Estonian language – factors governing usage, global recognition and loss (17)
Inimesed 26 Jan 2011  EWR
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D.M. Helmeste, PhD, ( )


Issues of usage, global recognition and official bilingualism status are factors affecting language maintenance and decline. In the case of the Estonian language, these factors and immigration overseas have the potential to influence language decline or enhance usage.The desire to enhance global usage through E-learning is also affected by the fact that specific biologically-determined windows of opportunity exist for optimal language learning, with only some methods achieving good results. Considering the fact that fewer than 1.5 million people speak Estonian globally, the path for Estonian language maintenance and enhancement requires careful consideration.

Estonian language, bilingualism, E-learning, foreign language acquisition.


What is the Estonian language? It is the official language of Estonia, one of the
smallest members of the European Union. Being part of the Finno-Ugric language group, it has a grammar and vocabulary which are very different from most Western European languages. An interesting note for readers of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is the use of many Estonian sounding words in the Elvish language developed by Tolkien. Admiring the beauty of the language, it is said that Tolkien was inspired to use many Finno-Ugric words for development of his “High Elvish” (Drout 2007). In the 1980s, Estonian language loss was a concern due to the dominance of the Russian language in the Baltic States at that time. Today, fewer than 1.5 million people speak Estonian globally (Sutrop
2000). For many people outside of Northern Europe, Estonian is also the language of a country they have heard of but essentially know very little about. Using standards outlined by the UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, “Language Vitality and Endangerment” report, (2003), the Estonian language has room for improvement.

The purpose of this paper is to highlight some of the important factors influencing
Estonian language usage, global recognition and survival today. Many of the arguments highlighted here will apply to other non-globally dominant languages as well.

Estonian language, literature/publishing: issues of global recognition and

Estonia, unlike England and the British Empire, has never had a history of
colonial expansion with densely-populated colonies speaking the mother tongue globally. Instead, migration to foreign lands generally follows a pattern of language decline by the third generation and eventual cultural assimilation (Alba et al, 2002; described in more detail below).Given the fact that there are very few Estonian language speakers outside of Estonia, it is reasonable to assume that promotion of more global interest and awareness of Estonia (literary, culture and other) is likely to require access to information in a globally dominant language. Global awareness of Estonia is currently not large. As discussed by some Stanford University educational instructors, it is not uncommon for American high school students to be unaware of basic facts regarding Estonia (“Most American high school students have never heard of Estonia. Some don’t believe it exists”; Diel 2010). Global awareness of Estonia affects Estonian language status, since it contributes to the number of people willing to learn Estonian as a second language (as one American high school student is likely to say: Why learn Estonian if I am not even aware that Estonia exists?).

Mélitz (2007) has argued that authors of literary works wishing to reach a world
audience are privileged if their writings appear in a globally dominant language (i.e.English as one example). It has been calculated that accessibility to a literary work only in the original non-dominant language diminishes the probability of survival globally (Mélitz 2007). Thus, translations are needed to reach the global audience. But non-Estonian publishers, needing to offset the costs of translation, tend to confine translations to works that have sold especially well in the original language. Thus the full scope of important Estonian literature is not always available to non-Estonian readers. Book publishers confining translations and printing to best-sellers is not a new trend. Even four hundred years ago, Estonian printing was governed by financial considerations. In Tallinn of the 1600s, the printing office was the printer’s private property, and since the printer’s salary came from book sales, he was interested in books which would generate a large number of orders. Thus printing of clerical books in Estonian became an important source of income for Tallinn printers at that time (Paul

Sofi Oksanen’s Finnish-Estonian novel “Puhastus” (Purge) is an example of
Estonian-related literature which has been well received globally and been translated into multiple languages. Her book “Kõige taga oli hirm” (Behind it all was fear – how Estonia lost its history and how it is taken back) is also very important, but, consisting of a series of essays discussing Estonian history, it has not yet been translated into English or other globally dominant languages. Delay of translation into English also delays world exposure to Estonian history…a sad fact for the North American history student who claims that Estonia is “interesting” because it is located in the Balkans (blog comment in: ).

On the surface, publishing Estonian books (on history for example) in English
instead of Estonian, serves to diminish Estonian language usage. But the long-term effects are increased global awareness of Estonia and hence more interest in what Estonian writers have to say. Thus the long-term result is potential prolongation of future Estonian language usage and writing (compared to the situation where no Estonian literature translations are available in globally-dominant languages such as English).

But translations do not solve every problem. We have to consider that some
works, such as poetry, may lose significant value after translation. A translation can only approximate the rhythms, sounds and images of the original, and in the case of literature, these aspects are essential. As Mélitz (2007) points out, we might as well pretend that there would be no loss if all musical composers wrote for the cello.

