Launched in the fall of 1999, the program does what its catchy name suggests. It pays people back half of the money they spend on Estonian language training if they pass the exam.
By the end of August, 3,072 people had got their money back, 2.28 million kroons ($134,100) in total. According to the Estonian nongovernmental integration foundation Mitte-Eestlaste Integratsiooni Sihtasutus, which is in charge of the program, funded by the EU's PHARE program, 80 percent of these were women, and the most active students were working people aged 20 to 55 years old.
The EU has allocated 49.1 million kroons for the project.
The average payback sum is 1,000 kroons, but the prices for Estonian language training vary widely depending on the type of tuition, from a few dozen kroons to 280 kroons per hour.
No less than 67 companies with 80 language training bureaus joined the program. Hille Hinsberg, a language project manager at MEIS, said about two-thirds of the companies are located in Tallinn, where language training firms struggle in an atmosphere of tough competition. The rest are in Narva, Kohtla Jarve, Johvi and other towns.
The last six months have been the most active for people learning Estonian, said Hinsberg. This is probably the result of a poster campaign bearing the persuasive messages "Learn a language - it's worth it!" and "Estonian for half-price!" These are currently catching the eye in bus stops in Tallinn and the largely Russian-speaking northeast of the country.
The ad campaign cost 460,000 kroons and includes outdoor and newspaper ads and TV commercials. Interest launches a new campaign every six months, but this one appears to have been the most successful.
In 2000, people spent about 20 million kroons on Estonian language courses, and up to 10,000 Estonian residents passed the exams.
There have been rumors that it is possible to cheat with the language exam certificate and get the PHARE money for nothing. "But the training companies send us lists of those who are receiving training, and we also call around if any suspects occur," said Hinsberg.
About 60 percent of people registering for the exams have passed comfortably, getting primary, advanced or professional certificates.
Although the primary target group consists of local Russian speakers who hope they can improve their economic situation with fluent Estonian, foreigners also take advantage of the 50 percent discount Interest is offering.
"We don't discriminate against any person regardless of his native language," said Hinsberg. "Foreigners do take the courses, but tend not to pass the exam to get a certificate because they don't need to prove their command of Estonian. They just need to speak it for business or personal reasons."
Malle Nei, head of the language courses department at the Multilingua training company, said a 120-hour Estonian course for a Russian-speaker costs 3,600 kroons and lasts eight months. The next one gets underway in October.
"We also have two groups of foreigners learning Estonian on the basis of English," she said.
Multilingua had the highest turnover of Estonian language courses last year, at over 1.1 million kroons.
Akubens Ltd., a training company based in Tallinn, has the largest ratio of students who receive training and then pass the exams.
"We started to get more people coming to learn Estonian after the Interest program was launched," said Lilia Semyonova, director of Akubens.
Akubens offers a 100-hour course for 2,500 kroons. About 500 Russian speakers are studying there at the moment.
But Semyonova said many people do not yet know about the 50 percent discount, and in general people still lack information about Interest.