Opinion: Estonian language initiatives great, but will they work out?

A new Estonian Language House recently opened in Tallinn, which aims to provide Estonian language, culture and more to newcomers, with a view to improved integration. But will it succeed in that?
A new Estonian Language House recently opened in Tallinn, which aims to provide Estonian language, culture and more to newcomers, with a view to improved integration. But will it succeed in that? Source: ERR

The recent opening of the very admirable and very well-meaning Estonian Language House in Tallinn is another step in the phasing in of a much more proactive approach to Estonian and getting foreigners to speak it properly. But is the trend wholly helpful and will it bring results? After all, as people sometimes like to say, ''there have been people living here for 50 years who can't speak a word of Estonian''. If that is so, why will it be different this time?

The timing of this recent marketing of the Estonian language – as well as the language centre we've had initiatives from the Estonian Institute, free language courses and a 'welcome program' for recent arrivals (if you've been here more than five years you're own your own there) plus an abortive bill to make Estonian, at the relatively low A2 level, mandatory for higher-level IT specialists, could be interpreted in different ways. On the one hand, 2019 is the year of the Estonian language, so we can expect lots more initiatives, education policies and the like in this area. Less postively, it might be related to fears that the country is likely to get swamped by large numbers of immigrants from the far flung corners of the globe, who come from often markedly different cultures and contexts, under the EU's migration relocation programs, the dreaded UN Global Compact on Migration, as well as free and voluntary migration.

Never mind that the total numbers of all of these categories are likely to be a drop in the ocean compared with the migration that took place in the 1970s and '80s in particular, from other areas of the Soviet Union, and largely Russian-speaking.

However, there are some key considerations here which make the recent arrivals different. Russia and Estonia are neighbours. This predates the Soviet Union by centuries, naturally, and there would long have been a certain proportion of Russian-speaking people in the country, some of them extremely long-established, such as the communities of Old Believers in Lake Peispi shoreline villages. The relationship went the other way too – many Estonians went to work and live in St Petersburg in the late 19th century (there's an Estonian Lutheran Church there) and much deeper into the seemingly endless asiatic steppe. The Estonian-Abkhazian family involved in a recent furore about citizenship are a good example.

Old ''problem'' in a new guise

There is also something of an attitude of ''better the devil you know'', or, as politician and businessman Olari Taal put it, ''a Russian or Ukrainian is better than some sort of 'tar' [ie. black person]''.

Furthermore, Estonia was not free and sovereign state when most of the ''Russian'' immigration, which was imposed on it (and there were protests against it at the time) took place; now it is, and is able to set its own laws and determine for itself who can come in and who cannot.

So the more recent arrivals may be numerically much smaller, though in some ways even more ''dangerous'', but in any case, something we can take the initiative for on our own, and that's very much what has been happening.

When trying to think of a precedent for this helping foreigners to-become-Estonian, the obvious place to look is one of Estonia's role models, the Scandinavian countries. Finland, Sweden et al all have very structured, well-funded and well-managed language learning and integration programs, all linked in with job seeking and training programs, housing, everything really.

Will integration programs work?

The problem is, since Estonians make the comparison themselves, I'm going to do same, the Estonian equivalent of the above are pitifully small, given the much smaller tax revenues, smaller population, largely absent tradition of social welfare and pulling together (in the Scandinavian way at least), and, partly understandable, revulsion and almost anything with a tinge of red (ie. socialism) about it. We're talking about a country where you can see young girls behind the wheel of a Lexus and hundreds of companies registered to a single building, not one with, say, a podgy, bespectacled person enthusiastically welcoming a spectrum of different folk whilst fretting about whether they are addressing them with the correct gender pronoun, or lavish benefits, not to mention fawning praise, laid on simply for being from a more southerly clime and showing up in the country with your bags.

So, the Estonian language and integration attempts might be a brave stab, but in the Scandinavian league they are not. Does that mean they are doomed to failure? Not necessarily. Another precedent (one not likely to be very popular in Sweden) of rapid language acquisition by a cosmopolitan influx came following the creation of the nation state of Israel in 1948. Here you had large numbers of refugees and others, speaking a wide range of European, semitic and other languages and dialects with very little to con-fraternally weld them together (not all of them were even Jewish, the country has a large population of non-Jewish Russian descent which absconded from the Soviet Union and entered Israel claiming to be Jewish). And yet they nearly all learned to speak and read Hebrew, hardly in itself a walk in the park.

A similar phenomenon was at play in North America from the late 19th century onward, although it tended to be the case there that only the second generation were genuinely americanised; the first generation would often have shaky English and clung to the traditions of the homeland (my colleague is a third generation väliseestlane from Baltimore, MD, and still grew up steeped in Estonian language and culture).

