Estonian Language House to offer language training, guidance, home in Narva

The site of the future Narva Estonian Language House at Linda 2.
The site of the future Narva Estonian Language House at Linda 2. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Nine months after officially relocating from the capital to Estonia's northeasternmost city, the Integration Foundation and its second subsidiary Estonian Language House will be opening its doors at its new, permanent location in Narva. The custom-planned environment and static address are hoped to provide much longed-for stability for its employees, clients, language students and other city residents alike.

The yet-current main office of the Integration Foundation, which was relocated from Tallinn to Narva as of Jan. 1, was bustling on Wednesday morning.

Amid the barely controlled chaos that always accompanies a move, there was extra commotion in the suite containing the office of foundation director Irene Käosaar following a fresh delivery — while everything else was in the process of being boxed up to be relocated a block away to the foundation's future, permanent home, a tall display board was delivered that morning, to be scrawled on by all of the employees.

"Ah, this message must have been written by a native Russian-speaker," Käosaar mused, pointing out one Estonian-language sentence in particular as she read over some of the messages on another board. "The sentence structure gives it away."

She explained that the boards were part of "Mina tean!" ("I know!"), a newly-launched campaign by jobs portal CV-Online. The "I know" is in reference to knowing why one works where they do. Messages already written on the board for the Narva location of a nationwide home improvement retail chain were in a mix of Estonian and Russian; it was these she was reading over.

In the case of the Integration Foundation, Käosaar and several other employees have all alluded in several conversations in February and September alike that one of the best aspects of their jobs is their fellow colleagues. Nonetheless, something was missing.

"The environment has such a big impact," she explained regarding the ad hoc drifting of the foundation's services and language courses, which are currently still scattered across various locations throughout the city. "We can say that we'll find [Estonian language] teachers, and that the brick and mortar aspect isn't important. Of course the teacher is the most important thing — there's nothing to argue here! But you can provide a lot of support via your environment. Teachers constantly have to run around town with all their materials — visual aids, workbooks, their laptops, board games... You're running here and there around town, and this is exhausting."

These sentiments were echoed at two separate points by two different language teachers who stopped in before heading out to teach their next language class. Estonia may be known for its e-everything and digital everything, but even today, some things continue to be best taught in a more hands-on fashion.

Currently, the head office of the Integration Foundation is still located on the third floor of Kerese Centre, and one room on the second floor is still used as a classroom. Other classes meet at the library, for example, or at the University of Tartu's Narva College.

"We all want to have a home," Käosaar said. "Sometimes we like visiting or traveling, visiting other cities and countries, but we all want a home to come back to. Students actually want this peace and stability too. They want their own classroom; they want that secure environment."

As soon as the foundation established its first Estonian Language House in Tallinn, which entered into operation at the beginning of this year, according to Käosaar, students and teachers alike were noticeably more satisfied.

It promoted the new location, and more and more people began to show up — and not just initially, but ever since. Their language classes are full, and the Tallinn location also hosts various clubs, movie screenings, hikes and even camps. 

"Our students are all very different," she explained. "For some, language learning can be a stressful situation. In that case, the first thing they need is to be able to relax — 'I'm in a safe environment, whew!' Now they can unplug from everything going on at work, at home and around town and really focus on learning and speaking to people in Estonian."

The hope is that the same will happen when the Narva Estonian Language House opens its doors to the public next month — on Oct. 1, if everything remains on schedule.

Rooms of their own

The proposal for the establishment of the Vaba Lava Theatre Centre in Narva was approved by the Estonian government in January 2016. The theater center moved into the completely rehauled old Baltijets military-industrial factory building at Linda 2 and officially opened its doors in December 2018, less than three years later.

Other tenants have since followed suit, including Estonian Public Broadcasting's Narva studio, the cafe Kohvik No2, and the Russian-language amateur Narva Theatre "Ilmarine."

In many respects, the complex already resembles Telliskivi Creative City in Tallinn, or Aparaaditehas in Tartu, just on a smaller scale, and with fewer tenants in total — for now.

Regarding their future neighbors, Käosaar also expressed hope that they and the other tenants of the Narva complex can work together on projects in the future, including with Objekt, for example, a startup incubator set to move in upstairs.

The Integration Foundation and its Narva Estonian Language House are moving into one half of the first floor of the Kerese tänav-facing part of the Baltijets complex, which has recently received a fresh coat of white paint, inside and out. A restaurant is expected to move into the other half.

"As the owner is currently building everything out anew anyway, we had the luxury of it being built according to our wishes," Käosaar said. "As a result, we were able to give a lot of input into the layout."

Käosaar and Narva Estonian Language House director Margarita Källo were given a tour of the rooms on Wednesday morning, where they stepped carefully around and under a cadre of construction workers, plumbers and electricians working in every room as well as outside the building. The planned opening was less than three weeks away, and there was still painting to do, light fixtures to hang, duct work to finish and ceiling panels to install. To speak nothing of furniture.

Facing the building from the Kerese tänav side, a main entrance is situated in the middle which will provide access to the Integration Foundation offices on the first floor and Objekt on the second. The main entrance to the Estonian Language House as such, it was explained, is located around the side of the building; the two directors discussed possible options for a sign directing visitors accordingly with the chief architect.

