Audit: state unable to organize language training

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PHOTO: Arvo Meeks/Valgamaalane

People who have lived in Estonia for years but still cannot speak the official language are often accused of laziness and lack of interest. A report by the National Audit Office now finds that the problem lies with the state rather than people. Estonia has been unsuccessful in offering language training despite considerable interest among non-Estonian speakers.

Estonia has nearly 300,000 people whose first language is not Estonian. Half of them do not speak the official language well enough to cope fully in society, a study by the Centar Center for Applied Research reveals.

Therefore, while nearly 150,000 people require language classes, the state has been unable to consistently offer them.

The National Audit Office concludes that the state should offer language classes to some 60,000 people a year. Its audit reveals that actual capacity can only cater to a tenth of people interested and even that has proved possible courtesy of funding from abroad.

Over the past five years, only 2,000-6,000 people a year have had access to language training, with the figure reflecting funding as opposed to interest in learning the official language. Years when foreign financing has not been available have seen language classes made available to 30 times fewer people than would like them.

“It is a matter of the dignity of the Estonian state to make sure people who want to learn the official language do not miss out on the opportunity because there is not enough money,” Auditor General Janar Holm said.

Funding for language training comes from three sources: state budget, unemployment insurance reserve and foreign support, with EU funds providing one-third of the money. Support-based funding means the money cannot always be counted on, and it is difficult to plan future activities.

“We could have enough national pride not to have German, French, Italian and other European taxpayers pick up the tab for teaching Estonian, especially considering how important the Estonian language is in terms of our national identity,” Holm said.

No one has the entire picture

It is not just a matter of money. The National Audit Office highlights as the main problem the fact that training is fragmented between different ministries and the process is not being centrally managed. That is also why the state lacks an integral picture of available teachers as well as how many more would be needed.

“The problem is lack of accurate information on the number of Estonian teachers for adults; agencies in charge have not even provided rough estimates. The only thing we know is that demand and interest in language training is considerably bigger than supply,” said Märt Loite from the audit office’s analysis department.

Both studies and real-world experience suggest considerable interest in Estonian training. The Centar Center for Applied Research estimates there are some 60,000 adults who do not speak Estonian but would like to and are willing to learn.

The latter was also the conclusion of the Ministry of Culture after its 2015 language training competition saw 5,000 people apply for a course meant for 500 people, Deputy Secretary General Piret Hartman said.

“We managed to find classes for everyone who applied inside a few years. It was also the time when the activities of the integration foundation became more widely discussed and when the culture minister’s main mission in the field of integration was to offer everyone free language classes,” she explained. Hartman added that Estonian language courses are filled very quickly to this day.

The National Audit Office points out that Estonian training for adults is currently organized by five ministries that in turn means there is no clear leader or agency responsible. While language policy officially resides in the administrative area of the education ministry, actual responsibility has been divided between the ministries for education, culture, social affairs, internal affairs and justice.

The audit found differences in terms of how to organize training as well as shortcomings in terms of cooperation, coordination, management and responsibility. All five ministries admitted the field needs more management.

HTM prepared to take the lead

“Virtually the only thing all ministries agree on is that shortage of qualified teachers is the number one problem,” auditors write. However, the audit office failed to detect coordinated efforts to remedy even this concern.

Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps said that the current system where responsibility for language training has been divided between five ministries has not justified itself. “The Ministry of Education and Research (HTM) is prepared to take the leading role in coordinating efforts, but the topic requires thorough discussions first,” Reps said.

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