Language law fuels school debate in Estonia

Russian-speaking children in Estonia are in for big changes when the new school year starts next month. Fresh laws mean all lessons have to be taught in Estonian, the country's only official language.

The government in Tallinn insists the new rules will help integrate Estonian society, a quarter of which is ethnic Russian.  The move is in line with regulations making it impossible to get an Estonian passport without a basic knowledge of the country's language. 

Some Russian speakers fear the new laws will lead to falling standards in Russian schools.

“Estonia is not prepared to provide enough Estonian-speaking teachers for the Russian schools, so the quality of those schools will simply go downhill,” warned Natasha, a local citizen and a mother of small girl.

Free language classes to pass the test are not being taken up en masse.  So, a sizeable chunk of ethnic Russians in the Baltic country hold neither a Russian nor an Estonian passport.

The Ministry of Education argues the gradual transition to Estonian instruction, set to start by the end of the year, is for the benefit of the children.

“The reforms give them better chances in the job market,” explained Katri Raik, vice-Chancellor of the Ministry of Education.

“This is not about competitiveness at all. It's just nonsense that a Russian-speaking teacher should be teaching Russian-speaking children in a non-native language. These requirements are politically motivated, the whole problem is very politicized,” added Natasha.

And then there's the Estonian constitution, which says that minority schools themselves can choose the language of instruction.