Adam Rang: Why does the Mall of Tallinn get a free pass from Estonian language rules?

The Estonian authorities are keen to protect the Estonian language, although one glaring use of English in Tallinn seems to have been given a free pass; Adam Rang questions whether there is a deeper problem behind this.

I love flying into Tallinn Airport, but there’s one thing about it now that bugs me.

It’s not the airport itself, which I truly believe is the best and cosiest airport in the world. It’s the view from the airplane window of the new T1 Mall of Tallinn, which is now the first and last glimpse of Estonia that most visitors to our country will remember.

The Mall of Tallinn has plenty of problems at the moment so I won’t go through all my criticisms of it, but I really don’t like that name and I think it’s unfortunate that it’s written so large in such a visible location in our city.

The name is not just bland and baffling (well, are we meant to call it T1 or the Mall of Tallinn?). It’s also completely at odds with the national debate in Estonia about how to protect and promote the Estonian language, which is an objective embedded into the country’s constitution.

That debate usually focuses on policies for education and customer service, while Keeleinspektsioon (the Estonian Language Inspectorate) focuses on penalising relatively small incidents in which English is used (even if it can be justified by the context). Meanwhile, there is little discussion or reaction from Keeleinspektsioon to those giant Mall of Tallinn signs greeting visitors to our country.

Why make things sound less Estonian?

If the aim of the Mall of Tallinn was to attract international visitors, then it’s not working anyway. I speak with international visitors to Estonia every day, as someone involved in both Estonia’s tourism and e-residency sectors, and I’ve never heard a single one of them ever express any interest in visiting the Mall of Tallinn.

They would rather enjoy the views from Toompea (a limestone hill in the city centre, offering grand views across Tallinn’s Old Town – editor) and do their shopping in Telliskivi (a trendy creative centre of Tallinn – editor), not a mall and Ferris wheel next to the airport. They already have plenty of malls back home.

Visitors to Tallinn are not impressed by Ferris wheel next to the airport.

I think this problem is much bigger than the Mall of Tallinn, though. Estonians too often try to make things sound less Estonian in the mistaken belief that doing so will make their product or service more appealing to international customers. Notice, for example, that some saunas around Estonia are advertised in English as “Finnish saunas” despite the fact that they are very much Estonian saunas by any reasonable definition.

The truth is that most visitors to Estonia do actually want to understand Estonian culture and do want to do things that are typically or uniquely Estonian. That even includes learning bits of Estonian if they get the opportunity. I know one e-resident, Ian Wagner from the US, who has only ever visited Estonia on business trips, yet he speaks better Estonian than me who has lived here for four years. I recently met up with him for coffee on his latest trip to Tallinn and he explained to me that the Estonian language is gaining a fan club in the e-resident community around the world.

Name change for Mall of Tallinn?

It seems like the Mall of Tallinn will have to go through some major changes anyway in order to survive. As part of that, I would recommend they get rid of their current name and replace it with something beautifully Estonian. And not just for political reasons, but also because being more authentic with your identity makes good business sense too.

As far as I understand, trademarks are exempted from Estonia’s language laws. The owners want the name to be T1, but they registered it as T1 Mall of Tallinn so they could get their English description prominently onto the outsides of the building. It’s just a loophole that government can’t prevent them, right? Not quite. It’s worth noting that the Mall of Tallinn was opened with the help of taxpayers’ money which means different parts of government are both preventing minor uses of English and supporting major uses of it.

The Mall of Tallinn’s name highlights not just a problem with language policies and how they are enforced. It’s also a reminder that we need to have more confidence in our Estonian identity and recognise that we can do more to celebrate it, including with non-Estonians.

For now, our efforts to support the Estonian language are often just missing the forest for the trees, as they say in American English.

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Mall of Tallinn.

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