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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Language and Identity in Narva, Estonia

Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Estonia

Estonia regained independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, and Narva subsequently became a border town. Narva was a beautiful, flourishing town before World War II. It was bombed in the waning days of the war, however. Only parts of a few buildings remained standing. Victors, the Soviets rebuilt the town they had helped tear down and resettled it with Russians.

Today the population remains 96 percent Russian-speaking. Residents joke that when they go to Tallinn, the capital, they are going to Estonia. In truth, it takes just as long to drive to Tallinn as to St. Petersburg, Russia. The joke elicits laughter but is indicative of a larger problem faced by Estonian towns like Narva.

Very little Estonian is spoken here. Russian was the official language until independence 10 years ago, so few Russian adults learned Estonian. There was no need. Now it is increasingly difficult to carve a secure place for oneself in this society without speaking Estonian. Some adults attend Estonian language classes, but many are discouraged by their cost and the difficulty of the language. Estonian is ranked as one of the most difficult world languages. Children study it at school but have little exposure to it elsewhere. The popularity of American movies and music make English more accessible in Narva than Estonian.

Language is a volatile issue in Estonia. Russian-speaking children are currently educated in Russian. Starting in 2007, however, all education is supposed to be in Estonian. Many teachers will lose their jobs, and many students will struggle in school if this change happens on schedule. There is no easy answer. As an outsider I understand both positions. It is reasonable for Estonian speakers to want Russian speakers to learn Estonian if they are going to live here, but it is difficult to learn a language heard almost exclusively in the classroom.

I have, nonetheless, been encouraged. Some of my students enjoy studying Estonian and attend Estonian language camps or live with an Estonian family for a week or two during the summer. Moreover, not long ago, my friend's six-year-old son identified himself as Estonian when I called him Russian. He insisted he was Estonian, just Estonian, when I attempted to modify it to Russian-Estonian. I hope he retains this Estonian identity as he grows up.

Citizenship requirements, which include a strict language component, are another area of contention in Narva, and in Estonia as a whole. In Narva, as in other predominantly Russian areas, there is a mix of blue, red, and gray passports. Some people have Estonian (blue) passports. Many have Russian (red) passports, and still others have alien (gray) passports. Those who hold gray passports are not citizens of any country. They are generally Russian speakers who do not qualify for Estonian citizenship, but who also do not have Russian citizenship.

Language and citizenship requirements are sources of bitterness on both sides. Critics fault the national government for its integration policies, but integrating 32 percent of the country's population is a formidable task. There are two distinct cultures in my town and in this country. There is also a lot of mistrust and resentment between Russians and Estonians that stems from the Soviet occupation. Fortunately, there seems to be a growing consensus that cooperation and progress are possible. Compromise will not be easy but it must happen if Estonia is to thrive. 

World Wise Speakers

Invite a Peace Corps volunteer into your classroom to share what it's like to live a global life by sharing stories, cultures and knowledge.