Estonian language in the long run

Identity and language policy


Keywords: language ecology, integration of immigrants, language of education, English in higher education, metrolingualism, linguistic diversity

The main trends over the last couple of decades indicate that language ecological conditions have changed radically in Estonia. After a long period of being a country of emigration, Estonia has become attractive to immigration again. Many are returnees, but the second largest group of immigrants comes from Russia and Ukraine. As Estonia needs immigration due to low birth rates and an ageing population, the new immigrants set a new challenge to Estonia’s ability to integrate its Russian-speaking minority, not to mention others from very different backgrounds. To cope with this challenge, the Estonian language and identity politics need first to reject the ultra-liberal ideology that celebrates diversity to the extent that no pressure to integrate with the host society is put on the immigrants. Second, to avoid further segregation of the Russian-speaking minority, the historically parallel Estonian and Russian language school systems need to be integrated into one with Estonian as the language of instruction, but with a wide support for Russian speaking students, including the use of Russian to teach their mother tongue, literature and cultural history. Further, Estonian identity politics should aim to promote the understanding that a person may successfully have two or even more linguistic identities without one necessarily replacing another. As to the internationalisation of higher education, Estonian universities need to find a working balance between using Estonian and English in teaching and research. As Estonia needs smart immigration, the best way to promote this is to provide international students with a working knowledge of the Estonian language and society by their graduation with a possibility to stay and work in Estonia.

Martin Ehala (b. 1963), Professor of Literacy Education at the Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics of the University of Tartu (Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu); Visiting Professor of Estonian at the University of Helsinki, ehalam@gmail.com


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