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Language Policy in Estonia: Maintaining the Language Status of Russian and Developing the Estonian Language
Home Reference & Education Language
By: Charlene Lacandazo Email Article
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Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union during the years 1940-1991, except the years when Nazi Germany occupied the country from 1941 to 1944. However, with the weakening and eventual fall of the Soviet Union, Estonia made a campaign to elevate the status of its native language and to marginalize the Russian language, the native tongue of its former colonizer.

Estonian is a Uralic language, which is related to Finnish. It is the official language of Estonia, and spoken by about 1.1 million people in Estonia. Due to the resulting independence of Estonia from Russia in 1991, a new language policy was established, which caused the government to make substantial changes in the public schools, where the children had long been taught in Russian.

The Estonian government established a strong language policy in Estonia, where teachers and other state employees, are now required to have a certain proficiency in Estonian and to use it in more classroom, government or media situation.

Through the language policy and changes of the Estonian government, many Estonians, including immigrants and ethnic groups were affected. According to the census of year 2000, Estonia showed a major decrease in the numbers of those population groups, the number of Russians decreased by 25% for example. The main factor that caused the division people in Estonia has not been ethnicity as such, but rather mother tongue, as the main source of all information and cultural values.

During the Soviet occupation in Estonia, there was massive migration of Russians to the country that caused the Russian language to become the most spoken language in the country, including in the education sector. Due to the influence of the Russian language in Estonia, there were two separate language-medium systems in Estonia, whose local people’s knowledge has different views linguistically and culturally.

Actually, Estonian language policy of the past decade may be divided into several periods, but it still resulted in the same agreement using Estonian as the official language of the country. However, providing individual rights, the new law made generous concessions to non-Estonian speakers, including the right to use a language other than Estonian in dealing with the state and to receive official documents in Russian translation.

Although the language policy in Estonia described Estonian as the sole official language of the country, Estonian still recognized the linguistically helpful status of the Russian language, but it provided legal basis for the development and recognition for the official status of the Estonian language.

Although the Estonian government established a new language discipline in the country, it did not actually alter the former situation linguistically, but rather maintained the language status by granting any individual the right to receive education in one’s native language. Thus, Estonian receives higher status among Estonians, and the Russian language among Russians.

Charlene Lacandazo works for Rosetta Translation, a company that provides written language translation in all languages, including translation services for Russian. She can also at times get quite worked up about bottled water delivery in Shanghai.

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