Plenary presentation “Learn a new language and get a new soul” by Janar Holm, at the 4th Baltic Sea Conference on Literacy

Janar Holm | 17.01.2020 | 12:36

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Plenary presentation “Learn a new language and get a new soul” by Janar Holm, Auditor General of Estonia, at the 4th Baltic Sea Conference on Literacy 17 January 2020, Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, Estonia

Dear participants of the conference! Ladies and gentlemen!

I am very grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts on integration and language policies, and the challenges that they bring. I was surprised by the invitation to make a speech at the Baltic Sea Conference on Literacy. I suspect that I’m the first Auditor General or President of the Supreme Audit Institution to participate at a conference of the Federation of European Literacy Associations. Why do I suspect this? People probably don’t immediately associate literacy with the auditing world or with supreme audit institutions. After all, the supreme audit institutions are foremost auditing organizations that evaluate the efficiency of using public funds and the legality of operations. True, the toolbox of supreme audit organizations also includes a performance audit which can be used to assess the government’s ability to resolve issues on the strategic level, analyse the causes of the issues in depth and come up with ideas to overcome them. We – National Audit Office of Estonia - too have recently audited areas that have a connection with the main subjects of the conference. For example, these audits concern the state’s migration policy choices, preparedness to accept beneficiaries of international protection, access to higher education, the state’s activity in supporting the unemployed, etc.

The organizer of the conference has indicated that one of the reasons for inviting me to give a speech was the audit on language training for adults published half a year ago and the messages therein. I can guess that one of the reasons was also the fact that I have spent a large part of my working life at the Ministry of Education and Research. Nine years of which as the Secretary General of the Ministry. This gave me an opportunity to be at the forefront of education and language policy, because in addition to education, the Ministry of Education and Research is also responsible for implementing language policy.

Now in my new role as the Auditor General, I can look back at what has been done and what is going on in the field of education from a distance, both in terms of time and space. Looking back on the one hand critically, being someway in a contradictory position where I criticise my actions or omissions from the period I was working at the Ministry. But on the other hand, constructively and with understanding, because I know how complex and time-consuming the issues associated with the integration of students of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and how much patience they require. It’s an area where there is need to find satisfaction from every little step forward, as this little step could be a foundation for a major breakthrough. It’s a topic where a reckless rush can actually mean loss of time and no other opportunities may come along if the first one is allowed to slip through our hands.

The conference has set itself the goal of finding a common language as the title of the conference says. In its search, the conference has arrived at an important place for Estonians. Right here at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds. A place where the whole of Estonia finds a common language at the Estonian Song Festival. For at least one weekend, Estonians who rather tend to notice and emphasize differences are able to find unity and a sense of togetherness. A feeling that people miss later. Later, during the period between Song Festivals. Here at the Song Festival, students of Estonian and Russian-language schools, choirs of different national and cultural societies stand side by side singing the same songs. The same Song Festival Grounds are full of people during the Song Festival. Last summer when the Song Festival was held, organizers even stopped letting people into the territory of the Song Festival Grounds for security reasons. It just couldn’t fit any more people. There was a desire to be here, because the people wanted to be a part of a bigger soul. Here, at this moment, this common language was choral music. But music was probably only a medium, and the aim and object of enjoyment for participants was breathing together the atmosphere of consensus. For me, the Song Festival is the highlight of Estonian integration where emotion, at least on the large scale, is common, irrespective of the cultural or linguistic background of the people present at the grounds.

There are many “languages” that can join or divide. I spoked about music. But in Estonia where almost all state services involving digital data exchange are available online 24/7 and people trust e-solutions, this results in the wide usage of e-solutions – you can’t avoid speaking about digitalisation and digital literacy. In the information society, digital literacy, too, has become important enough that its absence could limit full participation in society. And in that case the dividing line does not run according to mother tongue – cultural and linguistic background is of no key importance here.

