I took the Estonian B1 test — the level required for obtaining Estonian citizenship — a couple of weeks ago after explaining my motivations in another piece, so here are my reflections on the experience. I have to say it was certainly worth it. A useful rule of thumb calls to mind the old "ask a woman how many men she's slept with and multiply it by three to get the true figure; ask a man the same and divide by three" principle.
Even if that is a sub-par thing to do, it works here. In the same way, you can assume that whereas when an Estonian gives their English (or any other foreign language) competence at level X, you can safely assume it's really X+1 or more, with many expats you can safely do the reverse. Certainly you didn't want to be around me when I realised I was some way off the B2* level as I had previously thought.
So the Estonian B1 exam came and went, on a dull Sunday afternoon in Lasnamäe. I don't yet know the result, and so I don't want to ride for a fall too much. Suffice to say, following the orientation session laid on a couple of weeks prior to the test, there were no disagreeable surprises and everything was as they said it would be.
Estonian a popular language to take
What is unexpected is the number of examinees — dozens of people milling around Pae High School when I arrive, thirty minutes early as instructed, most, but not all, speaking Russian in small groups. I even bump into a former student from my English-teaching days who is taking, I assume, the B1 exam as well. The latter is by far the most popular, with two or three rooms used simultaneously for the same level test; I think an A2 test is happening somewhere too.
The preliminaries make me chuckle, however. Most of the examiners are of a certain age, let's say, and we are to give our ID card to an oldish fellow in a leather waistcoat-type thing ("the chief examiner," he's later introduced as). We are told where to sit. I said in the previous piece it's wise to sit as close to the audio player as possible; of course I'm assigned the farthest flung corner of the room. Trying to be too clever.
A long speech ensues. One invigilator, a lady whose name escapes me but I imagine to be a Malle, for no very good reason, explains what colour pens we can use, when we can and can't take a toilet break, what to do if we choose the wrong option in a multi-choice task ("cross out the error and write the new answer clearly in the margin" — yes, okay), where to insert our names, etc. (we are actually assigned a number too).
People are well prepped — the whole test lasts several hours — with multiple pens, water (I take a flask of coffee too), etc. The front seat next to the audio player is still free; at greased lightning speed, I get over there and stake my claim — after all, I'm not in Britain now.
The exam is divided into four parts. Writing, coming first, gives a bit more than half an hour to pen two pieces of 50 words and 100 words, respectively. One involves filling out a questionnaire on a health spa you have supposedly recently attended, pushing my meagre creative clout beyond its comfort zone; the second requires you to invite a friend to a birthday party (same). The time limit is ample. Obviously write clearly, possibly in all capital letters; without the standardisation of cursive script which still, very rightly, appears in former Soviet countries, "our" writing styles and neatness run the gamut.
This, the part I was looking backwards to most, also lasts 35 minutes. With the same test going on in other rooms, you might think, since we were slow off the blocks with all the preamble, we'd get a headstart in being able to catch bits of audio floating up the corridor. Actually, the acoustics cause a dissonance more like the aural sound installation at Kumu Art Museum, which is of absolutely no help.
Equally, this is not the time for my mind to start wandering, yet it does, costing a few points. Listening portions get played twice; you essentially have to scan for relevant info, but the narrators carry on at a brisk pace and it's easy to misunderstand things.
Notwithstanding the caveat about bumps and coughs and the shuffling of papers, plus the rule that toilet breaks may be taken only during the writing section, someone (not me) goes for a toilet break right in the middle of a listening extract. Yes, really.
The reading segment is the crest of the hill, with 50 minutes allowed for four texts, mostly scan-reading and matching statements to extracts, true/false questions, etc. It is also the first chance for early finishers to leave ahead of time, which about half do. I resist the temptation to escape, checking my answers through twice, something I never did at school — too much of a chore — which leads to a couple of revised answers (following the careful instructions on how to do this). I've dropped points on the linking words (but, and, because, etc.) questions for sure.
How do you test speaking ability? You divide candidates into pairs and have each pair at 15 minute slots with the examiner, that's how. Only I'm at the bottom of the list. I get over the persecution mania that this is due to being the sole non-Russian/-Ukrainian person on the list, which is in fact alphabetical. However, since there's an odd number of people, rather than working with a partner, I'll be doing the speaking on my own (with the examiner, I mean). This is more blessing than curse — you want your interlocutor to be roughly on a par, but B1 is a pretty broad church; if they're too good you don't want to hamper them, but the reverse is also true. In any case, it's a non-issue now.
Speaking to the aforementioned former student, I realise that his speaking fluency and accent lag behind mine, though his vocabulary is a bit broader.
Chatting to a girl from the Russian Federation who is married to an Estonian doesn't bolster my confidence in the upcoming conversation showcase, however — she's competent indeed. There again we are speaking English.
The real bind being last on the list is, with about 12 pairs ahead of me every 15 minutes, well, you can do the maths on how long I have to wait for the slot. Naturally it doesn't run to schedule either, so by the time my turn rolls around, I'm practically the last person left in the building apart from the similarly jaded examiners. It's so long that I'm worried the lack of practice will regress my level to A2 by the time I get back into the exam room. This is where the coffee flask, the Kindle, and the newly opened T1 Mall of Tallinn across the street pay off.
In the speaking portion, "Malle" says she will stand in as the second student and thus do less talking, with me the greater share, though that's not how it works out and I get cut short a few times. There is an Estonian aphorism, I believe, which goes something like "ära ütle rohkem kui küsitakse" — "don't say more than you are asked." Not a bad policy here, in essentially a short interview (recorded) about what you do, a conversation about which other foreign languages we (ie I and the examiner-cum-student) would like to learn and why, and some role playing conversation about, yes, another health spa or similar.
After some polite conversation off the record we're done. I have to wait 30 days for the results, so then I'll give a final take on whether or not B1 is a realistic prerequisite for citizenship.
See here for some more practical info on how to go about taking the test, which I would urge people even half-considering to just drag their sorry behinds to, whatever their level — the tests are free of charge, and it means so much more to actually say you are certified at a given level than to pluck some level out of thin air.
* Of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), where A1 is the lowest, called breakthrough or beginner level, rising through A2, B1, B2 and C1 to C2, or mastery level. There is currently no C2 Estonian language exam available.
Editor: Aili Vahtla