in terms of cooperation, the coordination of activities, management as well as level of responsibility, which make finding solutions to language instruction issues difficult.

"If we approach this from the state reform angle, then one possible solution could be to stop organizing Estonian language training in a manner that is fragmented between several ministries and establish a function-based single and uniform Estonian language or state language center which would then guarantee language instruction to everyone according to their specific needs and proficiency levels, and would take care of methodology, teaching aids and so on," Holm suggested. "This should be done throughout the state and, if needed, abroad in order to support global Estonianness and Estonian people living abroad who want to preserve their connection with the Estonian language."

Märt Loite, the director of audit at the National Audit Office's Analysis Department, conceded that the ministries only agree on the fact that the lack of qualified teachers is seen as the biggest problem in the area.

"Unofficial information exchange at the level of officials has improved in the last couple o years, but we still need more clarity about who is responsible for organizing Estonian language training for adults," Loite said. "It speaks volumes that the Estonian language development plan drawn up by the Ministry of Education and Research, which was in force until 2017, didn't even include adults as a target group."

The preparation of the fundamentals of the new language policy, he also noted, has ground to a halt.

"The Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of the Interior see the need for clearer and more central cooperation, management and coordination in this area, and the Ministry of Education and Research sees the need for a bigger role which, in its response to the National Audit Office, it agreed to take on," Loite said.

What can be done? Improve coordination

The National Audit Office is advising that a management system for the area of Estonian language training for adults and the responsibilities of respective state agencies be agreed upon. Money and training must be aimed where they are needed most, meaning that it is also necessary to determine the levels and regions where there is a shortage of teachers, and to offer in-service training, methodological help or new teachers accordingly.

The risk of duplication and the inefficient use of funds exists for as long as nobody asks these questions and no such overview exists, the audit office highlighted.

The Minister of Education and Research, the Minister of Culture, the Minister of Social Affairs, the Minister of the Interior, the Minister of Population and the Minister of Justice mostly agreed with the conclusions and recommendations  made in the audit, and highlighted and explained the activities of their respective areas of government in the organization of Estonian language instruction for adults.

"We suggest discussing teaching Estonian as a second language to adults in the Cabinet," the education minister, whose duties include planning language policy and drawing up relevant draft legislation, emphasized in response to the National Audit Office. "The Ministry of Education and Research has experience in the planning and implementation of comprehensive programs which take into consideration the needs of different target groups and strategic goals, and with the relevant funds is prepared to take the leading role."


The preservation of the Estonian language is one of the fundamental values emphasized in the Preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia. Currently, five ministries organize Estonian language training for adults via several national development plans and 32 activities.

Pursuant to the Government of the Republic Act, the broader planning of language policy and the drawing up of relevant draft legislation is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Research. For example, specific activities in the area of responsibility of this ministry include, among others, compensation of language training expenses for people who pass Estonian language proficiency exams, the organization of proficiency exams, the support of language training for educational workers in Ida-Viru County, as well as supervision.

According to statutes, other ministries also organize language training for various target groups. The Ministry of Culture provides poorly integrated permanent residents and new immigrants with opportunities for language instruction. Language training is also offered to recipients of international protection via the Ministry of Social Affairs, and to unemployed people and those at risk of losing their jobs or need Estonian language training to boost their professional development via Töötukassa.

The Ministry of the Interior organizes language training at the beginner level within the scope of the integration program for new immigrants as well as allows foreigners who have lived in Estonia for more than five years to conclude language training contracts via the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences in order to apply for Estonian citizenship. The Ministry of Justice also organizes language training for detainees.

For the purposes of this audit, the National Audit Office regarded as language training for adults any Estonian language courses, training, language immersion and other activities for people aged 18 and over, the goal of which is to improve participants' Estonian language skills but which are not included in the curriculum of an educational institution or offered as an elective subject in a curriculum.

The direct focus of the audit was not on assessing outcomes, methods or impacts of language training, which have been covered by other studies commissioned by various ministries over the years.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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