Funding holds up national language exams

  • 2000-08-03
  • Laura Bailey
Russian speakers must wait longer to apply for citizenship

TALLINN - Russian speakers who want to become Estonian citizens may have to wait longer than usual, as a growing demand to take the new national language exam has left the state exam center without enough money to give the test to all who are interested.

The State Exam and Qualification Center's 1 million kroon budget ($60,000) for administrating the restructured exam ran out during the first half of the year with thousands of people still to be tested, Leeni Simm, head of the exam center, told daily newspaper Eesti Paevaleht on July 20.

Ministry of Education language adviser, Juri Valge, said "until now, exams weren't popular, but more people want to apply for citizenship, as it's more and more necessary."

The August's monthly exam had to be cancelled after the 3,042 people who took it this year far surpassed the state's estimations of 2,000. Eesti Paevaleht reported that the exam center predicted a large increase, but the ministry did not believe the estimates.

"Particularly, young non Estonians are interested in becoming fluent in the language and are really assiduous, because employers have begun to seriously demand fluency in the official language," said Simm.

According to the exam center's statistics, the figures have jumped tremendously from last year's 615 people who took the new exam that began in July 1999.

In May alone, some 1,000 people wanted to take the exam, said Hille Hinsberg, a specialist with the integration and language sector of the EU-sponsored PHARE program.

Learning Estonian isn't just a factor in gaining citizenship. It is now a matter of practicality for many, said Hinsberg.

"It is a necessity in some positions, especially in public service positions, such as police work, defense work and also low-paid medical workers," he said.

Hinsberg's program oversees several Estonian language programs for minorities in Tallinn and the Russian-dominated northeast. The program, which began in September 1998, allows public service employees to take language courses for a discounted rate of 300 kroons ($18), while unemployed and disabled learners take courses without charge.

Hinsberg said PHARE's reimbursement program, which offers those who pass the Estonian exam 50 percent of the cost of language classes, may be one of the factors in the increased numbers of test-takers.

Hinsberg said 4,000 people have registered for 40 different language programs administered by PHARE since April 1999. Students tend to be under the age of 30, and three-fourths of the enrollments are women. These numbers, she added, are due to the predominance of females in low-paid medical jobs where knowledge of Estonian language is needed.

"The state exam is solid proof of language proficiency," Hinsberg said, explaining that many people need to have such certification for employment.

The restructuring of the Estonian exam may be another cause of the increased interest. The new testing system, which began in July 1999, allows people to test at beginning, intermediate or advanced levels of Estonian. In addition to passing the state's history and civics exam, five-year residents of Estonia can apply for citizenship one year after passing the lowest level of the language exam.

"Basically, it's quite easy for a nonEstonian to become a citizen because the beginners' level of the exam is quite easy,' said Urmas Krull, a spokesman for the Citizenship and Migration Board.

Krull, whose department has overseen more than 100,000 citizenship applications since 1991, agreed with Hinsberg that Russian-speakers have other reasons for taking the language exam besides applying for citizenship.

"There are also people who are really interested in learning Estonian," he said.

In addition, qualifications from the old exam will be phased out by 2002, and many people are coming back to renew their certificates, said Hinsberg.

The exam center estimated that 8,000 people will want to take the exam this year. Simm said the exams would be put on hold until September, and then only 135 people will be able to test. She added that exams will be held only in Tallinn and Ida-Virumaa counties, while Parnu in west Estonia and Valga in the south will go without.

Valge said the ministry has submitted an application for another 500,000 kroons ($30,000) to its budget department so that exams can start again in the fall. An additional application for another 500,000 kroons will be made after that if the demand continues, he said.

Since Estonia gained independence in 1991, more than 100,000 of the 403,925 non-ethnic, mainly Russian-speaking Estonians have applied for citizenship.