by Emilia Pawłusz, Marie Curie Fellow at Tallinn University
This study seeks to identify social actors and practices other than the state and governmental institutions that shape language policies and its outcomes in the society. The main argument is that language policy is a social practice generated both by the state but also other actors – activists as well as the civil society in informal, everyday practices. This study focuses on informal making of language policy and conceptions about the national language in the sphere of culture. Empirically, it investigates the case of Estonian language policy making. It reveals that instrumental top-down approach to language policy and planning is too narrow to capture the complexity of the process of acquisition of national language in multicultural societies such as Estonia.
Introduction and research problem
The case studied is language policy and planning (LPP) in Estonia. Estonia has a significant Russian speaking population (about 30% and almost 50% in the capital city of Tallinn) who has come to the country mainly during the Soviet times. After Estonia regained independence many of them decided to stay, yet the Estonian state did not automatically grant them the Estonian citizenship. In order to become a naturalised citizen, one must take a language proficiency exam. Also, to work in civil servant jobs, services, education and other sectors, one must master the Estonian language on the level ranging from B1 to C1 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. The Estonian citizenship and language policies have been used as tool of state building and integration of minorities, especially the Russian speaking community. As Siiner et al. (2017) observe, the Estonian state has been promoting the Estonian as a way to build a common national identity for everyone in the country, regardless of ethnic identity. However, as local and international research has shown, the Estonian language policy focuses mainly on the protective measures towards the Estonian language and merging it with the ethnic Estonian identity, thus assuring the privileged relationship of the ethnic Estonian majority. It has been shown that the Estonian language, instead of becoming a non-ethnic national marker, is still conceptualised as an ingrained “property” of ethnic Estonians. This in turn might cause a sense of marginalisation and impede the readiness of Russian speakers to learn the national language and translate it into a sense of belonging to the state. As shown by Cheskin (2015) Russian speakers in Estonia see the instrumental value of speaking Estonian but hardly connect it to a sense of belonging to the state. Quite to the contrary, a sense of oppression by the ethnic nationalism in how the language policy is implemented has been reported (Soler Carbonell 2011; Pfoser 2013).
Inclusive definition of language policy
In the light if these observations a new frame work for LPP research has been suggested (Siiner et al. 2017) which advises to understand language policy beyond formal regulations, as a social practices created on the ground. This definition shifts the understanding away from policy as an authoritative tool with a system of sanctions to policy as a complex practice of conflicting ideologies, decisions and negotiations undertaken by top political actors and institutions but also other social actors and people themselves. Such inclusive approach to policy advises to investigate language practices, policies and ideologies in families, businesses, educational institutions and cultural practices. In the case of Estonia, such approach sheds new light on who and how – beyond the state – plays a role in forming and implementing language policies, shaping popular attitudes to the national language and its practices among the ethnic majority and minority.
Within the framework of language policy as an everyday, enacted practice negotiated by citizens, an ethnographic study of a national choral singing festival was undertaken. Estonia has a 150-year tradition of choral singing events where amateur choirs sing patriotic songs and celebrate nation’s independence. It is a public event, partly sponsored and directed by a board which includes the Ministry of Culture representatives, however, it largely relies on the grassroots participation of people (of all ages) all over the country. It is estimated that every festival gathers about 150,000 attendees (in choirs and audiences) which equal about 10% of the total population of Estonia. The festival was chosen as a site of investigation of informal language policy making since it has a great symbolic value in the society. It was a site of political mobilisation for independence movement in the late eighties and plays an important role in the national historiography and memory about the anti-Soviet resistance. In today’s Estonia it is often described as a “true” expression of Estonian culture and nation. Through ethnographic observation of the festival and in-depth interviews with festival organisers, conductors, music teachers and participants, this research aimed at revealing how festival decision makers conceptualise the notion of the national language and how the idea of it is enacted through joint mass singing of patriotic songs.
Findings and recommendations
The study revealed that the national song festival is narrated mainly as an ethnic Estonian event which celebrates the Estonian language as an ethnic rather than civic feature of the nation. It showed that the decision makers largely conform to the top-down national narrative of the need to downplay minority languages as potentially threatening to the existence of the national language. The exploration of the joint singing ritual was useful to pinpoint an understudied and often omitted aspect of language policy – that the attitude to the language is not only instrumental but also emotional. This means that a language is not only a tool of communication but a system of meanings, references and affective attitudes that the learner absorbs with it through language learning and usage. In agreement with many scholars, this study argues that the gradual deconstruction of the Estonian language as an endangered language and kernel of ethnic identity of Estonians, would be beneficial of the long term goal of social integration and cohesion of the society. The observation of the affective attitude to a language is crucial for making language policy because it shows that learning a language is not instrumental and proficiency in it does not automatically translate into a sense of belonging to a community that speaks it like a country. There is a symbolic and affective component of this process that the formal language policy usually omits focusing on the practical teaching and learning part. An event like the Estonian song festival provides an example of a socially important informal practice that influences both the context in which Estonians and non-Estonians learn the language and all the popular conceptions around. Taking into consideration informal practices concerning the language sheds lights on why a certain policy works or not and what informal or symbolic assumptions about the language (its national, ethnic or political value) may hinder or accelerate the solution of linguistic challenges faced by multicultural societies like Estonia and beyond.
Cheskin, A. (2015). Identity and integration of Russian speakers in the Baltic States: A framework for analysis. Ethnopolitics, 14(1), 72–93.
Pfoser, A. (2013). Between Russia and Estonia: narratives of place in a new borderland. Nationalities Papers, 42(2), 269–285. doi:10.1080/00905992.2013.774341.
Siiner, M., K. Koreinik, K. Brown. (2017). Language Policy Beyond the State. Springer.
Soler Carbonell, J. (2011). Speakers’ evaluations of the Estonian and the Russian languages in Tallinn. Between linguistic stability and inter-ethnic tension. ESUKA-JEFUL, 2(1), 315-333.
For a full version see: Pawłusz, Emilia. (2017). The Estonian song festival and the affective practice of join singing. In: Language Policy Beyond the State?, edited by Maarja Siiner, Kara Brown and Kadri Koreinik, Springer.