Estonian language cop as busy as ever

  • 2004-05-06
Ilmar Tomusk
* born June 28, 1964
* graduated from Tallinn Pedagogical University, 1989
* graduated from Finland's Jyvaskyla University, 1993 (Finnish language, culture and literature)
* graduated from Tallinn Technical University, 2002 (Ph.D. in public administration)
* member of the Estonian Christian People's Party, a Euroskeptic party not represented in Parliament
* head of Language Inspectorate since 1995

For any small nation, defending the integrity of its national language is a matter of primary importance, if not survival. For nearly the past 10 years Ilmar Tomusk, as director of Estonia's Language Inspectorate - the nightmare of public servants who speak the national language poorly - has been the individual charged with tidying up (and in some cases, mopping up) Estonian and ensuring that the complex Finno-Ugric tongue does not become bastardized by Russian and English loanwords. Aleksei Gunter met with him recently to discuss the challenges of policing one of Europe's smallest national languages.

What are the current duties of the Language Inspectorate?
Generally speaking, it is the control over implementation of the Law on Language. However, different rules for language-use are based on this law. The work of the Language Inspectorate is usually seen in the control of workers' language proficiency -this is, of course, important, but it is not the [inspectorate's] only task. Our work profile includes, for example, control of the information language - signs, advertisements, et cetera. We only control the language of documents in state institutions and local municipalities because there are no such rules for the private sector. We cannot go to a company and ask them what language their documents are in.

What has changed in the decade that you've worked in the inspectorate? Do you have less work nowadays?
No, we definitely do not have less work. The legislation has changed significantly. When I got this job in the summer of 1995, the new Law on Language had just been endorsed, but there were no clear regulations on its implementation. It means that all the clarifications the government has introduced since then were not there yet - how to arrange language proficiency exams, who must have command of the Estonian language and at what level.
The number of people whose professional language proficiency we control has decreased. The target group that needed a language proficiency certificate, according to the 1989 law, amounted to nearly 100,000 people. Now, after the latest amendments to the law, this group has dried up by 40 percent. Today there are about 50,000 to 60,000 people whose language proficiency we are eligible to control.

As to the checks on the public sector workers' language proficiency, how are these arranged?
We control the public sector systematically. In the private sector, we react to complaints. Or there could be a particular field that falls under our attention, say, we studied the market of ptisan, pharmaceutical tea and other drug-like products, and found the labels had very poor translations. We took this problem under control.
In the public sector, we carry out checks systematically and after some time, we do second checks too. The important institutions for us are educational, medical, police, border guards, customs - those fields which the health, security and very life of people depend upon. Our aim is to make sure one can communicate with those institutions in Estonian, which is, unfortunately, not always available.
Now we can impose more significant fines. Virtually every check of the police department workers' language skills brings several fines. We do not impose fines straight away, but only if it is clear that during several years, language proficiency has not improved.

What about making Russian a regional language for the northeastern part of the country?
The position of the Russian language in Estonia informally - not de jure but de facto - is very strong already because there is a very long tradition of Russian education, culture, and theatre. In the opinion of some legal experts, it does not need legal regulation because it is already strong.
In some Ida-Viru county governments documents are first composed in Russian and only then translated into Estonian. According to the charter, the language of migrants cannot be a regional language, and again we come to the question: Who can be considered migrants? How long must a national group live in a country to stop being a migrant? Some say this term is 50 years, some say five years, some say 300 years.
Such a situation as ours can be found only in Latvia, and nowhere else in Europe. There is no experience on how to handle it.

As for the attitude of national minorities toward the state's language policy and the necessity of learning Estonian, do you think it has changed recently?
The attitude toward the obligation to learn Estonian has always been quite positive. I'm talking about this abstract understanding that one must speak Estonian. When we get to concrete things like studying and passing exams, nothing really has changed. What has affected people's attitude is the changes in the state's language policy.
There are now more options for students to pass the language exams for naturalization at school. This has improved the rate of passing, as has the Phare program that pays back money spent on language training. But in general, things have not improved to a major extent. One reason for this is that in the early 1990s, very high standards were set by the language policy, and the government expected a rapid improvement of language proficiency among non-Estonians. But this process did not develop fast. Now that the requirements have been softened and deadlines pushed back, for many non-Estonians it could be a sign of the government's uncertainty.

What do you think about Estonian in the local media?
In my opinion, it has got worse in both electronic and print media. In both commercial and public media we can meet journalists who have poor knowledge of the Estonian language. Sometimes it makes me turn off the radio.

Words borrowed from other languages, mostly from English, are becoming more popular among Estonian youth. What do you think of this trend?
Having its own slang has always been common for youth. When I was in school during the 1970s and 1980s, we used Russian expressions in everyday conversations. We said "davai" and "poka," and it was normal. If those expressions are used in communication among one another, that is acceptable. If it is absorbed into the official language and used in situations when one must speak formal language, like when a young person does not understand and he or she must switch to the other style, this is wrong.