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Language Policy in Estonia,
by Mart Rannut


In order to improve the knowledge of Estonian among school-leavers of gymnasiums, a requirement was imposed to start transition to Estonian as the language of tuition for 60% of total teaching at the gymnasium level in 2007. However, the preparations for this have been inadequate. The National programmefor the education of new immigrant children is currently at the draft stage. It may well be that the arrival of new immigrants will further complicate the language problems in education. For the future objectives are set as follows:

  • students of non-Estonian-medium primary schools (compulsory education) will acquire Estonian at level B2, which will enable them to continue their studies or seek employment in Estonian-language environments (secondary education, workplaces);

  • linguistic integration of new immigrants into Estonian society will be arranged according to a special programmeincluding teacher in-service training and language materials for students and teachers (methodological handbook).

16. Estonian in vocational schools

According to law, Estonian is the language of tuition in vocational schools. However, as an exception vocational training can be carried out in Russian as well. The scope of Russian-language vocational training is about 36 per cent. In Russian-language vocational schools or Russian-language study groups of vocational schools Estonian is compulsory only for students studying on the basis of compulsory education.

The state does not regulate the teaching of Estonian in Russian-language vocational training. The majority of school-leavers of Russian-language vocational schools are unable to work and communicate in the Estonian-language environment, thus being vulnerable in the face of employment changes. Plans foresee restructuring of Russian-language vocational training and its gradual transition to full Estonian-language tuition. The plan will among other things foresee termination of admission to Russian-language vocational training on the basis of secondary education, a considerable increase in the scope of teaching Estonian and Estonian-medium teaching, and transition to integrated teaching in institutions with two languages of tuition.

17. Language Technology

The technology support of a language consists of linguistic resources, linguistic software, and the applications of the latter. Its objective is to develop the language technology support of the Estonian language up to the level that will enable the Estonian language to successfully function in the contemporary information-technological environment. Estonia has its own specialists for creating linguistic resources, linguistic software, and its applications as well as opportunities for training new specialists in computational linguistics and language technology.

By now Estonia has entered the phase where most wide-spread software products are available also in Estonian (Windows XP, WindowsOffice, Linux, OpenOffice, several book-keeping, management and information programmes plus menus of high-technology products), however, the domain is legally not regulated. Also various speech technology products are used, though for persons with special needs mostly.

Support from the state is necessary for the elaboration of prototypes of applied language processing systems and order the elaboration of marketable finished products from software companies.

Tasks include creation of various language-technological applications, including automatic speech recognition, speech synthesis, grammar checker, machine-translation programmes, information-search programmes, abstracting and summarising programmes and interactive language teaching programmes.

Simultaneously development of the following language resources is planned:

  • enlargement of the general corpora of Standard Estonian, colloquial Estonian, multilingual parallel corpora for the elaboration of translation software;

  • specialised corpora, first of all a dialogue corpus and syntactically tagged corpus for the elaboration of communication programmes that allow the use of natural language;

  • a database of spoken Estonian for the creation of Estonian-language software of speech recognition;

  • a standard system of electronic dictionaries, including bilingual dictionaries, for online use as well as in language-technology applications, for the compilation of new translation dictionaries, in language-teaching and translation programmes;

  • a lexical-grammatical database and a lexical-semantic database (thesaurus) of the Estonian language;

  • formalised linguistic descriptions for the creation of programmes of morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic analysis and synthesis;

Refinement of the existing programmes for morphological analysis and synthesis and the elaboration of programmes for automatic syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic analysis and synthesis are constant on-going activities.

18. Development strategy of the Estonian language

The development strategy of the Estonian language (DSEL, to be adopted by the Parliament in 2004) outlines the development priorities of the Estonian language as the only state language of the Republic of Estonia and the national language of Estonian for the years 2004–2010. The main objective of the strategy is to realise the opportunities provided by the constitution and legislation to secure the protection, sustainability, development, and full-scale use as a state language in all spheres of life on the entire territory of the Estonian state. The Government of the Republic, its ministries, local governments, educational, research, and development institutions will proceed from DSEL in planning and organising their language-related work. DSEL will serves as the basis for the Ministry of Education and Research for working out the annual action plans concerning the Estonian language.

Several institutions participate in the implementation of DSEL areas: Ministry of Education and Research (chief executive body); Estonian Language Council (advisory expert committee to the ER minister); Language Inspectorate (supervision of the observance of the language act and other legal acts regulating the use of language); Tallinn and Tartu Universities, the Institute of the Estonian Language (research and development institutions); Estonian Legal Language Centre (creates and administers the database of legal terminology); Vőru Institute (research and development institution developing the local Vőro language and culture); Mother Tongue Society (non-profit society, contributes to the research and planning of the Estonian language); Association of Estonian-language Teachers (non-profit society, brings together teachers of the Estonian language and literature); Estonian Terminology Society (non-profit society that supports and in some domains coordinates terminological work); Estonian Society for Applied Linguistics (liaison body to AILA); Integration Foundation for non-Estonians (implements the national integration programme for 2000-2007); National Examination and Qualification Centre (institution administered by the Ministry of Education and Research, draws up the assignments for national examinations in the Estonian language and conducts the examinations, issues the language certificates for employment and citizenship).

