Olev Vaarik and Merike Tamme are talking about mountains. Vacations and free time is their topic. They are preparing for the spoken part of the beginners' level national Estonian exam. With Estonian name tags hanging around their necks, they are in the first group in their language school to prepare for the new, communication-oriented exam testing general Estonian language skills.
In their group of 10, about half are Russians, one is Bulgarian, and two are western Europeans. They know they will be reimbursed up to 1,200 kroons ($79) if they pass the exam, thanks to PHARE's InterEst program supporting adult language education.
As part of the integration plan for 2000, PHARE, a European Union program for financial and technical cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries, has set aside funds to reimburse partial course fees for up to 10,000 students successfully passing the national language exams. Ten million kroons ($658,000) have been earmarked for paying back up to half the course fee, but no more than 1,200 kroons – up to 10 kroons per hour for 120 hours of tutelage.
The ceiling is there to avoid course fees artificially increasing because of the pay-back program. Currently, course fees vary widely, from 600 kroons ($40) to 3,600 kroons ($237) for a 120-hour course.
Exams are offered at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels, as well as the citizenship language exam. A passing grade of 60 percent qualifies a student for the reimbursement. So far, since the institution of the new exams in September, 407 students have passed exams, about a 75 percent success rate, and 2,000 people have registered to take part in the program, including those presently enrolled.
This type of pay-back program is not new. Since 1993, the Estonian government has sponsored a 25 percent refund for tax payers enrolled in language classes at licensed schools. But InterEst is different in that it rewards only those students who pass an exam, showing they've learned something.
The PHARE language learning program hopes that funds reimbursed through the program will serve as an incentive for students to continue language classes. A student having passed the beginner level exam will put the money back into an intermediate class, and so on.
However, Svetlana Koroljova, an Estonian language teacher in the Integration Social Start Centre in Ida-Virumaa, is sceptical.
"Only 120 hours of language learning is not enough for a student to pass these exams" Koroljova said. "Also, I don't think the money received from the InterEst program will be put into new classes, since students find it hard to fund language courses in the first place."
Hugging the Russian-Estonian border in the northeastern region of Estonia, Ida-Virumaa is home to the majority of the Russian-language speaking population of Estonia.
Vaarik and Tamme, both Russian-speaking residents, are not particularly worried about the exam; they are also not going for citizenship. Vaarik's firm is paying for half his course fees and he is paying the other half. "The firm is not interested in exam results," says Vaarik. "They just want me to be able to speak with clients. I don't think my Estonian is good enough to pass this exam yet." The bulk of the students in his class are similarly relaxed. They are in one of the better schools, paying money they can afford.
PHARE's InterEst reimbursement program provides a nice incentive for them to take the exam. But will it draw students who are not already registered for courses, who need the language to save their jobs or to gain citizenship, the ones whose two primary obstacles to learning Estonian are prohibitive costs and a deep-seated fear of incompetence and of the adversity of the system?
After a student registers and passes the exam, reimbursement takes about five months to process. For people who need to learn the state language to improve their potential on the job market, or to pass the citizenship test, but have yet to attend language courses, the program may not be enough of a financial break.
Last week, the Ministry of Education's Language Inspectorate – which deals with implementing the language law – found that over half of the 800 nurses in Tallinn and Ida-Virumaa, whose language competence they checked, had proficiency problems, but lacked the money to attend language courses. A nurse's monthly pay is 2,000 kroons to 2,500 kroons ($132 to $164).
For families and individuals who find course fees prohibitive, the pay-back system may not be enough to begin attending courses. The risk of not passing the test, and the delay in receiving the reimbursement may mean that families who are in financial straits will not find much help in the program.
On Jan. 19, a new ad campaign was launched to publicize the InterEst reimbursement program. Designed by London-based advertising agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, the new series of punchy, friendly cartoon ads are intended to reach people who have financial reasons for not attending language courses and encourage them to take advantage of the new program's incentive.
The ads depict an Estonian woman and a Russian man, and charming misunderstandings based on linguistic barriers. The ads went into Russian-language newspapers, public transport in Tallinn and Ida-Virumaa, as well as posters and a direct mailing in Ida-Virumaa.
The question remains as to whether the ad campaign will function as a nominal visibility device, or whether it will attract the adults it targets. Currently, the vast majority of adults registered in the program are under 30-years-old, and 80 percent are female.
If PHARE's program does achieve the numbers it has targeted, then the National Centre of Examination and Qualifications may be in trouble. Department director, L. Simm, says that no budget has been set aside for carrying out so many exams. The exam fee has been reduced from 150 kroons to 50 kroons . The fee goes into the state budget, and not to the examination center. According to Simm, the center is financially prepared for 2,000 examinees, but if the proposed 10,000 actually register for exams this year, the center will be hard pressed to come up with the resources for exam materials, exam marking and room rental.
The integration budget this year is 58 million kroons, half of which comes from the Estonian government. This figure includes spending on all integration-related programs, including funds in the military budget for Estonian language classes for non-Estonians in various branches of the military, and funds supporting Russian youth spending time on Estonian farms in the summers.
Language classes in the military will begin this year. The program coordinators expect about 400 registered boys to receive state-sponsored language classes through the military.
Last summer 650 Russian kids spent a week to a month on Estonian farms, and numbers are expected to rise. More Estonian families are interested in participating, and Russian parents are generally very interested in their children learning Estonian fluently.
According to a survey conducted last year, parents without citizenship are the most interested in this program and Russian-speaking parents who have Estonian citizenship have less interest, perhaps because they have more direct, personal access to Estonian language communities. The least interest is among parents who are Russian citizens.
Attitudes have changed radically both among Estonians and Russians since the early 1990s. Estonians have increasingly come to see the non-Estonian population as part of the potential of Estonian society, rather than as part of the problem. Russians increasingly see future opportunities connected to Estonian language skills.
The national integration program "Integration in Estonian Society 2000-2007" defines the goals of integration as social unification through a common language and through citizenship, and the simultaneous preservation of differences, supporting the rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities.
Little by little, these goals appear more realistic. However, more attention will eventually need to be directed to non-Estonians living in entirely Russian-speaking communities, to provide both incentives for language learning and affordable opportunities.