Mastering Estonian: two years will do

In an old manor some kilometers from the refugee center at the village of Vao there sits this tiny Kiltsi Basic School. While, at education ministry, preparations for educators regarding refugees is starting next year, in this school with 60 students this is already reality.  

The kids at Vao Centre aren’t about to sit idle while waiting for residence permits. Promptly, they go to school and get busy studying in Estonian.  

For the most part, they head to the very Kiltsi, with the elder children occasionally taken to the Russian language based basic school in (the city of – edit) Tapa. This year, however, a Ukrainian boy went to Väike-Maarja (the parish centre – edit) desiring to attend wrestling training.

This fall, Kilts Basic School received three new kids from Vao Centre: an Ingush boy Ibrahim (8) enrolled in 1st grade, sister and brother Al-Bara (10) and Rapiiat (12) from Dagestan went to 3rd and 5th.

The latter came to Estonia with parents at the end of August. «The father was very happy to begin studying Estonian together with the children. He probably will. Their two smaller kids are still at home,» said the headmaster Merje Leemets well acquainted with the families.

All new students are Moslems. «We always send next week’s menu home with the kids, on Friday. They review it at home – wherever there’s pork, they cross it out. On these days, they come equipped with sandwiches,» describes the headmaster.

The Kiltsi school has its own shawl which one of the Muslim girls wears around her head. «But others wear it like that as well, though they have nothing to do with religion,» comments Ms Leemets.

An earlier student all the way from Albania, Amanda (10) attends grade 4th and speaks fluent Estonia. «Amanda does study at an individual curriculum, but her Estonian is excellent. Ere she ever came to us, she was able to communicate,» said the headmaster.

Unsure what future holds

Amanda has mastered Estonian in about two years. Entering Estonia in spring of 2013, the family’s first stop was the shelter at Illuka. Last year, they moved over to Vao and the girl enrolled at Kiltsi school in February 2014.

«She may not move as fast as others in her studies, but is probably catching up by this spring. Also, she gets her grades on equal basis,» says Ms Leemets. What Amanda struggles with is math. On her grades sheet, that’s the only «3» (satisfactory – edit). The classmates have embraced Amanda, who represents the school at sports and singing contests.    

«In summer, we studied every day and thus I got it,» explains Amanda. With the language, she finds nothing too complex. She likes it at the school at Kiltsi, as it is small and the neighbourhood peaceful.

Despite that, Amanda’s future in Estonia is uncertain as yet. The family’s asylum application has not been satisfied and they have appealed. The court judged that the application be reviewed. «The courts take their time. It’s not just Amanda, but the younger sister who also speaks Estonian though not at school yet,» says Ms Leemets. The family has a third girl as well, one born in Estonia. The father is working, the mother is raising the kids at Vao Centre.

«It would be beyond me if they don’t get the permit. For the kids it would be so unfair,» adds the headmaster.

Amanda’s family happens to dwell in the building which got burnt in the night of September 3rd. Ms Leemets says the children do not take that too tragically.

Ms Leemets says Amanda has been an encouragement to the school while they have had their initial bitter disappointments. «In mid-October last year, we got this boy from Ukraine who spoke no Estonian at all. We were unprepared and knew not where to seek help,» she recalls.

The teachers tried to teach Jaroslav Estonian on basis of Russian. «That was a mistake, greatly hindering the language studies. He begun to say some simpler stuff but never acquired the language,» admits Ms Leemets. The family was granted residence permit and left Vao in April, to now dwell in Southern Estonia.

Teach in Estonian

Perplexed, they sought help from education ministry, Innove language immersion centre as well as Tallinn’s Lilleküla Gymnasium experienced in teaching foreigners.

«The teachers were able to pour out their hearts and unload their troubles. And were instructed to teach Estonian in Estonian. The wisdom is being constantly monitored: should some teacher speak Russian, the kids are swift to put them in remembrance – only Estonian allowed!» smiles the headmaster.

Ms Leemets said this very year language immersion courses will be launched for the teachers. «Sure this could have come earlier but thus far all were rather passive and wait-and-see,» she says.

This year, a language immersion textbook and workbook have been employed for the three new students. Also, they have hired a former graduate who teaches them Estonian and nature, separately – eight classes a week. All other lessons are together with others.

The headmaster says the parents are as excited about the kids’ studies as the offspring: «At the beginning, Ibrahim’s father kept walking to the schoolhouse to see the boy exit the school bus. Same when returning. He comes to the school house to see how the son is doing. Sometimes so without the boy knowing.»

Likewise, the father from Dagestan was initially seeing the kids to school. «in the mornings, I also see how the Ukrainian boy’s father accompanies him to the train to Tapa and is afterwards there to meet him,» said Ms Leemets.

«We do not know their background why they left their homes and it is none of our business. But they surely have a serious reason. Can’t be that I just pick up my four kids, and cross the mountains and sea to Estonia,» believes the headmaster.

«We are patient knowing there is no way we can further speed up the teaching process. But the kids are kids – they learn fast and thankfully our children haven’t had such hatred injected into them as it might seem elsewhere in society.»


This year, basic education support to local governments for every child (including new immigrants of those under international protection) is €1,367–€2,329 a year (the smaller the local government, the larger the support per student).

By Innove, langue study support of €400 a year is granted for new immigrant students.  

Via social ministry, language study support for those granted international protection may be applied for, which is €1,080 for two years (not valid for asylum seekers).