ELDS is supported through several national programmes, such as:

  • Estonian Language and National Memory (2004–2008) (the development of language planning and specialised language, basic dictionaries of Estonian, and language-technology projects as well as the shaping of linguistic attitudes),

  • South Estonian Language and Culture (2000–2004) (development, research, teaching, and use of the South Estonian varieties of the Estonian language in the media and culture),

  • Academic Foreign Teaching Programmeof the Estonian Language and Culture (2004–2008) manages the system for the teaching of the Estonian language and culture in those European universities that present more interest to Estonia,

  • Compatriots’ Programme(2004–2008) supports compatriots living outside Estonia, their Estonian language usage and Estonian-medium teaching through Estonian schools, Sunday schools, and language courses,

  • Estonian identity 2006–2009 (language marketing programmeto be adopted next year).

Besides, traditional tasks in corpus and status planning, language-in-education and language technology, language marketing as a new domain was introduced. Language marketing (prestige planning) includes motivation to use good Estonian in all spheres of life, application of linguistic criteria in employment, tenders and contracts, etc., stimulation of Estonian-language tuition, research and entertainment, including Estonian-language popular music, motivation to use Estonian-language software both in established and emerging fields of information technology. The task is to enhance language awareness, shape linguistic attitudes, and popularise good usage in society at large in order to secure a favourable reputation of the language among its users and a high status in society as a whole.

DSEL looks into issues of tertiary education and research also. The long tradition of Estonian-medium higher education and research supports the Estonian language. However, internationalisation is accompanied by the use of foreign languages, including the emergence of students and lecturers with an insufficient knowledge of Estonian. In some domains the specialised language is not taught, and the specialised terminology is absent. Therefore, ELDS foresees the provision of specialised dictionaries and Estonian-language teaching materials for various domains, preservation of the current extent of Estonian-medium teaching, publication of major research results also in Estonian. University graduates are obliged to master the advanced level of Estonian.

Various tasks are also focused on the regional varieties of Estonian (dialects and the corresponding literary varieties; varieties of Estonian as used by Estonians living in different countries), varieties of social groups (sociolects, slang), and varieties of people with special linguistic needs, including the Estonian sign language.

The most prominent regional variety (language) Vőro is based on South Estonian dialects that served as the basis for the historical Tartu language. These are regarded as cultural heritage, a source for the development of Standard Estonian, and the bearer of the local Estonian identity.

The Estonian language of Estonians living abroad is the language variety used by people who are native speakers of Estonian and whose ancestors were speakers of Estonian but who live outside Estonia. Their language variety is related to the area or country where they live. The mother tongue of expatriates develops separately from the language of the mother country and is influenced by the country of residence. The state supports the study of Standard Estonian and the study in Standard Estonian, as well as the collection and research of language materials of the Estonian language outside Estonia.

People with special linguistic needs include the deaf and people with impaired hearing, also the blind, the deaf blind, dyslectics, etc. The Estonian Sign Language is used by people with impaired hearing. The task here is to guarantee favourable conditions for study, communication, and work to users of the sign language and other people with special linguistic needs.

Besides Estonian, foreign laguage policy is provided in the document. English, Russian, German, French, and Finnish languages affect the development of Estonian most and are also of special importance in international communication. In order to assure normal development of Estonian and avoid undesirable influences it is essential that the Estonian population should have a good knowledge of foreign languages (two or three foreign languages, including English), there should be qualified interpreters and translators with an excellent knowledge of Estonian, and the Estonian language should be represented internationally. Therefore, the aim is to implement a foreign language policy that will take into account the development needs of the Estonian language (learning and teaching, study and use) and to assure the international representation of the Estonian language. Tasks foreseen are: reaching the level in foreign-language teaching that will enable a) the school-leavers of compulsory schools to attain the B1 level in at least one foreign language; b) the school-leavers of secondary schools to attain the B2 level in at least one foreign language; c) graduates of higher schools to attain the B2 level in at least two foreign languages; d) teachers of foreign languages to attain the C2 level in the respective language. Expanding the training of university lecturers, teachers, interpreters, and translators in foreign languages and organising continuing education, market research for the identification of target groups and their needs, academic supervision, evaluation of interpreters and translators and modernisation of teaching materials and curricula are the main activities planned. This goes hand-in-hand with the increasing role of Estonian in the foreign language curricula, supporting the contrastive studies of Estonian and the languages that influence Estonian and developing teaching materials that take into account the relations between Estonian and the influencing languages, establishing the national test development centre and expanding academic learning of Estonian outside Estonia.

19. Conclusion

At present the Estonian language is used in all spheres of life. However, many fields show signs of domain loss to other languages and drawbacks in the quality of the language used. The past decade in Estonia has been oriented towards openness; the position of Estonian has weakened against the background of globalisation and the development of the information society. The negative factors affecting the development opportunities of the Estonian language include immigration of non-Estonian speakers and emigration of Estonians as well as the absolute decrease in the number of native speakers of Estonian. The latter is not compensated by a certain increase in the number of people who know Estonian in Estonia and the rest of the world.

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