Eesti Elu
Estonian language debate, alive and well and perennially on society’s agenda (1)
Arvamus 13 May 2011  Eesti Elu
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In Estonia, it has been acknowledged by most (if not all) that one of the most important characteristics of nations is language. It also helps to differentiate nations. But it’s still diffcult to determine how crucial language is in maintaining a sense of community/national unity, belongingness and self-realization. In Estonia language is taken by most as being the basis for self-identity. It’s even considered by many to be sacred.

Estonian parlamentarian Tõnis Lukas, formerly minister of education and science, has once gain entered the debate with a relatively firm viewpoint of the language issue as it relates to education.

The requirement that the basic language of instructiuon be Estonian in government funded schools in Estonia was legislated already in 1993. The initial objective was to meet the legislative requirement by 2000. Various parliaments in between have delayed the deadline, but the final one, adopted in 2007, was slated for the fall of 2011, by which time all high schools must provide students with at least 60 per cent of its instruction in Estonian.

During the recent parliamentary election campaign, Edgar Savisaar’s Centre Party was able to drum up protests both in Tallinn and Narva, goading some local school committees to demand that 16 highschools be excluded from the fall 2011 deadline. (These demands have been made possible by an ammendment to the initial legislation, made by a coalition government of the Reform and Centre parties in 2002, by which local school bodies can make proposals for deadline exemption.)

Lucas considers the granting of exemptions to be a form of injustice to those school districts who have taken the effort to comply with the legislation.

The most common excuse for not complying is the complaint that it’s impossible to find qualified teachers. It’s obvious that those schools who were convinced that changes to the legislation would let them off the hook, are now complaining about the lack of teachers. The schools that took the legislation seriously had no problem in finding teachers and meeting the dealine.

It was expected that all schools would comply. Since 2007 its was required that the evolution to the Estonian language would be through adding one subject per year to the list of Estonian language instruction. Compulsory would be Estonian literature, Estonian history, music, social (civic) studies and geography. The government has invested extra in educating teachers and providing teaching materials in those subjects. Schools that have beat the deadline have received extra financial support and will be able to decide for themselves what subjects to prioritize.

Nineteen municipalities have Russian language high schools. Tallinn has 24 (three are private schools), Narva has eight with one private school and the rest in Kohtla-Järve, Sillamäe (with Russian speaking majorities) and Tartu. In total Estonia has 54 Russian speaking high schools, with nine being bilingual. Of the 60 Russian speaking schools (four private), only 4496 students are in years 10, 11 and 12.

It was understood the Russian speaking shcools in Tallinn were adhering to the schedule as detailed in the 2007 legislation. It is now surprising that eight schools in Tallinn have informed the ministry that they will teach in Estonian in only 40 percent of the subjects rather than the 60 percent as required.

Lukas’ position is straight forward. Those schools that comply with the required deadline will continue in the government school system. Students who are affected could be placed into schools that comply. Thus the number of Russian speaking schools in both Narva and Tallinn will be reduced to half, which will realistically reflect the natural decrease in the school population.

Nearly 20 years of governmental flexibility and compromise has run its Course. Resolve and determination sends a clear message to interested parties, both domestic and international.
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