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WELCOME LETTER to the participants of the 4th Baltic Sea Conference on Literacy "Searching a Common Language" 16-21 January, 2020

In 1903 my grandmother Julie, who was at the time 12 years old, was employed in a village shop as an assistant, where she was able to communicate in three languages.

She had to speak German to shopkeepers (who themselves were ladies from Sweden), Russian to the officials of Russian Csarist State, and Estonian to the people of the village she lived in. Knowing these „three local languages“ has been a normality for many generations in our country, this crossroad of many trade routs and warfares.

The year 2019 has been announced as a year of Estonian language, because 100 years ago Estonian was first mentioned as the official language in the Estonian Republic. During this time Estonia has been open to all other nationalities and languages, and this time has seen also cases of ideological pressure and restrictions when using this or that language.

Today there are more than 200 languages spoken as home or first languages in the families living in Estonia. There are children in our families, who have to grow up using 4 languages – mother’s language, father’s language, their general communication language and additionally the language used in the kindergarten or school.

As a longtime member of the team of National Curriculum I know that there is a strong routine to design the curriculum purely for a monolingual child, who would hypothetically learn „first foreign language“ in the 3rd grade (9 years old) and the „second foreign language“ in the 6th grade (12 years old). Already many years our schools are working under the slogan of inclusive education, but the cooperation between speech therapists, special education teachers, subject teachers, families and other agents is not easy to develop for many reasons. The children with multilingual background cannot find enough support and are often facing various difficulties in school. 

For many years we have also been in discussions with the publishers of textbooks, because the books for primary school are written on the level of an adult reader, totally not accepting the abilities of the child learning the subject in the second or third language.

These are some sides of the bundle of problems we face in multilingual education.

So let us come together, to share the scientific news about learning in different languages, and the practices how to teach and support the development of different learners.

Each person has an inalienable right to be happy in using the language she/he has been born into. To be happy, a person has to feel as a complete, full member of the society they are living in, taking part in the discussions and having a voice.

Education is a way to find a common language – the meanings behind the words, the humanist attitude to life and the empathy to support each other.

Welcome to the 4th Baltic Sea Conference on Literacy „Searching a Common Language“ in Tallinn in January 16th-21st 2020!

Willkommen! Tervetuloa! Velkommen! Laipni lūdzam! Sveiki atvykę! Добро пожаловать! Witamy Was! Välkomna!

Mare Müürsepp, PhD
Chair of the Board of Estonian Reading Association
Lecturer of children’s literature
primary class teacher


When I read about Mare Müürsepp’s grandmother I came to think of mine. Adèle Sofia was born in St. Petersburg in 1882. Her family was from the Grand Duchy of Finland. Her father, like so many Finns, was working on the railway and her mother as a maid. They spoke Swedish at home, learned Russian and French in school. And German by listening and communicating. The world was a whirl of languages and cultures. Mare’s Grandmother, like mine, moved naturally between languages. After finishing  school Adèle moved to Helsinki, where she learned Finnish by reading newspapers. After embarking on the voyage to Swakopmund the Missionaries stayed in London to learn English, and at their destination, Ovamboland, in the Northern Namibia of today, one more language was introduced to Adèle.

For every new language you take in, communicating and even comprehending becomes easier. I doubt that Grandmother’s knowledge of all the languages was perfect, but she used them, and read books in the original languages all her long life, and included words in particularly Russian and Odonga in her everyday talks.

In our literacy network we have so many first languages. If our mother tongue is English, the lingua franca of today, the majority of our European collaborators use their version of English with us. If our mother tongue is one of the smaller languages, or if we are minority speakers at home, then English might be our third or fourth language. Either way the different languages carry different cultures and can pose obstacles to communication and comprehension, if we let them. But to me they are a richness to affirm!

In January, when I return to Tallinn for the 4th Baltic Sea Conference, besides participating in a most interesting Conference together with you, I will enjoy Estonian. It has many words common with my languages Swedish and Finnish. That gives me a key. But I need to be aware, I will often know what the Estonians are talking about, but often I will not know what the Estonians are saying!

Ann-Sofie Selin, PhD
Federation of European Literacy Associations, FELA, Chairperson
Special Education and Literacy teacher, Cygnaeus school, Turku/Åbo Finland