Minister: Estonian language school will help refugee children learn the language | Opinion

To date, more than 11,000 minors have fled to Estonia after the war in Ukraine, of which more than 3,000 are already enrolled in the country’s education system. The Ministry of Education and Research believes that children coming from Ukraine should first and foremost be offered places 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 Ukrainian children – over 68% – have started attending Estonian-language educational institutions, but 20% of refugee children attend Russian-language kindergartens and schools. Currently, barely 11% of children enrolled are in immersion classes.

Early immersion plays an important role in children’s language learning. An analysis of standardized test results for Estonian as a second language indicated that those who learned the language through early immersion programs performed significantly better than regular learners. For example, almost 75% of students in the early immersion group reached level A1, compared to only 25% of those who follow the so-called regular method.

I welcome the decision of the city of Tallinn to quickly create an immersion school for Ukrainians, where 60% of teaching is done in Estonian and 40% in Ukrainian. I believe we will soon have a great example based on the Ukrainian Immersion School of how to effectively learn the national language while preserving one’s own mother tongue.

Unfortunately, it is more likely that in Russian-speaking educational institutions, war refugees do not acquire the Estonian language sufficiently. We have data from recent standardized tests in 4th and 7th grade classes of Estonian as a second language in Russian-speaking schools. The results are staggering: only 40% of 4th graders were able to reach A1 or beginner level, and 19% can speak at A1 level.

The situation is no better at the 7th grade level ⁠—only 44.2% of students’ Estonian language skills are at elementary or A2 level; only 20% are able to express 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 slightly more than half of pupils in Russian-speaking schools speak Estonian at B1 level at the end of basic school [9th grade], and 61% of graduates reach level B2 at the end of high school. Friends, we have a serious problem.

For the first time, we began to investigate under public supervision why children do not learn the national language in Russian-language schools. One reason is clear: we have nearly 2,000 teachers in our education system whose national language skills do not meet the requirements.

For example, there are 1,090 teachers in general education schools who do not meet the language requirements and 683 teachers in kindergartens. In addition, the language skills of eight school directors do not meet the requirements, as well as those of 19 kindergarten directors.

The Language Board issues warnings, sends people for training and possibly imposes fines, but the majority of them still consider that knowledge of the national language is not important enough to bring about changes in their lives. For years, we’ve been understanding and kind about it. We can’t keep doing this anymore.

All teachers standing in front of a class must speak the national language. Teachers are role models. If a teacher considers it unnecessary to speak the national language, why expect their students to?

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

Families who fled the atrocities of war naturally hope to return to their homeland as soon as possible in order to rebuild their country. Considering that more than 1,000 Ukrainian educational institutions suffered significant damage during the hostilities and entire cities were bombed, we must be prepared for the fact that war refugees will have to stay here with us longer.

Let us strive to provide children and young people who have come from Ukraine with quality education in the Estonian language. When the war ends and they return to rebuild Ukraine, these young people will definitely have received a good education, found new friends and learned a new language in Estonia. And Estonia will have won friends in Ukraine.

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Sylvester L. Goldfarb