Starting from the current academic year, schools in Estonia are obliged to offer a choice of two or more foreign languages to students as a so-called “B” language. While the move aims to reduce the dominance of Russian as the “B” language in schools, it could also create difficulties for Russian language teachers, with fewer jobs available for them in the coming years.
In Jüri High School, Harju County, there are fewer students in Russian language classes this schoolyear than before. The fall in numbers is helpful for teachers, as it allows them to give more attention to each child in the class. Although Spanish and German classes were also on offer, the majority of the school’s pupils chose to study Russian.
“The experience of several schools shows that, in fact, when given this choice, many families still prefer their child to study Russian. Parents’ own experience is also that, in today’s labor market in Estonia, they, Estonian parents, have missed out on certain jobs because the only [foreign language] they have is English. At the same time, competition is increased by those who speak Russian, as well as having both Estonian and English,” said Eva Viidemann, chair of the Russian Language Teachers’ Association (Vene Keele Õpetajate Selts).
In Tallinn, the number of Russian language learners in schools has fallen by 3,000 this academic year. English and Russian are now being studied by essentially the same number of students – around 13,000. Tallinn’s Education Department predicts that the number of Russian language teachers may begin to fall in a few years’ time.
“At the moment, in the first year, we don’t see that much of a reduction in Russian teachers, or anyone that has had to be dismissed or laid off for that reason. It will certainly have an impact over the next couple of years. I think we will start to see it in two or three years’ time,” Kaarel Rundu, head of Tallinn’s Education Department.
According to the Russian Language Teachers’ Association, the situation is more difficult in cities where Russian language groups are no longer full and as few as three, instead of the usual eight, were opened for example. However, in rural areas, the opposite is true – Russian language classes became so large that it no longer made sense to open additional classes to teach other foreign languages.
The Estonian Ministry of Education does not yet have nationwide figures regarding the popularity of Russian language classes in schools, though the relevant the data is being compiled. However, what is known, is that not all Estonia’s schools have been able to offer an alternative language for its students in place of Russian.
“It’s going to take time for the new generation to catch up. Because, perhaps there were fewer foreign language teachers in the classroom, as their future prospects of having a secure, long-term job did not appear to be that good because Russian still dominated schools to a very large degree. That is why it is also perhaps difficult to offer these choices from the outset, however, that is certainly changing,” said Marika Peekmann, chief general education expert at the Ministry of Education.
The parties involved believe that, over time, in the case of Russian language teachers, there will be a natural re-specialization process, with more other foreign languages being taught. As there is a general shortage of teachers in Estonia, there is a reluctance to allow them to leave the school system.