Minister: Estonian-language school will help refugee kids learn language | opinion

To date, more than 11,000 minors have fled to Estonia from the war in Ukraine, more than 3,000 of whom are already registered in the country’s education system. The Ministry of Education and Research believes that children coming from Ukraine should first and foremost be offered spots in Estonian-language kindergartens or schools. Why is this so important? The answer is simple: Because it is significantly faster and easier to learn the language in Estonian-language kindergartens and schools.

The majority of children from Ukraine — more than 68 percent — have begun attending Estonian-language educational establishments, however 20 percent of refugee children are attending Russian-language kindergartens and schools. Currently, just nearly 11 percent of registered children are in immersion classes.

Early immersion plays an important role in children’s language learning. An analysis of the results of standardized testing of Estonian as a second language indicated that those learning the language via early immersion programs achieved significantly better results than regular learners. For example, nearly 75 percent of early immersion group students achieved the A1 level, compared with just 25 percent of those learning under the so-called regular method.

I commend the City of Tallinn’s decision to quickly establish an immersion school for Ukrainians, where 60 percent of instruction is in the Estonian language and 40 percent in Ukrainian. I believe that we will soon have a fine example based on the Ukrainian immersion school of how to effectively learn the national language while preserving their own native language.

It is unfortunately more likely in Russian-language educational establishments that war refugees will not acquire the Estonian language to a sufficient extent. We have the data for recent standardized testing in 4th and 7th grade-level Estonian as a second language classes in Russian-language schools. The results are staggering: just 40 percent of 4th grade students were able to achieve the A1 or beginner level, and 19 percent can speak at the A1 level.

The situation is no better at the 7th grade level ⁠— just 44.2 percent of students’ Estonian language skills are at the elementary or A2 level; only 20 percent are capable of expressing themselves verbally in Estonian at this level. And these are young people who have been studying the Estonian language for seven years.

According to the latest final exam results, only just over half of students from Russian-language schools speak Estonian at the B1 level by the end of basic school [9th grade], and 61 percent of graduates achieve B2 level by the end of high school. Friends, we have a serious problem.

For the first time, we have begun to investigate in a public oversight capacity why children aren’t learning the national language in Russian-language schools. One reason is clear: we have nearly 2,000 teachers in our education system whose own national language skills do not meet the requirements.

For example, there are 1,090 teachers at general education schools who do not meet language requirements, and 683 such teachers in kindergartens. Not only that, but the language skills of eight school principals do not meet requirements, along with those of 19 kindergarten directors.

The Language Board issues warnings, sends people to training and eventually issues fine, but the majority of them continue to not consider knowing the national language sufficiently important to make any changes in their lives. For years, we have been understanding and kind about it. We can’t keep doing this anymore.

All teachers who stand before a class must speak the national language. Teachers are role models. If a teacher doesn’t consider it necessary to speak the national language, why do we expect that their students would?

Thus, in order to ensure that the war refugee children who have arrived in Estonia can learn our national language as quickly as possible, it is important for them to spend time in an Estonian-language environment.

Families who have fled from the atrocities of war understandably hope to return to their homeland as soon as possible in order to rebuild their country. Considering that more than 1,000 Ukrainian educational establishments have suffered substantial damage in the hostilities, and that entire cities have been bombed to the ground, then we must be prepared for the fact that war refugees will have to remain here with us for longer.

Let’s strive to offer the children and youth who have come here from Ukraine a quality, Estonian-language education. When the war ends and they go back to rebuild Ukraine, these young folks will definitely have gotten a good education, found new friends and learned a new language in Estonia. And Estonia will have gained friends in Ukraine.

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