Digitalization promises tremendous benefits, but it also raises complex challenges: new divides around access to and control of data, manipulation of information, cyber threats, inequality caused by the “digital gap”, etc. For example, today, well over half the people in the world are using the Internet on a regular basis and yet the “digital gap” remains between those who use the Internet as a tool for the inclusive and sustainable growth of society and those who lag behind. The situation in Europe is also unsatisfactory – 169 million Europeans between the ages of 16 and 74, i.e. 44%, do not have basic digital skills. This means that a large part of the population cannot fully benefit from the advantages of the digital society – this in turn leads to lower competitiveness in the labour market and participation in society. Ensuring digital literacy is a challenge for all states.

But now more about integration policy and language learning. From the perspective of Estonia. And, as a representative of a supreme audit institution, I will give you a frank overview of some of the topics where we in Estonia are not exactly where we’d like to be when it comes to finding a common language (from the position on NAOE). But I’d like to emphasize that despite the critical tone of the overview, I am also proud about where the work of my former colleagues at various ministries and institutions has brought us in this area. This criticism foremost demonstrates how complex this topic is and once again reaffirms how complicated human issues can be to resolve. Complicated because humans aren’t machines and cannot be simply reconfigured. People are what they are, and that’s a good thing.

The conference materials correctly point out that, “Baltic Sea countries have a long experience of multilingual education, communication and culture.” It’s true and also applies to Estonia. Estonian experience is long. But has this experience always been taken advantage of and turned into success? What are the results, and can we be satisfied with these results? The short answer is: generally we can, but we also know our weaknesses.

One of the negative consequences of the occupation period of more than 50 years was that there are essentially two separate school networks in the general education system of Estonia – Estonian-language general education schools and Russian-language general education schools. Much effort has been put into bringing them closer. And much has been achieved. In teacher training, curriculum development, development of teaching methodologies, etc. But we are still in a situation where children with different mother tongues have no contact and common communication space in some regions in Estonia. They live in the same town, but in different worlds. Over the years, we have looked for both a political and a substantive agreement on how to bring the two different school networks together. The progress is slow. But generation after generation of Estonian and Russian-speaking young people live parallel lives in a small country where their trajectories seldom come into contact. And there is no communication between them.

Estonians are proud of their results in PISA tests. Estonia’s high position in world and European rankings is a delight. What I consider particularly important is that according to the test, the socioeconomic background has the least impact on the knowledge and skills of Estonian students compared to other European states. And also, according to the study, students of Estonian schools – both Estonian and Russian-language – are very progressive. Our students believe that people can influence their intelligence themselves and are prepared to contribute to their development in order to secure a better future for themselves. However, in the PISA 2018 study, the learning outcomes of schools where the language of instruction was Estonian were significantly better than those of students with Russian language of instruction, estimated to be up to one academic year. In the long-term, looking at the history of the PISA tests, the difference in outcomes has decreased, but the latest PISA test results show that with this indicator, we are stuck behind a glass ceiling. The difference has remained, and there are no signs of substantial improvement. We could say that according to the PISA test, Estonia has the best Russian-language basic education in the world, but that doesn’t matter. What is important is that there is a gap within the Estonian education system, a problem that needs to be resolved.

Language skills, especially the proficiency in the language used in the state of residence, are necessary to participate in society. Language skills provide equal opportunities for making choices in the education system and competitiveness in the labour market. In more broad terms, it’s also important for personal growth by providing opportunities for communication and ability to participate. It’s a substantial problem if the education system does not ensure adequate language skills for everyone. In Estonia, a lot of effort has been put into improving the proficiency in Estonian among students with different linguistic and cultural background since the restoration of independence. The progress is visible, but it has slowed down. Years ago, a goal was set in the education strategy that 90% of basic school graduates with a mother tongue other than Estonian and study in Russian-language basic schools should be proficient in Estonian at least at a B1 level. This is a truly minimal level to be able to cope in an Estonian-language upper secondary school. Unfortunately, the share of basic school graduates with predominantly Russian language of instruction that have language skills in Estonian at B1 level is only around 60–65 percent. One of the reasons for this is the poor knowledge of the Estonian language of some of the teachers – for example, in the previous academic year, 8% of teachers of general education schools, vocational education institutions and pre-school child care institutions did not comply with the requirements for language proficiency. This, too, is an area where a lot of effort has been put into for years. And there’s progress, but this progress could be faster.

