No. 40



Discussion on Bilingual Education: Research Studies and Estonian Models*

Should all children, regardless of their mother tongue, study in the Estonian language? What is the most effective linguistic arrangement for minority pupils in Estonia? Is bilingual education more effective for minority pupils, compared to monolingual education in Russian as the mother tongue with Estonian as the second language?

The question of the language of instruction for minority pupils has been one of the most salient issues in the Estonian education debate for the last three decades. Various approaches and methods have been used in schools, ranging from an increase in the Estonian language classes in Russian-medium schools, teaching in Estonian rather than teaching Estonian, to introduction of early and late bilingual immersion programmes in Russian-medium schools. Estonian and Russian-medium schools have been integrated due to the decreasing pupil numbers in many local communities; however, often without a clear and comprehensive linguistic integration model. Over recent years, the debate has shifted towards transition to Estonian-only instruction in all schools.

At the same time, there are no large-scale comparative studies to look into the effectiveness of mother-tongue, bilingual or second-language instruction programmes for minority pupils. The success of bilingual immersion programmes has been widely acknowledged, and superior Estonian language skills of graduates of these programmes are proven by the results of national examinations. However, the issue of whether mother-tongue instruction or bilingual immersion are effective in relation to the academic and cognitive development of the child is less clear. Furthermore, research does not answer the question of the comparison between the three different linguistic models available for minority pupils today – mother-tongue instruction, bilingual immersion, and Estonian-language instruction – in terms of effectiveness and outcomes in overall educational achievements.

The aim of the article is to introduce international knowledge and academic discussions regarding the language of instruction for minority pupils. The aim is also to present the state of the art in the field in Estonia, and to discuss the possible linguistic models more relevant to the Estonian realities. To initiate the debate in Estonia, we use Thomas and Collier’s (1997) conceptual approach to design and analyse multilingual education models.

* Peer-reviewed article