Learning a language

The Dutch girl Jorine Pilkes is studying all her subjects in Estonian at the Suure-Jaani Gymnasium in Mid-Estonia. On the photo with her teacher Ülle Piir. The Dutch girl Jorine Pilkes is studying all her subjects in Estonian at the Suure-Jaani Gymnasium in Mid-Estonia. On the photo with her teacher Ülle Piir.

Learning a language

New-migrants is a new thing in Estonia. There are only about 200 children in Estonian comprehensive schools that come from Holland, Italy, Spain etc. To manage in Estonian school and life they need to learn the Estonian language. This is a big challenge for the Estonian teacher – they have never taught children with whom they have no common language.
Teachers in the Nordic countries would consider 200 new-migrants in a whole country incredibly few. For teachers in the Baltic countries though this is something completely new. No foreign children could reach behind the „iron curtain“ in the past – thus the school system has been monocultural. Thus new-migration has been a real challenge for teachers in the Baltic countries – they have had to learn theory, create new study-books, develop a teaching method, gain practical knowledge etc.

In general so far the teachers have managed rather well. One reason is probably also the relatively small number of migrants – it has given the chance to think everything through calmly.

Refugees‘ children at Illuka

The biggest challenge for teachers in the Baltic countries has been children coming from other continents. For instance at Illuka refugee centre in Estonia there have been people from Gambia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey among others. Estonian teachers cannot find a common language with children from such faraway countries and this was rather frightening in the beginning.

This autumn two Iraqi children, an eight and a nine-year-old, came to study at Illuka grammar school. Anneli Bogens, a teacher from this school says that teaching children that come from far countries is new and exciting, but can sometimes also appear quite impossible because of a lack of practical experience. Luckily most of the teachers from this school have attended a training for the teaching of refugees at Narva College. Secondly Illuka has the experience of teaching such children for some months in the recent years. For this reason these two Iraqi children were gladly accepted in the school, an individual program was designed for them – and their studies in Estonia could commence.

A big problem with teaching refugees‘ children is the complete absence of precedent. When it was made public that the Iraqi children were attending school only once a week for the first month, it was considered to be a serious violation of their rights. In fact this was the common decision made by the director of the refugee centre, the father of the children and their school. In order to avoid a possible “cultural shock” the Iraqi children began their studies with only one school day per week, later on increasing the amount to a normal five-day week. Because of this little „scandal“ the Estonian public also got to know that in Finland the refugees‘ children don’t go to public schools immediately and without prior preparation either.

Hopefully in the future such pseudo scandals can be avoided. By the way, this year Illuka school received the award of the prettiest Estonian grammar school.

Italian children in Tallinn

Tallinn Lilleküla Gymnasium is another of the few schools with the experience of teaching new-immigrants‘ children. Here too, the teachers were almost desperate when they first heard that they will have to teach five Italian children that know no other language besides their mother tongue. But teacher Helje Pukk designed a study programme for these children, the Estonian Integration Foundation approved it and gave a financial support, and in two years all the Italian children in Lilleküla Gymnasium were speaking almost fluent Estonian in their classes. Helje Pukk received the title of the teacher of the year 2005 for the successful teaching of the Italian children. Today Lilleküla Gymnasium is a school where foreign pupils are no longer feared. The experience has taught the teachers how to deal with this situation. In January a family from South-Africa will move to Estonia. The Tallinn city government have recommended the Lilleküla Gymnasium for their child. Lilleküla Gymnasium now also has a partner school in Italy.

Helje Pukk
Helje Pukk, teacher of Tallinn Lilleküla Grammar School designed an Estonian study programme for Italian pupils and also put it successfully in practice. She received this year’s title of the teacher of the year as an acknowledgement for this.

Language Immersion

Unfortunately language problems don’t end with the children of new-migrants. In Estonia approximately one third of the population cannot speak Estonian. These are mainly people from Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia who moved here during the Soviet regime. Now they have begun to put their children to Estonian kindergartens and schools – so that they could learn Estonian already at an early age. This is a good tendency, but only if the Estonian teachers were sufficiently prepared for it. The fact is that they have not learnt to work with a class where there are children with different mother tongues. There are no special study nor exercise books for non-Estonian children either.

But here too a progress towards a resolution can be noticed. Namely some Russian schools have begun to use a new method of language study – language immersion. According to this method children that are able to speak only Russian will get their education completely in Estonian from the first grade on. One can also begin later – the principle is that one is not learning Estonian but learning in Estonian. This is of course difficult for the Russian children but the teachers of immersion classes know how to teach pupils that do not understand the language. This they have learnt in Canada where language immersion is very popular. There are also first immersion study-books now published.

Currently 22 Russian schools and 17 kindergartens are using the language immersion method. There is plenty of space for development as there are 80 Russian schools and 504 Estonian schools in Estonia.

This spring I visited a language immersion class at Tallinn Läänemere Gymnasium, where children had been studying in Estonian for two years. It was surprising that the children were speaking Estonian without accent. They could easily understand the system of Estonian language, only missing a few exceptions. Here too their teachers‘ courage needs to be acknowledged. Maire Kebbinau, a teacher of the immersion class in Tallinn Läänemere Gymnasium received a noteworthy monetary price from the Tallinn City Council for her work.

Maire Kebbinau
Maire Kebbinau, teacher of immersion class in Läänemere Gymnasium teaching her Russian students how to tell the time in Estonian.

Naturally there are also opponents to the method of language immersion – as always. Some Estonian teachers and educational politicians are afraid that studying in Estonian from the first grade on the Russian children will forget their mother tongue. The Canadian scientist Fred Genesee is claiming through his extensive research on bilingualism that this will not happen. Visiting Läänemere Gymnasium I noticed that the children were speaking Estonian in the class but Russian during the breaks. Estonian is for them probably a language for studying. But from fourth or fifth grade on they will study half of the subjects in Russian – so that the mother tongue would not get forgotten!

The understanding of the world changes

At first sight one can assume that globalization means problems for teachers, making their lives more complicated. And at the same time it has been noticed that the arrival of new-migrants has raised the teachers‘ professionalism and self-confidence. The influences could be even broader. According to the Estonian tradition the teacher is giving her class in a frontal manner, children are sitting behind one another in straight lines and are not allowed to speak with each other during the class. This can radically change with use of language immersion method. In immersion classes pupils are sitting in groups and all questions, answers and solutions will be discussed within the groups. There is simply no other way to study when the teacher speaks Estonian and the pupils do not yet fully comprehend it.

Thus we can see that through the dealing with the problems of new-migrants‘ children the teachers have broadened their methodological skills and got to know the pluralistic school model. All this has broadened their point of views and understanding of the world in general.

by Raivo Juurak