I'm taking the B1 Estonian language exam soon so it might be useful to journal those experiences, such as they are, not for their own sake, but as a practical how-to for others planning on taking any Estonian level exam. An additional reason is the particular level I'm taking is the minimum threshold for those applying for citizenship (not that I am). This will be a good way of testing how practical the benchmark is, on the grounds that if I can do it, anyone can. Or, should I fail, we can revisit claims that the level is too difficult. So here follows part one, of three.
It's fair to say that not many expats here speak Estonian well, and some not at all.
There are exceptions. I've heard tell of at least one Brit who translates Estonian literature into English (which does not automatically follow that their spoken language is flawless) and there is an American man doing the same.
Estonian is hard, no doubt about it. The Work in Estonia site advises us to "think of Estonian as a flowy [sic] Elvish language with a good, almost Japanese-style beat to it" — and maybe therein lies my problem. Nonetheless, the Elfin comparison is not so far off the mark — the language of Tolkien's high elves, the Noldor, was based on Finnish, Estonian's closest relative. Maybe I should have stuck with Welsh (the inspiration for Sindarin, the language of the Noldor's country cousins, the grey elves), or switched to Japanese.
We've established that I don't speak Estonian well, a subjective measure up to a point. Let's put the watershed at B1 from the CEF, or the Common European Framework, which includes six levels ranging from A1, beginner, to C2, highly proficient. Anything above B1 and even the most begrudging would have to concede that that person speaks Estonian well. The relative novelty of Estonian as a foreign language compared with English probably lowers the bar a bit too.
B1 as a gateway
A solid B1 person would have made it, just, on the episode of Suud Puhtaks discussion show earlier in the year, where a couple of dozen global expats, under the moderation of Urmas Vaino, had a pleasant, and very well received by the home crowd, discussion about living in Estonia.
As it happens, I'm at about B1 level — shockingly bad for someone who has been here nine years, and in dire need of improvement, not least so that I can do more than nod enthusiastically as colleagues in the newsroom talk to me in rapid-fire, no-nonsense Estonian.
Having been an English teacher for many years, I'd add that B1 is also the crisis point beyond which people either give up or press on over the so-called "intermediate plateau" to B2 and the giddy heights of the Cs.
There is another reason why B1 is symbolic. It is the level required for obtaining Estonian citizenship (§ 8 Citizenship Act 1995), along with several other prerequisites. That the language and other requirements, the testing process, and the level itself has its critics is no secret. MEP Yana Toom (Centre/ALDE) told me in summer that the language exam was:
- Not practical, particularly supposed requirements to write out an "essay" for someone who works as a taxi driver for instance.
- Too inaccessible for older people, being as it is an online test.
I personally find some snipes somewhat uncharitable given the site of Innove, the NGO set up to oversee language proficiency exams and other educational areas, is pretty user-friendly in English (and therefore at least as much in Russian). If I and the few hundred or few thousand non-Russian speaking foreigners potentially aiming to take a test can get things moving, then so can the (much larger) group of Russian-speaking, barely-even-foreigners. Anyone might have thought the issue was being used for political purposes, or something...
How to take the exam
Nevertheless, my story is not particularly interesting or exceptional, so let's focus on the veracity of the claims about the testing process as well as provide some practical info for others thinking of taking the B1, or any other level, exam.
First, get yourself a teacher. I balked at the idea (and expense, commitment, etc.) for a long time, fooling myself into thinking my "restaurant Estonian" was somehow speaking the language. Granted, it's been years since I was unable to tell the difference between Estonian and Finnish, but my teacher has been invaluable in identifying grammatical blind spots (not least the dreaded osastav or partitive case), hammering my pronunciation and boosting my vocabulary.
Second, sign up for an exam. If you're not sure of your level, your teacher will help, and there are diagnostic tests available on the Innove site. Exams are held regularly through the year, so you can give yourself a few weeks' notice, which is all you need, especially if you are in amongst the Bs (B2 is required for customer-facing jobs in the private sector, though this has been feeling some pressure of late).* Note there is also a registration deadline of about a month or so before the test.
The tests are free of charge, and require registration using an Estonian ID card.
Even better, for those who have been living in Estonia less than five years, there is a welcome program which takes candidates up to the A1 exam level.
My first available date is Sunday, 11 November, which means I'll be missing Remembrance Sunday (the test even begins at 11.00 EEST). In advance of this, Innove mentioned on the site somewhere an orientation session held two weeks before, which also turns out to be well worth attending.
This takes place at the same Lasnamäe school where the exam will be held and attracts about a dozen people. Everyone else here is a Russian-speaker, which far from making for homogeneity, brings a real mixture of people. Here is the young Ukrainian guy who's only been in Estonia three years and already speaks much better than I do; there is the older lady who grew up here in Tallinn and is fretting about what type of questions the exam will involve. Two young guys' curiosity is piqued when I say in my short speaking practice slot that "Ma töötan ajakirjanikuna" ("I work as a journalist"); meanwhile a married couple come in an hour and a half late and proceed to sit at the back and chat with each other in Russian.
As well as speaking, we run through an entire listening section. I realize that it's a good idea to sit as close to the audio device as possible. At this time of year, with the number of people snuffling and coughing, as well as rustling papers, you could easily miss a key word and with it valuable points on the listening section.
In the event I get about 80% or so on the listening practice, my weakest area (overall pass mark is 60%) and we get a past paper to take home for reading and writing practice.
Some other FAQs are here.
I will report back on how the exam on 11 November went, my result (when I get it) and what to expect from the exam and process, as well as an assessment of the practicalities of making B1 the citizenship benchmark, in part two.
*Indeed, Estonia's Language Inspectorate has been known to pounce on employees who don't have good enough Estonian, or sometimes English or Russian. A draft bill introduced earlier this year aimed at making A2 a requirement for renewing temporary residence permits seemed not to go anywhere.
Editor: Aili Vahtla