Eesti Elu
A passion for the underdog (22)
Arvamus 03 Dec 2010  Eesti Elu
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In response to last week's Letter to the Editors

I'm extremely glad this kind of topic has been broached. A SUUR and heartfelt AITÄH for expressing your feelings and concerns openly. It seems as if a desire for dialogue is often swept under the rug in our community, since as polite Canadians and placid Estonians we'd sooner grin and bear it, than ruffle any feathers. Perhaps as Northerns, it takes us a bit longer to process as well. I know I have "long cables", as the Estonian saying goes. Pikad juhtmed. Pass the extension cord please.

This "don't rock the boat, go-with-the-flow" strategy has worked well for us so far. We have been great to adapt. My Memm used to say: intelligents on kohanemisvõime – intelligence is the ability to adapt. And we have; integrated and succeeded abroad.

And then there's adapting too well, overadapting? To the detriment of your unique "otherness" and possibly losing that facet. Which we've thankfully been allowed to nurture to the fullest in Canada and which truly needs nurturing, at least its language does.

That's the stage we seem to be at: adapting borderline assimilating. Correction: we have assimilated. If it wasn't for our different names, or the fact that we occasionally get together and (seemingly?) take on a different persona, by transforming into... a faint resemblance of our European foreparents. We grab hold of our past and become a part of it generally by – speaking Estonian. At least that's how I put on my Estonian hat and feel I can best connect with my Estonian friends. Slip into that other state of being with its united backdrop.

We have SO assimilated by day: at school, at work, on the street as citizens of the English-speaking world at large and the opportunities for us to speak Estonian in our day-to-day are fast disappearing. When your grandparents and parents are gone, the two closest Esto fixes are your friends / relatives and the internet. It's a great shame if we fail to use our brief moments together to set an example for our children and help them realise they aren't the only Estonian-speakers on the planet.

As for what was expressed in the letter: making someone feel guilty for not having learned the language is obviously counterproductive. But encouragement shouldn't be misinterpreted as pushiness, if that's truly what it is. Notice how I can't help but slip Estonian expressions into my writing? And then translate them, hoping, truly believing, that the majority of people reading the English section of this newspaper appreciate the opportunity to learn more Estonian. I know I'm not the only one who feels this gung-ho.

Mistakes have been made, there's no point in dwelling on them. If someone's parents didn't teach them their mother tongue in order to "spare them difficulties", because they didn't have faith, or in contrast, the force with which patriotism was served made it unpalatable, we now know better. Faith can be re-instilled and language acquired at any point in life. I'm not saying it's easy. It's kuradi hard. It's hard to hold the line and speak Estonian exclusively to your kids, it's hard to learn the language from scratch, it's hard to drive to Estonian school after a long, hard day. It was hard in our day too and it's getting progressively harder, that's why we need to look at what we're doing and not be counterproductive, but support each other to ease the difficulties. I don't think anyone regrets having learned a language; regrets entering another world (some might say parallel universe), through a language and culture beyond, both literally and figuratively.

As for know-it-alls, keep in mind that most people in Estonia are amazed that the language is still actively in use in the diaspora 66 (!!) years after the fact. Keep this awe in mind when someone criticises your use of language. Try not to lose faith. Ask for help. But also, please try to understand why many in the community feel threatened by an increased use of English. The concern of Estonian being replaced by English is not an irrational one. The only way we can slow this process, is by becoming more aware of and prudent in our use of language.

Betting on the underdog

I'm going to shove political correctness aside now. Because I truly believe that if non-Estonian (and Estonian) parents alike have decided that they want their children to learn the language, they will not be offended, but sympathetic to the nurturing of the "underdog language" (eesti keel) through the occasional complete exclusion of the "sugar maple language" (i.e. English). It's called immersion, and it's not news. It works. I liken English to the sugar maple since its seedlings pop up everywhere; they need not be nurtured in order to have a strong grasp. See tuleb igast aknast ja uksest – in comes in every window and door – it is unstoppable, even in Estonia, believe me, so hold onto your hats.

I feel that we must be very aware of how far we bow down to English for the sake of kids / people who don't speak Estonian. I realise scout, guide and camp leaders do their best, speaking Estonian first and then repeating in English. (NB: If the underdog language is spoken (or written) second, it will be ignored. That's human nature. It's called ease.) I pray that instructors / counselors have the steadfastness of spirit to continue this double-duty, since English flourishes in every backyard, whilst Estonian is frail – it lives in musky church basements and Grandma's köök, it needs loving care. It needs to be shown respect. It is what makes us who we are.

Estonian school is a superb setting, since people are grouped according to language ability and get the required level of instruction. Laager (camp) is more difficult. If great effort is placed on speaking Estonian at home year round, it's natural to want your child to befriend others with the same level of language and have instruction in Estonian only. Is this a luxury? Definitely, since camps are held only once a year. It's a gift not to be taken lightly. Kids with a shaky grasp of French are plunged into French immersion. Why do we fear the same can't be done with Estonian children? Naturally there must always be a place for Esto 101 and bilingual events for everyone, but if we're on the same page and share the same goals, hopefully we can try to reach them together without too many casualties and hurt feelings.

Last but not least, it's too late to bite my big fat tongue: if I were a kid brought to an Estonian event and I were witness to my Estonian-speaking parent(s) speaking English to other Estonian-speaking people almost exclusively, I would be very confused indeed. Not to mention angry. I would feel betrayed. I would feel that I was being coerced into believing in something that my parents obviously either do not: a) enjoy, b) believe in or c) care about enough to make an effort. So why should I? It's human nature to choose the path of least resistance. For some, language is just a mode of communication, a way to get the words across. For others, it's a gateway to something much more. I'd rather be writing this to you in Estonian. What can I say, I'm a sucker for the underdog. I will believe 'til I die. It's hard. Keep the faith and your children will thank you.
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