Inside, the 800-square meter space, with a mix of closed-off smaller rooms and open, flowing spaces, is divided into two, with foundation offices, a kitchen and other amenities located in the front-facing half, and the back half including a spacious entryway, three smaller classrooms, a teachers' room, and a larger seminar room that will also be fitted with a high-quality projector, which among other functions will serve as a space to host movie nights.

Trending tandem

The division of the administrative from the public-use space will help provide peace and privacy for the foundation's employees and the personal data of foundation clients, as well as a separate and dedicated shared space for language students, foundation clients and other members of the public.

"From our students' perspective, right now they're not developing stronger ties with this organization because physically, they're located somewhere else," Källo explained, saying she hoped that the new Estonian Language House would become a place they were always welcome.

"We've been talking for the past year already about how we are open, but where? There is nowhere to welcome anyone," she continued. "Once we've moved, we already have plans lined up to invite various organizations to visit and get to know us. People are very interested in finding out more about us."

According to the director, the Estonian Language House's target audience is not just either long-term residents or recent arrivals who don't speak Estonian, but also Estonian speakers. A crucial aspect of integration, she highlighted, is the other side being prepared to accept them.

"We're currently testing out a format known as tandem language learning, where people learn in a tandem — one Estonian speaker and one Russian speaker who want to learn each other's language," she said. "Here we need to really look for Estonian speakers, as there are so few of them in Ida-Viru County."

Källo stressed that any Estonian speakers who are either interested in learning Russian — as younger generations in particular are less likely to speak it — or simply want to contribute to increasing cohesion in Estonian society via volunteer work of sorts are very much welcome at the Estonian Language House. The house, she added, is for them too.

Tandem learning has proven a particular hit in the Ida-Viru towns of Kohtla-Järve and Sillamäe as well.

"It brings people together," she said. "When you are sitting opposite someone who wants to learn your native language and maybe isn't quite so fluent in it yet, that is encouraging, as funny as that sounds. We've done outreach events in Kohtla-Järve and Sillamäe where we demonstrated how tandem lessons work, and it was just fantastic to see how people suddenly began to realize, 'Wow, okay, learning Estonian and learning another language is hard for both people.' And both people make mistakes, and speak with accents, and it's not the end of the world! You see that you can keep improving. And that is very encouraging."

Redirecting as necessary

The results of an audit released by the National Audit Office late last month indicate 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, the report noted, language training has no one clear leader.

Käosaar, however, did not consider this to be a problem, pointing out that on an individual basis, people don't generally care who is in charge of their language training.

"We've committed to being the initial filter," she described. "Someone reaches us, and we evaluate that they have such-and-such a language level, this motive [for learning Estonian], and this experience with language learning. This is of course an exaggerated example, but a heptalingual linguistics professor from Spain at the University of Tartu that speaks zero Estonian and a monolingual security guard in Narva that speaks no Estonian whatsoever and has no previous experience learning foreign languages — you can't compare them. How they learn, and what their needs are getting started, are going to be completely different."

Thus the Integration Foundation determines an individual's language level, their motives for language study and previous foreign language learning experience, and then redirects its client to the most appropriate ministry or services — whether it is their own in-house language courses or other services or someone else's.

"If anything, what is lacking is coordination," Käosaar continued. "How should someone know where they need to go? We are the ones that, on a case-by-case basis, have to determine the right solution. Someone comes to us, sits down with us, and emerges headed in the right direction."

Would the solution be to direct more people to the Integration Foundation?

According to its director, this is already happening.

"We have an agreement with the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa), for example," she said. "Töötukassa funds language instruction at institutions — but they do just that, only fund. The institution itself has to write the project, find instructors, draw up a program. But institution directors themselves are no language teachers. So we have an agreement in place with Töötukassa — if they end up with any contacts, they will redirect them to us, and our advisers will show up and assess the situation. They'll help the employer with drawing up and the wording of the project, and the latter will then receive Töötukassa funding."

The foundation has a similar agreement in place with Estonia's welcoming program, which has the resources to get people to the A1 level in Estonian very quickly.

"If we see that someone has recently arrived, we'll remove them from our database and redirect them [to the welcome program]," Käosaar said. "This frees up a spot for someone who doesn't qualify for the welcome program."

Thus, rather than Estonian language instruction being decentralized disjointedly across several state authorities, the Integration Foundation sees a system that by and large works, with itself and at least some of its services being the element connecting them all together.

"We're like a traffic circle, and we direct people regarding where to exit," Käosaar said. "If you don't know where to exit, you can end up just doing lap after lap around the circle. Or end up going in completely the wrong direction. And afterward, it can be very difficult to turn back. You'll realize that you're going in completely the wrong direction, but just in case you'll keep going that way..."

Whatever the design ends up being, it seems as though the sign to be placed on the Baltijets building directing people from the street to the entrance of the Estonian Language House will be guiding them well beyond just to a front door.


Click here to find out more about the Integration Foundation and the services it provides, and here to read more about the Estonian Language Houses.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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