Maarja Vaino: Learning the language not enough to adopt a culture

Maarja Vaino.
Maarja Vaino. Source: Maris Tombach/ERR

People tend to draw an equals sign between speaking the language and adopting the entire culture in Estonia. However, it is impossible to merge with a culture simply by learning its language, Maarja Vaino writes in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

January 30th will mark the first Estonian Literature Day, which is a red-letter and flag day starting from this year. And it seems that the desire to celebrate such a day is sincere, with events and ideas taking off as if by themselves... There is momentum.

When I thought about how to explain this spontaneity – passion even – from a cultural psychology perspective, a simple thought occurred to me: Estonian literature is the home of our language in the most beautiful and diverse way. Feeling concerned for the Estonian language exists in us on a subconscious level as we know languages are going extinct in the world. Small nations are more sensitive about their language than speakers of major world tongues.

Perhaps this perception that Estonian literature comprises not just stories that matter to us, but, through the words used, our entire existence, both historical and current, has made the Estonian Literature Day feel like a manifesto of being ourselves. Or at the very least a desire to hold on to something that's ours in this diverse and dangerous world. And to care for it.

That is why I was shocked to learn that the proposal to render the Language Act stricter to promote the use of Estonian in public did not merit universal support from parliamentary parties.

Parties' reasoning for failing to support the initiative was hardly convincing. Apparently, there are not enough Estonian teachers. Money buys many things, and I'm sure teachers could be found if teaching languages suddenly became a lucrative profession.

In a situation where employers and employees alike would face having to close doors unless Estonian is obtained after a period of time, a way would undoubtedly be found. Warnings or fines for failure to comply with the Language Act would see cafes and shops fix up their signs, menus and advertisements on which Estonian is currently hidden behind other more prominent languages, not to mention user manuals etc.

It would also no longer be conceivable for a wanted ad to require from the candidate Russian and English, but not Estonian.

The state must seriously demonstrate that it takes the official language and the Language Act seriously. In a situation where pathetic excuses are sought on the government level for why we cannot demand official language proficiency, why should citizens take seriously other laws? Or the state as a whole?

One is reminded of the Soviet Union where all manner of guidelines and directives were a dime a dozen, while the citizens paid them increasingly little heed, and, eventually, no one took the system seriously anymore. The representatives of the state didn't either. What's the point of thinking for oneself or wanting something in a situation where the guidelines would come down from Moscow either way, just as they come from Brussels today.

However, efficient performance of our official language is absolutely a prerequisite for this little nation and country's survival in the global village. As our language – the meanings of words in which go back 1,000 years and more –holds our entire cultural memory and perception of the world.

That is why I would like to point out another incompatibility. People tend to draw an equals sign between speaking the language and adopting the entire culture in Estonia. However, it is impossible to merge with a culture simply by learning its language. Jointly experienced historical reality recorded in expressions, patterns, texts and the nation's collective subconscious is something that cannot be learned, bought or given as a present. It can only take shape by itself over a long period of time.

That is why we need to distinguish between at least two levels when it comes to language: one is the official language level that should be inevitable if one is to cope in Estonia. It also demonstrates having basic respect for a country where one settles, and its culture. However, it is not enough to suggest integration. This has been demonstrated in connection with the Ukraine war where more than a few non-ethnic Estonians who speak the official language have struggled to share the majority of Estonians' sentiment.

Certain processes take a certain amount of time, even if our highly technological world has managed to create the illusion that everything happens fast these days. But it still takes broken bones the same time to heal. Growing inside a culture and becoming part of it also takes time and there is no accelerator to be found.

Therefore, it seems to me misleading to talk about language as the main tool of integration. Above all, Estonian needs to be, unequivocally and without exception, the official language of everyone here, barring tourists and temporary visitors, of course. People are free to speak as many foreign languages as they desire, while Estonian must be the language of communication in public and business domains without question.

A government or parties that fail to realize this should first set themselves the goal of integrating with their own people.


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Kaupo Meiel, Marcus Turovski

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: