Cracking the code – learning Estonian in Estonia

As a teenager I travelled and lived abroad with nothing more than a fifty-five-litre backpack and the invincible confidence of youth. The desire to explore and experience never left, and when, fifteen years, one husband and two kids later, the opportunity to live abroad suddenly arose again – this time for my husband’s dream job in Tallinn – I was delighted.

Cue some research about Estonia – our basic requisites being that we move to a country interesting enough to pack our time there with learning about the region, but not so insurmountably alien that it might terrify the nascent traveller-explorer in our children. A cursory check of our no-go list – even my impetuous self would struggle with living somewhere with wildly different ideas about women’s rights, for example, or a crime rate that makes the eyes water; and the decision was made.

We arrived in Tallinn just in time for the winter solstice; dark days, roaring fires and the magical Christmas market gave way to the riotous celebrations of New Year (I have never before heard a seven-year-old ask for permission to go to bed because the fireworks were going on too long); and I set about my first mission. Learn Estonian – it can’t be that difficult, can it?

The forecast high for the day is minus fourteen degrees Celsius (7°F). There has been little snow for a few days, and the tramping of weary feet has turned ungritted pavements in the capital to passable cross country ski runs. I sit in a bare, modern classroom at the prestigious Tallinn University, surrounded by the circumstantially obligated and the academically masochistic, attempting to grasp one of the worlds most difficult, and perhaps least useful languages. To ensure our focus, the teacher leaves the windows wide open.

“Why?!” is the usual deadpan response when I tell an Estonian I want to be part of their secret club. And it is a fair question.”

“Why?!” is the usual deadpan response when I tell an Estonian I want to be part of their secret club. And it is a fair question. Of my classmates some have straight forward answers; the romantic (the Brazilian archaeologist who fell in love with an Estonian in the Amazon and followed him here); the pragmatic (the businessman hoping to pass the government-mandated language tests to secure better tax breaks for his company); those moving towards something (the Dutch guy finally reunited with his Estonian girlfriend after years of cross border commuting), and those moving away (the Russian couple who curl their lips at the mention of their country’s politics). Some are slightly more off the wall – the Japanese classmate following her beloved Baruto-san, the Estonian champion sumo wrestler, only to find that he is retiring from the sport and returning to Estonia to his family farm.

And me. I would have laughed if you had told me six months ago I would be spending my winter in the Baltics, wearing the ill-advised love child of a duvet and a onesie and trying to crack a language so impenetrable it was apparently used in WW2 to communicate among allied spies (the axis powers being convinced it was code. Or perhaps elvish). But here I am. When the suggestion arose that we move the family here, the permanently invincible teenager in me clearly answered. Possibly before looking the Baltics up on a map.

“I would have laughed if you had told me six months ago I would be spending my winter in the Baltics and trying to crack a language so impenetrable it was apparently used in WW2 to communicate among allied spies”

My motley crew of classmates and I make up the beginners class in Estonian at the Tallinn University Winter School; a three week long series of short courses demonstrating the university facilities, expertise and range of courses, this season ranging from Estonian and Russian language classes to “experimental interaction” and “ways of seeing the past”. The school is a big draw to lecturers and foreign students alike, with some students deciding to stay on afterwards. The Winter School is the little sister to the more established Summer School, for those who prefer the white nights of midsummer to the delights of the northern winter.

Estonian sits in the Finno-Ugric family of languages, intelligible only to those over the water in Finland (and historically related also to Hungarian, although these days the languages have diverged somewhat). It is the official language for the population of 1.3 million in Estonia, although a large number of Estonian Russians don’t use it.

For Estonia, language, as a marker of nationhood, is sacred. The pragmatic education system ensures fluency in English for all young Estonians (the older generations having learned Russian under the Soviet system and Finnish from the TV broadcasts beamed over from Helsinki); but the bewildered response to a foreigner learning the language seems less about pragmatics and more about keeping gate crashers away from the party.

“The pragmatic education system ensures fluency in English for all young Estonians; but the bewildered response to a foreigner learning the language seems less about pragmatics and more about keeping gate crashers away from the party.”

Dissuading foreigners to try isn’t hard. Estonian has fourteen cases, no gender, three forms of every single word and no specific future tenses. As my Estonian teacher cheerfully recounts, “this is Estonia – no sex, no future”.

After a week of learning vocabulary I have a list of words as long as my arm and I’m starting to understand odd bits of billboard (bizarrely mainly the public service announcements suggesting people lay off the vodka and so on). We then turn, with typical Estonian gallows humour, to grammar. A week of slaving over cases and tense, results in the conclusion “some of this stuff, you just have to learn”; like why you go “into” some towns, but “onto” others. About this point the temperature really plummets, and whether the cause is this or the grammar, half the class disappears. One classmate – an eccentric Frenchman of the type that creates the impression that a mastery of French relies on exaggerated hand gestures and the word “boff!” – has to attend an emergency in Malawi. Others are not so creative.

After three weeks I am able to proficiently read warnings against going outside in the dark without your (legally required) reflectors and about the dangers of blindness caused by illegal, methanol-based vodka. Talking in any useful fashion has been slower progress, but I have made some friends and swapped some tales and will continue to work on the application of my language skills.

“After three weeks I am able to proficiently read warnings against going outside in the dark without your (legally required) reflectors and about the dangers of blindness caused by illegal, methanol-based vodka.”

In the real world, I have been trying to practise my budding skills. In the newsagents I top up my bus card, “Palun, viis päeva”. The assistant, who has served me several times before, and knows I am studying, humours me. Then he opens fire with a barrage of Estonian I am pretty sure he knew I could not understand. My eyes betray me. He smiles the smile of a man who has seen many before me, have a bash, but ultimately submit to the complexities of his native tongue. We complete the conversation in fluent, chirpy, Americanised English, and I return to my study guide.

 

* Adapted from the article first published in the Young and Global magazine. Cover photo by Ilmar Saabas (Maaleht). Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

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About the author: Claire Millard

Claire Millard is a Brit living in Tallinn, learning to love the language, while bonding with her Estonian friends over a shared passion for moaning about the weather. With ten years of operational and people management in the UK retail sector, she is passionate about helping businesses to deliver excellent customer service. See more at clairemillard.jimdo.com