One obvious difference, though, is both the US and Israel encouraged immigration; Estonia being so much smaller, this is far less the case, though a reality sometimes bites and has led to projects like Work in Estonia, encouraging people to relocate, particularly to work in the country's flourishing startups scene.

What more can people here do, though? Immigrants are coming, in small numbers, yet the state might not be up to the task even then, or more likely, some of the incomers might not meet the Estonian Language House and its ilk with the same amount of enthusiasm as it gives itself – immigrants can often be a surly lot, after all.

Programs need to keep up with influx

Well, in true Estonian style, what the people do is roll up their figurative sleeves and get stuck in themselves. I am on a very large, sometimes extremely whacky and weird, expat group on social media, and the number of Estonians on there is notable. Whereas I couldn't care less about such forums for Estonians living in my country (and much of what was written would be over my head in any case) that is not the case for the Estonians on the group, who are pretty much well always interjecting in the comments threads, particularly if national pride is threatened.

There is of course a positive side to this in providing advice on where to find a plumber or doctor (the latter in particular a complicated quest of Cervantes-esque proportions, in this supposed ''Nordic'' country) and I believe that many of those Estonians who pop up from time to time, only to disappear into the ether (there are a few regulars) have the best of intentions. But overall it points at the inadequacies in preparations for any influx of migrants, simply psychologically and emotionally, before we even get to the logistics of it.

But aren't we talking simply about a language centre? Take it or leave it, why the cynicism? Leaving aside the cultural integration aspects of the new centre for a moment, the fact is, Estonian is hard, hard, hard. I've written about it elsewhere so won't elaborate, except to say that the language makes only moderate logical sense, is comprised primarily of words which basically resemble each other, and is delivered at a rapid fire, often mumbled (when men are speaking) just to round things off. It is way harder than even Finnish, leave alone the germanic Swedish or Norwegian languages. The vast majority of people embarking on learning it will not make it anywhere near fluency levels not only due to this, but because Estonians demand real fluency before they will speak it with you, usually switching into English with even competent users. My other colleague, something of a born polyglot being from the eastern part of Switzerland, has Estonian to a significantly higher level than I do (roughly C1 versus confirmed B1). He usually speaks English in the office.

Estonian as a siege language

Compare all that with Russian: You utter a single word in broken Russian and people will express their delight that you ''can speak some Russian''. Construct a correctly-parsed sentence in reasonably well pronounced Estonian, and you will most likely meet a ''ah, come on, let's speak English'' reaction. Which is not to say that Estonians don't want foreigners to speak Estonian – that question is asked almost constantly of those who end up on TV talk shows and the like (hence why I largely avoid such appearances).

But the tension essentially comes from the Estonian language's use as a weapon, no less. It is code talk, something the ''others'' can't or won't use, and crucial to the survival of the country and its culture. This is something which will never go away, since the EU, UN et al are perceived as being the new 'Soviet Union' and are imposing policies, especially on immigration, on the country, just that its being done from Brussels not Moscow, and in somewhat more sophisticated manner, the perception goes. Of course, it is EU money in the form of structural funds (which is, together with agriculture, practically all the EU spends its money on, again a bit like the Soviet Union).

So... is Estonian language necessary for incomers? Should we be all in or all out? I would argue don't bother with it unless you're genuinely interested, and that even this interest must be on your terms, so a certain amount of fighting your corner is needed. It takes a particular type of person to make it here in this country – and I'm not sure I have or will yet- if they've come from elsewhere, particularly the non-former Soviet/Warsaw pact bloc. Moreover, sometimes those that do make it, say from the UK or US, don't speak more than a few words of the language, so you need to be sure before you go chasing any white rabbits down any holes. Because, believe me, there is a whole mob of embittered expat types here, and you don't want to end up like those people.

What there is a danger of in this programmed learning and cultural education, of the type the Estonian Learning House champions, is of a ''two-tier'' category of Estonian speaker. In fact, that has already long been the case with the Russian-speaking minority, many of whom speak very good Estonian. Here's the key here, though – they still make, shock, horror, ''mistakes'' (as do native speakers of English in, er, English). There is of course also a rank order of foreigners, with Scandinavians and Germans at the top, the anglophone countries next, and, well, it goes down from there really.

So more likely the trend will continue as before, only with a little bit more of a rainbow makeup. There will always be people who master the language and ''integrate'', but in very small numbers. For the remainder, it's their decision whether to stay or go (many of them end up married and with kids, which should concentrate minds I would imagine) but I'm not sure how far reaching the effects of initiatives we've looked at will be, as they are at present. At least they are making an effort.

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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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