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  • Language Police flunk teachers from Estonia to Arizona

    Government language inspectors are fanning out across Estonia to ensure that the nation's teachers are speaking good, error-free Estonian. And the same thing is going on in Arizona, where state officials are monitoring teachers to check for foreign accents and grammatical mistakes. There are distinct parallels between the language police in Estonia and Arizona, whose motto is to protect and serve the language -- Estonian in one case, English in the other -- not those who speak it.

    In Estonia, instructors whose Estonian isn’t good enough to pass a twenty-minute interview get warnings from the language police, and those flunking a second time can be fined or even lose their jobs. Arizona officials deny rumors that teachers in the state are being removed from classrooms for speaking English poorly, though they acknowledge that inspectors have identified several dozen teachers with “pronunciation problems,” the educational euphemism for Spanish accents, something they don’t permit in classes where the students are still acquiring English.

    The problem in Estonia is that many teachers speak only Russian, the language of Estonia’s former Soviet masters. During the Soviet years, Russian was not only the language of Estonia’s political bosses, it was also the language of the nation’s cultural elite and the medium of instruction in the nation’s top schools. But with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian began to be abandoned or forcibly erased in Estonia as well as in other former Soviet satellites, to the chagrin of the large numbers of Russian speakers left behind when the Red Army retreated.

    The problem in Arizona isn’t Russian, but Spanish. Spanish speakers predate Anglos in Arizona, which was part of the territory ceded to the United States in 1848 after the Mexican War. Despite the long history of Spanish as the language of government and culture in the American Southwest, some English speakers now think of Spanish as the language poverty, illiteracy, and illegal immigration. Newt Gingrich caused a furor a few years ago when he called Spanish the language of the ghetto, while English was the language of getting ahead.

    For much of the twentieth century, areas of heavy immigration like New York and California required that anyone who wanted to be a teacher had to pass a rigorous speech test whose goal was to prevent Asian and Eastern European immigrants from becoming teachers. These speech tests disappeared after the 1950s, but now Arizona has revived the practice in order to cut down on the number of teachers with Spanish accents

    According to the language tracker Ethnologue, there are 953,000 Estonian speakers in Estonia, and about 407,000 Estonians speak Russian as their first language (in contrast, there are only 570 Yiddish speakers left in the country, most Yiddish speakers having been murdered by the joint efforts of Estonians, Russians, and Germans during World War II).

    According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are about 927,000 Spanish speakers in Arizona, and about half of them need to work on their English. In contrast, 3.5 million Arizonans speak only English (the Census doesn’t provide data on how many of these monolingual English speakers need to work on their English). For much of Arizona’s history the government did its best to suppress Native American languages, and while that policy was reversed in the 1970s, there are currently only about 120,000 speakers of Native American languages in the state.

    After Estonia’s independence in 1991, Estonian became the nation’s sole official language, and anyone whose family arrived in Estonia after 1940 could only claim citizenship by passing an Estonian language test. That’s not as easy as it sounds, since Estonian is not an Indo-European language like Russian, French, or English, but a member of the completely unrelated Finnic language group. That makes Estonian as hard to learn for speakers of most European languages as Bantu or Chinese.

    Learn Estonian poster

    In addition, many of Estonia’s Russian-speaking teachers are simply too old to achieve competence in the country’s official language, which means that in its push to universalize Estonian, the Baltic nation runs the risk of losing its best teachers and undermining its top schools.

    In 1989, Arizona made English its official language, as a way of sending a message to the state’s Spanish speakers to get with the program or go back where they came from (even though many of them actually came from Arizona).

    Estonia joined the European Union in 2004, and Estonian became one of the EU’s twenty-three official languages. But in focusing on turning Russian speakers bilingual, Estonia’s language police seem to be ignoring the stunning increase in the popularity of English in the country.

    The few Estonian businesses operating on an international plane, like Skype, which started in Estonia before moving its headquarters to Luxembourg, operate entirely in English. More telling is the fact that Estonian schoolchildren, like their counterparts throughout Europe, are choosing English, not Russian or Estonian, as the language of their future. 84% of Estonian students study English, more than twice the number taking Russian, and many of Estonia’s young people learn more English from American TV shows like “Family Guy” and “South Park” than from their teachers or textbooks. So it may not be long before Estonia’s language inspectors abandon their attack on Russian-speaking teachers and start quizzing Estonia’s young people to rid their vocabulary of crude and satirical English phrases.

    In the meantime, fewer than one-third of the country’s Russian-speaking teachers know enough Estonian to pass the language inspectors’ relatively simple test, and only 27% of Estonia’s Russian-language schools currently meet the government’s demand that 60% of all instruction be delivered in Estonian.

    In Arizona, 1.23 million people over the age of five speak a language other than English. But 1.1 million of those people also speak some English, and of that number, 940,500 speak English well or very well. That leaves about 108,000 residents of Arizona, about 2.2% of the population, who don’t speak any English at all, at least not yet. Most of them are foreign born, and for that group, longitudinal data suggests that English fluency will typically improve the longer they remain in the U.S.

    The long-term prognosis for Russian in Estonia is not good: its Russian-speaking population dropped 25% from 1990 to 2000. But the long-term prognosis for English is good, both in Arizona, where it is a native language for three-quarters of the people, and a second language for almost all the rest, and in Estonia, where it’s becoming a second language for just about everyone.

    So far, despite the chilling impact of the language police, it seems that everyone in Arizona and in Estonia is learning English as fast as they can. But even if the language police do manage to purge the schools of bad linguistic influences, it may turn out that language teachers with flawless, standard pronunciation and impeccable good grammar have much less impact on their students in Estonia or in Arizona than American television does.

    Estonian police surround Homer Simpson,  who is uttering his  catchphrase,

    Fulfilling their constitutional mission to protect and serve the country’s sole official language, Estonian language police switch targets from Russian to English

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