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Language Policy in Estonia,
by Mart Rannut


Together with the adoption with the new Law on Citizenship, the whole system of tests under went under rearrangement. The Main thrust was put on the objectivity of the test, the qualifications of examiners and the administrative management of the testing system. The new language tests were prepared in cooperation with experts from Cambridge University, under the aegis of the Council of Europe (Toomsalu and Simm 1998: 51-52). According to this, language qualifications are monitored through a control system, based on Governmental Decree No. 250 of 20 June 1995, affirming the conducting procedure of the Estonian language exam and the exam on the knowledge of the Constitution and Citizenship Law. (3) The requirement to know the Constitution and the Citizenship Law is implemented in the form of a questionnaire approved by the Decree No. 15 of the Minister of Interior. The level of linguistic sophistication, however, is heterogeneous and seems to exceed that of the Estonian language exam, which requires knowledge at a general level. In addition to that, the terminology belongs to the special-purpose domain. Thus, in order to overcome the difficulties extending beyond the language requirement, examinees are allowed to consult the Estonian-language text of the Constitution and the Citizenship Law during their preparation for the exam.

In 1998 Riigikogu amended the law further, allowing stateless parents who have resided in Estonia at least five years to apply for citizenship for their children born in the Republic of Estonia through simplified procedure. The requirements in this case are the following: the child must be born after 26 February 1992 and be not older than 15 years.

11. Corpus planning

Corpus planning is conscious development, enrichment, stabilisation, and updating of the standard language. It involves provision of linguistic recommendations and fixation of norms. Language cultivation is the practical outlet of corpus planning, with implementation of language-planning recommendations, practical activities for improving the language use and making it more efficient, explanation of linguistic recommendations, their propagation and teaching.

Corpus planning in Estonia has been based on promotion, persuasion and the educational system, avoiding large-scale legal regulation. Thus, the Language Law states laconically: "Article 1(2) The basis of the official use of the Estonian language, in the context of the present Law, shall be the standard of the Estonian written language according to the procedures determined by the Government of the Republic."

The standard of the Estonian written language was determined by the Decree No. 323 of the Estonian Government of 3 October 1995. This interprets the norm as a system of orthographic, grammatical and lexical norms and recommendations, in order to provide integrity and clarity of the official language use. It is also a part of employee’s professional skills. It also establishes the sources, authorities and supervising organs.

Corpus planning activities are supported through the study of Estonian (knowledge about the Estonian language, the structure of its varieties, usage, variation, and change) that are based on language collections. The goals include research quality, providing that Estonian will be studied on an internationally accepted level in all the contemporary branches of linguistics and publishing comprehensive academic treatments. Usually the activities under corpus planning are divided into three:

  • Standard language planning aims at the quality of Standard Estonian, preparing language planning resources (dictionaries and usage guides), and developing the databases, providing uniform linguistic norms and recommendations.

  • Language for Special Purposes (LSP) planning is a part of corpus planning focusing on the formalisation needs of sublanguages (systematised technical vocabulary, specialised dictionaries) with the aim of providing good Estonian specialised language that will meet the requirements of specialists.

  • Name planning is a system of principles and practical measures that regulates names as identifiable linguistic forms, guaranteeing clarity, precision, and unambiguity in their usage. It also protects and develops the Estonian onomastic heritage as a bearer of the Estonian identity. The existing standards include the 1995 business law (includes the chapter on business names), the 2003 place-name law and the law of personal names (2004).

Language collections are vital for the study and planning of the Estonian language. Tasks include here preservation and constant enlargement of the collections, systematisation and technological modernisation of the collections (digitalisation, storage of compact discs, etc.) and making the collections user-friendly (including online access).

Legal regulation in naming policies is more thorough. Peeter Päll (1997) has listed the legal acts regulating name usage. The fifth chapter (Articles 19-22) of the Language Law (4) deals with names, designations and information. Special attention is paid to solving legal disputes concerning the international form of a name, according to which the international Latin-letter form of a name of an Estonian place, citizen, item, enterprise, institution or organisation is same as the name used in Estonia.

In addition, several separate laws touch on issues of names (cf. Päll 1997). Law on administrative division of Estonian territory, (5) to this a governmental decree was attached, in order to effectuate the changes of boundaries and names of smaller administrative objects. (6) Law on Geographical names was adopted on December 11 1996. (7) Family law concerning the issues related to personal names was adopted in October 10, 1994. (8) Business law adopted in February 15, 1995 (9) deals with the issue of business name in its second chapter (Articles 7-15).

12. Acquisition planning

The language of education has been also a concern for both Estonians and speakers of other languages, inherently linked to conflicting interests of common language promotion and minority maintenance. This dilemma is reflected in the Constitution. For educational rights, Art. 37(4) of the Constitution states: "All persons have the right to instruction in Estonian. Simultaneously, the second clause guarantees the right of educational institutions established for ethnic minorities to choose their own language of instruction."

Article 6 of the Language Law provides for educational guarantees in the Estonian language and in a foreign language: "State institutions and local governments shall guarantee the opportunity to acquire Estonian-language education, according to the procedures prescribed in law, in all the educational institutions belonging to them, as well as the opportunity to acquire a foreign-language education, according to the procedures prescribed by law." The same principle was earlier adopted in the Law on Education in 1992.