There have, of course, been positive developments. Estonian and Russian-speaking parallel worlds are slowly and persistently starting to come together in the education system. The number of children with a Russian speaking background going to an Estonian-language kindergarten, incl. the number and share of participants in language immersion has increased year by year. Following the transition of upper secondary schools to Estonian-language studies approximately ten years ago, the proficiency in Estonian-language of upper secondary school graduates has improved, but the number of young people with a Russian mother tongue that continue their studies in higher education after graduating upper secondary school is still, on average, 8% lower compared to young people with Estonian mother tongue.

But what is the language proficiency of parents and adults in general? The self-assessed proficiency in Estonian among persons of other nationalities has gradually improved. While in 2008, 19% of people of other nationalities did not speak any Estonian, the number is only 10% in 2017 according to the data of the Ministry of Education and Research.

For a long time, there has been a perception in Estonia that permanent residents with diverse linguistic and cultural background have poor motivation to learn Estonian. Often that’s certainly true, but not in most cases. A study published in 2018 shows that as many as two-thirds of adults with a mother tongue other than Estonian that have no active proficiency in Estonian would like to acquire Estonian or improve their language skills within the next three years. But what about offering language training to those who want to learn Estonian? Last year, we audited the organisation behind the Estonian language training system for adults and found that the state’s ability to offer free or affordable Estonian language training is, at best, limited to 20% of those wishing to learn. The reason for the insufficient offering is foremost the lack of qualified teachers, but also underfunding. The fact that the state is unable to offer suitable learning opportunities for everyone interested is a major problem, particularly for a nation with a small language and few people. When we saw the audit results, we were reminded of the complaints against permanent residents with diverse linguistic and cultural background regarding their poor motivation to learn the language. Chinese have a saying about this: When you point a finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you.

Integration of permanent residents with diverse linguistic and cultural background has been a challenge for Estonia. But now, since the beginning of the migration crisis in Europe, Estonia is facing new and even greater challenges to achieve social cohesion. Supporting the adaptation, integration and language learning of newly arrived (or arriving) immigrants –asylum seekers and refugees in particular – will test our language training abilities and the education system as well as other support mechanisms for integration even further.

To conclude! It is undeniably a matter of national dignity that no one wishing to learn the language of their country of residence be refused the opportunity to do so – only because the state wasn’t able to offer training at the right time and in the right way. It is a common interest for the society and individuals to ensure communication between all members of society. It is also a matter of national pride if a person wants to learn the language of the state that they live in. And we should also notice the little things. Maybe we shouldn’t focus on whether someone has achieved a language level of A2, B2 or even C1 – unless the job requires such language proficiency. Additional skills below the language level are still additional language skills. Every word learned and even the simplest of sentences that help to bridge the gap in communication in everyday situations are valuable. I titled today’s speech with a reference to a Czech proverb: Learn a new language and get a new soul. And so it is. But getting a new soul could be easier, too. I wouldn’t want to argue with the Czechs, but I believe that every word learned and every new sentence picked up in a foreign language is what gives us a new soul. A language learner gets a new soul once they’ve decided that they want to speak the language of their temporary or permanent home country and participate in the culture of that country. And then we have to do everything we can to support them on their journey.

I hope that you enjoy these dark January days in Estonia and learn a word or two of Estonian to become one of those in the world who know Estonian. Have a successful conference and enjoy your time in Estonia!

  • Postitatud: 17.01.2020 12:36
  • Viimane muudatus: 24.01.2020 12:38
  • Viimane ülevaatus: 24.01.2020 12:38



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