Estonia Sends Out The Language Police

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Now that Estonia has broken free of Russia, the former Soviet state is trying to encourage the use of the Estonian language.  However, many Russian-speaking people emigrated to Estonia when it was still part of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet government discouraged the use of the Estonian language in the name of unity. The result is that many people in Estonian speak Russian primarily, including many of the country’s schoolteachers.  In fact, according to the New York Times, 30 percent of the country speaks Russian as their first language.

To encourage the next generation to speak Estonian more frequently, the government has required that schools teach a certain amount of their classes in Estonian instead of Russian. That means that schoolteachers who speak Russian as their first language are having to improve their Estonian skills.  This can be difficult, as Estonian is closely related to Finnish and has very little in common with Russian.

Every so often, their skills are tested by a visit from an inspector of the The National Language Inspectorate, the “language police.” The inspector talks to each teacher in turn, in Estonian, looking for mistakes.  Naturally, this is quite stressful for the teachers, who are used to giving exams (and occasional failing grades), not receiving them.

The New York Times notes that organizations like Amnesty International have criticized Estonia’s response as heavy-handed, but Ilmar Tomusk, the inspectorate’s director, says his department is just trying to do its job:

“There are some myths about our work, about how we discriminate,” he said. “For a democratic society, it is quite common that public servants should know the state language. If a public official is in Russia, he must know the Russian language. If he is in Estonia, he must know Estonian. There is no discrimination.”