Switch to Estonian optional for Russian schools

  • 2002-04-04
  • Sergei Stepanov

Russian school principals in the northeastern Estonia city of Narva say it will be tough if not an impossible to make Estonian the sole language of instruction by 2007, the date set by the government.

Switching the language of instruction in all state schools to Estonian by 2007, a goal set by the first government of former Prime Minister Mart Laar in the early 1990s, has also been rejected by the new national coalition of the Reform and Center parties. The coalition set another priority - raising the quality of Estonian language teaching in Russian schools now.

Parliament earlier this month approved amendments to the education law so that, as of March 2002, the switch to the Estonian language is optional for municipal schools.

According to the Education Ministry's language policy department, every teacher must have a certificate of top-level command of Estonian. By 2007, 60 percent of high school subjects should be taught in Estonian, and by 2010 all the subject must be taught in Estonian.

Juri Valge, a language policy adviser in the Ministry of Education, said that under the amendments schools with a large Russian-speaking student body could apply to keep 40 percent of the subjects in Russian.

Minister of Education Mailis Rand said schools in the Narva area had to be addressed separately.

"We cannot take any radical steps in the northeast," she said.

Rand says the best option will be to teach several subjects in Estonian beginning in the first grade. Russian, she added, would remain a subject in all schools, like German or English.

Tatyana Zarutskih, director of Pahklimae High School, says teachers and parents at her school believe there is a simple solution in dealing with schools in the Narva region.

"The Russian diaspora must have a right to choose the school language," she said.

Three years ago several schools in Narva conducted a survey among parents on the language issue. At Pahklimae High School 600 parents were questioned. Only two supported the switch to Estonian language in 2007. Most of the parents supported the optional choice of switching.

The opinion held by many that students from Russian schools are at a disadvantage is pure prejudice, according to Zarutskih.

"Our students successfully graduate from universities where studies are in Estonian," she said. "The first half a year at a university is usually a tough one for them, but later that problem vanishes."

Mikhail Mihalchenko, principal at Narva High School of Humanities, an elite Russian school in the northeast, said the deadline for the language switch - 2007 or 2009 - was not really important. Circumstances in Estonia demand that the language of instruction be changed, he said."The problem can't solve itself," he said. "We have to solve it, keeping in mind not the political ambitions but the future of the children."

He suggested that the state had to work out a specific program of training bilingual teachers to work in the 11th and 12th grades, the final years of high school, so Russian students can get acquainted with Estonian terminology in chemistry, math, biology and physics.

"Higher education is available only in Estonian nowadays, and there are many graduates of Russian schools who would like to continue their education in Estonia but are not fluent in Estonian," he said. "That causes the dead-end we are witnessing today."

He did say, however, that it would be preposterous to teach Russian literature in Estonian.

"But (Russian) youth must have the chance to continue education in Estonian," said Mihalchenko.

Mihalchenko said it would be useful in the Narva region to create two separate high schools for students from 10th to 12th grades - one where teaching is in Estonian and another in Russian.

"That would make the work of teachers more focused," he said "Students would receive better training and would be more competitive at Estonian universities."

Some Russian schools have already made the switch. At Haapsalu Russian School, some classes are already being taught in Estonian beginning in the first grade. Music and psychology classes are also taught in Estonian to older students.

But Principal Andrei Alekseyev says the school will face problems. Many of his teachers will simply not be able to teach effectively in Estonian.

Niina Sepp, director of Narva-Joesuu High School, says it is not possible to shift to Estonian in her school by the deadline set by the Ministry of Education.

"Who would teach (in Estonian) if teachers receive no language training?" she said.