A rise in complaints lodged with the Estonian Language Inspectorate (Keeleinspektsioon) in recent years has brought the status of the Estonian language back under scrutiny. This time, however, complaints are also in relation to deficiencies in the use of English by service staff in restaurants, hotels, shops etc., particularly when the person in question doesn't have adequate Estonian.
According to the Inspectorate's Director, Ilmar Tomusk, the first few complaints started trickling in in the mid-2000s at around the time Estonia joined the EU, but have since seen somewhat of a surge in volume.
''We are finding that cafe owners and others had been getting the message that 'you are in the EU now, you need to be proficient in English','' explained Mr. Tomusk.
Estonian-speaking customers had expressed concern that, upon realizing a customer service assistant's Estonian was not up to what they would view as good enough, the customer would switch into English where possible, only to find that the same employee didn't seem to have adequate English skills either.
''Sometimes it makes no difference if the customer or client has a good level of English, since the customer service agent won't have a a good enough level in, what is for them, a foreign language,'' Mr. Tomusk said.
Apparently over the past year there have been complaints about the level of English in three fast food outlets, three hotels, 10 restaurants and a number of souvenir shops, according to Mr. Tomusk.
The factors behind this rise in complaints were twofold, according to Tomusk. First, in recent years there has been a larger number of customer service assistants, often trainees in the catering and hospitality sector, who have come from overseas to get practical work experience in Estonia for a couple of months or so. Naturally English would be the lingua franca and/or native language for most of these people.
Second, these overseas staff are filling the void left by younger Estonians, who often don't want to work in the service sector due to a perceived low level of pay, according to Mr. Tomusk.
In any event, the Inspectorate is obliged to investigate all such complaints. It does this usually by obtaining from the employer information on the level of Estonian the employee has, and will back this up by on the spot visits to the workplace.
These inspections have shed further light on the issue, revealing that in some cases there has been a misunderstanding of the employee's level not only of Estonian, but also in English.
''In general these complaints have been well-founded, but sometimes it's a case of the complainant mistaking a stronger accent on the part of the customer service agent for a lack of proficiency in the language,'' he went on.
''In these cases, we won't investigate the language skills of that particular employee'' said Tomusk. ''However, the employer is still obliged to ensure services function in Estonian, meaning Estonian language and information is on hand at all times regardless of the fact that some individual employees don't speak it,'' he explained.
Nevertheless, in some cases, employees have had to seek alternative employment in areas where they don't have to deal with customers face to face, Tomusk said.
More constructively, some staff have been taking Estonian language courses to improve their level of spoken Estonian, he noted.
At the same time, Mr. Tomusk was keen to stress that both employing overseas staff and ensuring adequate levels of English in the catering and hospitality sector need not take away from the preeminence of the Estonian language in Estonian society
The high volume of tourism in Estonia means that a large number of customers as well as staff are from overseas in these types of establishments, he noted, but Estonian speakers should receive the same standard of treatment as non-Estonian speakers in levels of service, information etc.,and there is plenty of room for improvement in that area, he said.
In short, it is an all-round customer service issue which is at stake, according to Mr. Tomusk.
''In conclusion, I'd like to say from the heart that if employers were to offer good customer service, then these types of issues wouldn't take place,'' he opined.
The Estonian Language Inspectorate (website here) was founded in 1990 in order to ensure adequate levels of Estonian were provided in those services dealing with the public. Ilmar Tomusk has been director since 1995. Hitherto the status of Estonian was often scrutinized with reference to the Russian language, the de facto primary language of the USSR, of which Estonia was a constituent part, and a language which is the native tongue of nearly a quarter of Estonia's inhabitants.
Editor: Andrew Whyte