Tuesday, October 2, 2012
I was clearly in the minority. Four purebred Estonians seated around my kitchen table, blue-eyed blondes with names like Sepp, Kivi, and Kuur. One wore a linen shirt like he’d come direct from a song festival. They were right out of central casting, except that, because of my presence, they were speaking English.
My Estonian doesn’t completely suck, though my accent is at least as amusing as an Estonian’s accent when he speaks English. I comprehend nearly everything in the Estonian language, though I can be thrown by submerged metaphors about angry roosters or rusty plows.
My four friends were bantering about Kant or bad journalism or nudity on Pirita Beach or I don’t know what, and all I could wonder was why they had consciously handicapped themselves by speaking English in a discussion I was largely not participating in. They spoke English well, I have to say, but hardly at the level they could carry on a conversation in their native language. Why, I wondered, had they chosen to rob themselves of the eloquence they possess in their native tongue?
Of course it’s not just my Sepp and Kuur who do it. It’s almost every Sepp and Kuur. Almost anywhere I go in Tallinn (except the central market) I am addressed in English. Asking a question to a waitress or stewardess in Estonian, she will often respond: “So do you want to speak English?”
What I want, really, is a simple answer to my simple question. Often I suppress the urge to point out that we are, in fact, in Estonia, a small country just south of Finland and west of Russia, and the language spoken here is Estonian. If we were in Sweden and I asked a question to a waitress in serviceable Swedish, would she respond in English?
But I never answer with that speech. Because if I were after a discussion about sociolinguistic theory I would have asked Basil Bernstein, not some waitress, and her injection has already hijacked what should be merely a transaction and turned it into an exercise to feed her self-esteem.
In most places in the world the locals are flattered when you want to speak their language, and they take some pleasure in playing along, sticking with the local language until the moment the foreigner gives up in utter frustration. Why is Estonia different?
One popular theory is that since so few foreigners even attempt Estonian, every accent is seen as ridiculous. (Conversely, since everyone attempts English, no accent is seen as strange.)
Another easy theory to reach for is insecurity. Some need to demonstrate that “I, too, speak English” and are not inferior beings.
“We want to practice our English” is another reason I’ve heard, and this is perhaps plausible for longer conversations, though I find it hard to believe that saying things like “Do you want cream with that?” add much to the speaker’s repertoire.
“We want you to be comfortable” is the explanation I’ve received most often if I ask why they switched to English. But if that’s the motive why don’t they just as quickly switch to Russian when an accent is detected? A slightly different matter, you may say. But if it is, then the explanation should be changed to “We want certain people to be comfortable.”
My French friend Guillaume theorizes that Estonians don’t want foreigners to learn their language. They don’t want you in their inner circle, he says, and the only way in is to learn their language. To be sure, Guillaume is a lazy bastard and he has not learned Estonian despite the countless euros he’s spent taking lessons. I would discount his theory on that basis alone, except that it actually makes sense. For thousands of years, language may be the only thing that occupying powers haven’t managed to take away from Estonians, so why should they be eager to share it now with people who will only pollute it?
If it ended there we armchair linguists would have it easy, but on a recent trip to Norway (where I did not attempt Norwegian), I met an Estonian mother who complicated things even more: she spoke only Norwegian with her children.
I saw no evidence that she was ashamed to be Estonian, but I didn’t see any major effort to instill the culture or language in her children. I do not presume to present her as representative, but she is surely not a bizarre aberration, either. With tens- if not hundreds of thousands of Estonians having emigrated in the last twenty years, perhaps we ought to worry about the Estonian language.
“Nonsense,” says a friend of mine. “We were down to 30,000 Estonian speakers in year 1200-something-or-other after the plague and we rebounded from that!” Speaking about it as if it were only yesterday, he is certain there is no risk of the language dying.
But with population experts saying the number of Estonians will shrink to something like 700,000 by 2050, it might not be a bad idea to take every opportunity to encourage use of the language. Especially with foreigners who demonstrate an inclination to learn it.
Speaking for many of them, let me say that we do not need or want praise. (We know we’re tubli.) We will not be encouraged by free folk costumes. (Nor amber or matroshka dolls.) And we do not seek Estonian citizenship. (We are not fleeing the tyranny of Canada.) What we desire is to be corrected.
My friend Katrin in Tartu is the epitome of what foreigners need in an Estonian. If I say õieti when I should have said õigesti, Katrin is quick with a reprimand. If I use street language, she will frown and refuse to answer. If I say something capitally silly or with an unbearable accent (I cannot properly pronounce loll or kalli kalli to this day) she will laugh out loud and later relate the story to her friends. She offers no quarter. But she does correct me.
Estonians who do not know me are surely too polite to correct me, but I would invite you to get over it. What could better improve a foreigner’s Estonian than an entire nation who takes it upon itself to help him learn the language? I’m not talking about free language lessons given in church basements by pensioners with nothing better to do (though that’s not a bad idea). I’m talking about a dining companion who gently tells me what I really want is gaasiga vett, not gaasiga vesi.
And Sepp and Kuur could have their arguments around my kitchen table in Estonian. My theory is that the extra time consumed by me interrupting to clarify a meaning would be roughly equal to the time lost by them using English. Nothing would change in the grand scheme of things except that one foreigner would speak Estonian at a slightly higher level.
The danger of all this, of course, is that Estonians might start to learn from foreigners. My wife Liina is so used to hearing me speak incorrectly that she’s begun to parrot me. I know several Estonian women who have learned English from their spouses, complete with ghetto expressions and plumber-style swearing, but Liina has added a new twist and allowed my Estonian to replace her own. Daily I fear that Urmas Sutrop may show up on the doorstep and take her away from me.
Perhaps a compromise might be reached where Mr. Sutrop simply moves in with us and takes me on as his Eliza Doolittle. He could rid me of my accent, repair Liina’s laziness, and make sure little Robert grows up speaking one language properly. And the rest of you might do your part, also. After you’ve finished laughing at my sentences, just gently correct me. Otherwise, we all may be doomed.