National language giving ground to Russian

Aivar Pau
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Photo: Liis Treimann

Leading Estonian linguists and even transport business is troubled by sneak attack of Russian language into official services environment and think the increasingly public plans by politicians to support that is populist, demeaning and an embarrassing attempt to paper the problem over. 

What’s the offensive about? At the moment, Riigikogu is proceeding a whopping two bills intended to give in to demands by East-Viru County taxi companies and remove from law the need for certificate stating basic Estonian language command as requirement for obtainment of service provider licence. Last week, the parliament passed a first reading and it again enters the big hall on March 8th.

It’s an issue of setting a precedent. Essentially, in their battle for the Russian vote, the politicians are pitting economic issues against command of national language – a main pillar of the statehood. Till today, economy has emerged as an obvious winner: lack of command of national language may not pose a hindrance when fighting unemployment.

Also, they say the six months remaining between entry into force of the law and the establishment of the requirement for people to acquire basic level command of the Estonian language. Control over language skills of the drivers would be left with Language Inspectorate which only deals with service sector issues in case of complaints filed.

With Estonians in Narva just a bit over two percent of the population, complaints are unlikely. Thus, the danger may be of an ever more closed Russian-speaking community near the Eastern border without the slightest motivation to learn even a little bit of the official language.

But this is but one example of the triumph of other languages in communication of Estonian state or its enterprises. In the state enterprise Estonian Railways, discussions are underway of establishing both Estonian and Russian as internal communication languages within the infrastructure, as most of train drivers only speak Russian anyway.

And just recently the Riigikogu opted to not require Estonian language skill from air traffic controllers, but to demand the command of English – the law already passed was again dismantled due to active intervention by Language Committee, and the requirement for Estonian language skill was restored.  

-Hiding the issue

Asked by Postimees to comment the problem from the taxi drivers angle, linguist Mart Rannut reminded us that the general requirement dates back to Language Act of 1989 whereby administration and procedures in the Estonian language was established as a human right related to language (Everyone is entitled to ...).

To realise the right, the then labour committee determined specific trades and jobs and the related language requirement. «Thus, the requirement has been in force for over a quarter of a century. During that, a generation has come and gone among Narva taxi drivers, most of the current ones have gone to school during the independent Estonia,» said Mr Rannut.

According to Mr Rannut, the problem springing from current Public Transport Act is not about a language requirement new for the taxi drivers, but the violation of human rights becoming visible for all: taxi drivers not knowing the language will no longer get the service card and may not drive taxi any more.

«It’s an embarrassing incident, and to paper this over they want to again hide the human right from plain sight via administrative amendments while the requirement to adhere to the human right does not go anywhere. This is a highly embarrassing behaviour, not to the honour of Estonian rule of law or its patriotic politicians,» said Mr Rannut.

At the beginning, the authors of the bill were talking about an alleged 500–600 Narva taxi drivers to lose their jobs; after assessment of the language need, the figure dropped below 150. Thereat, about a half of these people are currently attending Estonian language courses. «Not hard to figure out what is left of their enthusiasm to study the language when Riigikogu passes the amendment,» added Mr Rannut.

-Irrelevant claims

According to Language committee chairman and Estonian language professor at University of Tartu Birute Klaas-Lang, the Language Act only requires good basic level command of the language from those in services. «Achieving this level is no rocket science,» said Ms Klaas-Lang.

She said that the current discussions bring back to mind the fiery debates from a few years back regarding other-languages-based schools switching to Estonian language studies. Claims were voiced that teachers were not ready and that it all came so suddenly. However, the decision was taken as early as 1993 and the beginning of the process postponed till 2007.

«Haziness and backing down from decisions may lead to the erroneous understanding that legislators are ready for other compromises as well as to national language requirements. On the other hand, the claim that acquiring a basic skill of the Estonian language is altogether beyond the people’s ability is simply irrelevant,» said Ms Birute Klaas-Lang.

Meanwhile, Ms Klaas-Lang suggested that Estonian state treat the taxi drivers firmly yet warmly. «Probably, it would be becoming to grant the drivers temporary cards and offer help with professional language course, a special conversational dictionary, an Estonian language smartphone taxi app etc. The claims that a Narva taxi driver will never learn the language anyway is outright demeaning towards them,» said Ms Klaas-Lang.

Both Mart Rannut and Birute Klaas-Lang are of the opinion that in language-related legislation, politicians might consult language experts and the language committee would always stand ready to help.

«Currently, problematic language legislation reaches the committee via scandals erupting in media such as the aviation amendments which did away with the requirement towards air traffic controllers,» noted Ms Klaas-Lang.

-Flexibility needed

University of Tartu linguistic sociology professor Martin Ehala says Estonian service sphere is generally characterised by the totally healthy attitude that client selects the language. Largely, the principle works for the very market pressure for who would want to lose a client. Not so in Ida-Viru County in Estonian North-East due to the scarceness of Estonian clients.

For example, between the Censuses in 2000 and 2011, native Estonian speakers in Ida-Viru towns dropped by 29 percent from 17,000 to 12,000. In Narva, there were close to 3 percent of native Estonian speakers in Narva; in 2011, they were fewer than 2.5 percent. In practice, for a Narva taxi driver every 40th client is a native Estonian speaker. 

«The other issue is what would be the language skill needful for a taxi driver. The draft act says B1 i.e. the independent user level: the individual needs to be able to express his dreams, desires and drives, be able to substantiate and explain opinions, intentions and actions, as well as write short reports,» said Mr Ehala.

«While it may be nice to have the occasional chat with a cabby, I don’t think he ought to be obligated to command the Estonian language to the degree of sharing our dreams or discuss policy. Less will do.»

Mr Ehala thinks the problem has become acute because the language requirements prescribed by law are unrealistic regarding Ida-Virumaa. Meanwhile, removing language requirement from the law may create problems with potential new immigrants in the future, firstly in Tallinn.

«Dropping the requirement isn’t a solution either, what we need is flexibility. Perhaps, the problem might be solved if the law would prescribe that the language requirements for taxi drivers be determined by local government,» thinks Mr Ehala.



Villem Tori, Union of Automobile Enterprises

I am of the opinion that when providing taxi services one need to know Estonian. We may discuss whether it needs to be B1 Level or perhaps less would do. The current amendment is a kind of a compromise. The requirements are regulated by Language Act and B1 is prescribed in public transport.


Urve Palo, member of Riigikogu economic affairs committee (Soc Dems)

I am happy that the deputies agreed that it is not prudent that issues of integration and education be solved by a law regulating economic topics. The state is obligated to help create new jobs and keep the existing ones, not vice versa. The rules which entered into force on October 1st last year would spell loss of jobs since April 1st for close to 500 Narva taxi drivers who do not possess B1 certificate regarding Estonian language. The state should show more responsibility and not by activity or inactivity increase unemployment in a region which has been hit by large-scale lay-offs already recently. It is also important for the state to offer more free-of-charge Estonian courses in Narva.