Estonian language in the work force: some factors governing usage
Estonian is the official language of Estonia, yet it cannot be used for all important
endeavors. This less than 100% utility of the official Estonian language also affects its long-term survival. Bilingualism and even first language choices for Europeans tend to be governed by issues of practical utility, power and prestige rather than culture, solidarity and proximity (Wright 2000). The following examples illustrate some of this.


Estonia is a member of NATO. NATO official languages are French and English
but English is generally used as the working language. Thus officers from countries joining NATO in the 1990s needed to learn English (Wright 2000). English is the global language of air pilots and is also the working language of NATO Consultation, Command and Control Agency (NC3A). François Clerc, former Chief of Staff, Eurocorps (Wright 2000) has made it clear that “no fighting force could adopt the language policy of the institutions of the European Union with its policy of equal status for each of the official languages. Whereas government might be able to envisage working in eleven languages
and functioning through translation and interpreting, this is not an option for an army when engaged in any kind of military activity”(Wright 2000). “…going to war with comrades one was not sure of understanding added to the risks and that the Eurocorps practice of writing down orders in both languages to lessen the risk of misunderstanding would not work in the midst of action. ….’il ne peut imaginer avoir besoin d’un interprète pour transmettre un ordre’ (François Clerc, former Chief of Staff, Eurocorps, as quoted in Wright 2000).

For Estonia which has compulsory military training for college-aged males,
English language competency is thus clearly an asset for those wishing to move up in the ranks in defense.


Important research endeavors today often require huge resources and teams. Gone are the days when the studious scientist could work in his basement and come up with major discoveries. Instead, science projects often require university networks and resources in other countries. Using cancer medical research as one example, it is indeed possible to study cancer cells by yourself in your own tiny laboratory…but if you can network with researchers globally, you have a much stronger competitive advantage and access to expensive laboratory resources that may not be available to you locally. It is also a fact that current medical research investigating relationships between genotype and
disease require large numbers of participating subjects. Since it is usually hard to find 2-7 thousand subjects locally, these research studies tend to become global (see dbGaP Genotypes and Phenotypes database, National Center for Biotechnology Information, ). The global researcher is the one that granting agencies are more likely to fund since this individual is more likely to have the resources to do cancer research in a timely and comprehensive manner.

The global language for science is English. One can discuss scientific concepts in one’s native language, but in the end one’s research is likely to need publishing in English. This is because most important scientific journals today are in the English language. It has often been remarked that many scientists also show a strong tendency not to take notice of publications in any other language but English, and that the tendency to publish in English stems from this reason as well (Ammon 2001). The scientist therefore benefits from English language skills to both read current scientific reports and to publish one’s own reports in these journals. For the researcher today, what matters most is rapid
communication. Thus, delays of scientific results and communication caused by language translations are generally seen as an unnecessary expense and waste precious time.

For the researcher, the need to focus on rapid results and saving people’s lives leads to usage of a language of communication which has the highest utility… this is currently English for science (Ammon 2001).
Another example involves the nature of scientific conferences today. A good
example is the Society for Neuroscience ( in the USA which attracts brain researchers from around the world to its annual research conferences. Approximately 40% of its 40,000 members reside outside the United States. Some of the Europeans who attend say that they like to participate in the Society for Neuroscience conference because it covers a wider breadth of topics compared to other meetings (personal communication).

This helps to explain the huge attendance… typically 30,000 people on average…as large as the population in some small towns! Yet, being an American conference, the language of communication is always English….hence scientists who do not have English language skills are disadvantaged not only with regard to publication venues but also in terms of global conferences and networking.

Interestingly, history shows us that while reasons for language dominance tend to stay the same, the dominant language for science has changed over time. Thus, a Nobel laureate’s remarks one hundred years ago, when German (not English) was the dominant language of European science (1999 translation: Cajal 1916). Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852 – 1934), Spanish histologist, neuroscientist, and Nobel laureate, advised researchers to learn German for the following reasons: “The German journals will be consulted regularly because it must be admitted that Germany alone produces more new data than all the other nations combined when it comes to biology. … Because a knowledge of the German language is essential to keep abreast of the latest scientific
news, let us study it seriously, at least to the point of being able to translate it
adequately. … A knowledge of German is so essential that today there is probably not a single Italian, English, French, Russian, or Swedish investigator who is unable to read monographs published in it. And because the German work comes from a nation that may be viewed as the center of scientific production, it has the priceless advantage of containing extensive and timely historical and bibliographic information. …It is clearly not necessary, however, for the investigator to speak and write all of the European languages. It is enough for the Spaniard to translate the following four: French, English, Italian, and German. It is appropriate to call them the languages of learning, and virtually all scientific work is published in one of them. … Therefore, if our investigators want their research to be known and appreciated by the specialists, they have no choice but to write and speak one of these four European languages.” [Note: I have underlined words/phrases which have special significance for predicting choice of the “global” language of science. These are (1) the language of the country which produces the most new data; (2) the language of the country which is the center of scientific production; (3) the language which best allows the scientist’s research results to be known. Thus it is likely that globally dominant countries which lead in science will always determine the language of choice for science.].