Language teaching in other types of school is regulated in the corresponding laws. The Law on Private Schools (10) gives the owner of the school the right to determine the language of the school (Art. 14), requiring the teaching of Estonian from the third grade (third year of primary school). The Law on Vocational Schools (11) prescribes Estonian as the language of education (Art. 18(3)). The use of other languages is determined by the founder of the school. The Law on Universities (12) prescribes Estonian as the language of instruction (art. 22(8)), leaving the use of other languages to be determined by the University Council.

13. Current situation

There exists a documented demand among the Russian-speaking community for increased Estonian-language learning opportunities. Russian-speaking parents are increasingly seeking opportunities to help their children become bilingual but are also concerned that children should retain their cultural identity. Current Estonian-as-a-second-language teaching strategies have not brought about the required returns. In particular, the majority of high school graduates from Russian-language schools do not have sufficient Estonian language skills to be competitive in the job market or to continue their studies in institutions of higher learning. Thus, this issue constitutes a major priority of the Estonian Government, which adopted the State Programme Integration in Estonian Society 2000-2007 in 2000.

14. Pre-school education

The main problem with Russian medium pre-school educational institutions is the low competence of teachers. In 2002 there were 596 pre-school educational institutions in Estonia, including 125 Russian medium kindergartens (incl. kindergartens with working language being Estonian and Russian). There are also special preparatory groups in schools for 6-7 year old pre-school children. There are about 50 000 children in the age range of 1-7 years in pre-school education. The number of non-Estonian speaking children is approximately 12 000. These are children attending Russian medium nursery schools (9,917 children) and Russian language groups in Estonian medium nursery schools (2 068 children).

The number of non-Estonian children attending Estonian language groups in Estonian medium nursery schools is about 2,500. In recent years, the number of non-Estonian parents is increasing who choose an Estonian medium nursery school for their child, but the Estonian-speaking nursery school teachers do not have sufficient knowledge to develop and teach Russian speaking children.

In 1995 Estonian as a second language began to be taught to 5-6 year olds in Russian medium pre-schools. In 2000 the obligation to teach Estonian was extended to the nursery schools and first grade (reception class) levels (in total 12,000 children in Russian medium nursery schools). At the same time, the education of teachers at pre-school institutions has little connection with Estonia; a vast majority of teachers working in Russian-medium schools were trained outside of Estonia. There are about 750 teachers working in Russian medium nursery schools (including Estonian as a second language teachers) and about 6,500 teachers working in Estonian-speaking nursery school. The number of preparatory group teachers for pre-school children in Russian medium schools is about 40. In order to overcome those challenges extensive in-service training has been launched for nursery personnel.

15. Schools

Education is the most important means of guaranteeing the development and status of the language. The role of education is to provide general literacy and professional competence. Secondary education, especially compulsory education, is of fundamental importance because of its impact on language use. The requirement of the Estonian language environment deriving from the Estonian Constitution implies the task of providing proficiency in Estonian language in the framework of compulsory education. However, several challenges are confronted in the implementation of this task.

The challenges here are the large number of non-Estonian pupils and their isolation from Estonian-speakers. In line with the corresponding demographic trend, the number of Russian-speaking pupils increased up to the year 1990, when their share comprised 37% from the total number of pupils. Currently, qualitative changes are taking place in this respect. In 1993, 17% of the schools used Russian as the medium of instruction. In the 2003/2004 school year, there were (in addition to 521 Estonian-medium schools) 87 Russian-medium schools and 25 mixed schools. Currently, however, there are less than 40,000 pupils in Russian-medium schools, a figure which decreases by 4-5% every year. The main reason for this drop is the repatriation connected with withdrawal of Russian troops in September 1994 and an extremely low birth rate (ca 3,000 children born to Russian-speaking families annually), consequently resulting in a shortage of pupils. Due to this, several Russian schools have been closed down. The second highly visible reason for decrease is Russian parents' desire to place their children in Estonian pre-school educational establishments and schools in order to immerse them in the language (ca. 5% of the places in Estonian schools, over 4,000 pupils). This has resulted in a lower proficiency level in Estonian as well as in other disciplines for all pupils. To avoid these negative effects, the number of Russians in the Estonian-medium educational institutions has been limited. Simultaneously, alternative programmes for Russian children are being started.

According to the national curriculum, the teaching of non-Estonian children is provided also in the Russian language. In this way, the monolingual Russian-medium educational system with Estonian taught mainly as a subject, adopted during the Soviet occupation is maintained. To improve the situation, since 1996 Estonian has been taught from the 1st grade (first year of primary school). Some Russian-medium schools use Estonian as a medium for teaching certain subjects (history, geography), in the form of a partial immersion.

For Russian students, Estonian-medium total immersion programmes, both early (since 2000) and late (since 2004) have been introduced. Currently over 1,000 students study in programmes of early (7 schools) and late immersion (4 schools). In addition, Annelinna Secondary School offers partial immersion programmes.

The most challenging issue in education is definitely secondary education of Russian students in Estonia. Due to minute numbers (ca. 4,000), full-scale secondary education via Russian is not considered expedient. The solution seems to be the gradual introduction of bilingual programmes, providing satisfactory knowledge in the national language. About 25 per cent of secondary-school students study through the medium of Russian. Most school-leavers of non-Estonian-medium secondary schools have an insufficient knowledge of Standard Estonian. The main reasons for this are as follows:

  1. most subjects are taught in Russian;

  2. the scope of teaching Estonian and the methods used do not guarantee the acquisition of Estonian;

  3. the knowledge of Estonian among teachers (including teachers of the Estonian language) fail to meet the standards.

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