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Editorial: language lacking? Let us teach, let us learn!

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Arab speakers are scarce in Estonia and those ready and willing to work as interpreters are scarcer yet. Today's Postimees brings an article about practical problems perceived regarding the coming of refugees and language issues, and how it is intended to teach them Estonian.

Even without the current refugee crisis and Estonia’s share in providing shelter, we’d have to ask if Estonia has sufficient numbers of Arabic language specialists. Indeed, this is native tongue for 350 million people. Furthermore, the Arab speaking nations are in immediate neighbourhood of Europe. Contacts with them were deepening even with travels to enjoy the sunshine till, due to the Arab spring, their situation turned instable. In Arab speaking nations, business opportunities still abound, such as Nordic companies from architectural bureaus to technology exporters and foresters are actively busy using.

Also important the overall awareness of what is actually going on in this world of diversity. While Postimees foreign news desk does feature an Arab speaker, let’s admit that the bulk of news from Arab speaking nations reaches our media mainly via English language based channels. Obviously, Estonia needs extra people who on the one hand would know the Arab language, culture and policy, and on the other hand able to present this to our population understandably and with comments. Hence a question to Estonian universities: do they see the need and opportunity to increase study places for Arabistics – even then, we’d not be talking about hundreds, but dozens of added students perhaps on top what we currently have.

Probably, lots of practical problems with interpreting refugees arriving in Estonia will in time be solved, in an absolute majority of them will learn Estonian; then, from among them it will be possible to hire people able at least to act as interpreters in the everydayness of life. Meanwhile, let’s not downgrade the difficulties ahead, beginning with the fact that in addition to the relatively well educated the refugees will probably feature such as have not been to school at all and are illiterate in native tongue. In our corner of the world, this will be a phenomenon unexpected and will strain the teaching process.

The key issue will be quality of learning and teaching Estonian. Insufficient language skills are a sure way towards the bottom of society and the problems arising will not be limited to the individual but are sure to spread.

A working way for cases where students and teachers start out with no common tongue is language immersion. The result will depend on earlier academic education of the student, his abilities and motivation – on the average, in half a year it may lead to people managing in everyday life. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Among other things, in language studies it is considered vital that newcomers enter labour market, the actual language environment as fast as possible – when there, he will realise the practical need to learn the language and will also get the opportunity.

The other part of motivation is if the student desires to be like the speakers of Estonian, to belong here. Hostile attitude towards refugees will hardly enhance that. Even for that reason, all who stir hostility and consumer racism should think if they are serving the interests of preserving Estonian language and culture, or are essentially working against it.

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