Universities in Estonia:

As for many other universities in the European Union, English is a language often
used in academic studies. The example of the University of Tartu, Estonia’s earliest and largest university, serves to illustrate the status of Estonian language usage at the university level. At the bachelor’s degree level, the language of instruction is Estonian, except for the English group of the Faculty of Medicine which uses English for the first two years of the program ( ).
The three year program for Business Administration (Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences) is given in English ( ), and over ten Master’s degree programmes are taught in English. They include: Applied Measurement Science, Baltic Studies, Semiotics, Software Engineering, Cyber Security, International Masters in Economy, State and Society, among others
( ). In general, even courses given in Estonian may sometimes have visiting professors who give lectures in English.

Additionally, some courses may have Estonian texts but also newer materials in English (personal communication). At the PhD level, science research would usually require reading and publishing in English-language journals (as described above). While use of non-Estonian languages at the university level is not ideal for Estonian language maintenance, it is a trend that is likely to continue for the following reasons: (1) it serves to attract students and distinguished faculty from other countries more easily; (2) it facilitates collaborative work with other countries. English is the current global language of science. One hundred years ago, it was German.

Because of Estonia’s small population and size, it benefits from outside scientific
and business collaborations more than a large nation would. It is reasonable to assume that Estonian communications with the outside world will always require non-Estonian language skills since no outside territories are Estonian-speaking lands. As already mentioned, Estonia is a very small country with no history of colonial outposts (in contrast to the British Empire). Yes, Estonian translators will be provided at governmental meetings, but they will not be found in the street for everyday conversation.

Given the lengthy time and commitment that people need in order to acquire good second language skills, careful thought is usually made in second language choices. As mentioned above, decisions are usually based on economic need, prestige and other such factors (Wright 2000). The personal advantage that the learner can derive from having acquired a second language generally drives individuals to learn the language which is spoken by the greatest number of speakers and which brings the greatest returns (Wright 2000). It is the rare individual that can learn two or three extra languages very easily.

Thus, the Estonian language has the important disadvantage that it cannot be the exclusive language of use, even within its own borders.
Estonian language overseas and “English only by third generation” in North American culture

There are relatively small, thriving, expat Estonian communities outside of
Estonia. However, as Estonian-born parents die off, we are faced with the North
American rule of “English only by third generation” (Alba et al, 2002). This concept is summarized as follows. New immigrants to America learn English, but they generally prefer to speak their native language at home. Their children thus generally grow up as bilinguals, but many of them prefer English, even when speaking to their immigrant parents. This second generation generally speaks English at home when they establish their own households and raise children. Consequently, by the third generation (U.S. born children of U.S. born parents, at least one of whom had a foreign-born parent), the general pattern is English monolingualism, and knowledge of the mother tongue is fragmentary at best (Alba et al, 2002). It is currently not unusual to find U.S. born children of Estonian-born parents who are not 100% competent in the language (personal communication).

These individuals may speak some Estonian but do not feel confident to write or readily translate a letter into Estonian. This may stem in part from the observation that children need to be exposed to the foreign language for at least 30% of their waking time for optimal foreign language acquisition (Genesee 2007). Clearly more research in this area is warranted. Language specialists have also noted that while children learn to speak a language relatively easily, learning to read and write with proper
grammar requires additional effort and concentrated activities (Johansson 2006). Thus it may not be surprising that there could be dissociation between speaking and writing skills.

Consideration of recent brain research on language acquisition which affects proposals for e-learning and bilingualism in general

Recent discussions in Estonia have included the issue of Estonian citizens moving to other countries to work. How will their children manage to learn Estonian, being so far away from their native land? E-Learning is an attractive option, considering that few expat Estonian communities exist globally. Certainly IT approaches have been pursued for a diversity of topics, including medicine (Morin et al, 2004; Tang & Helmeste 2000).

Luckily, brain researchers have made great progress on this topic in recent years. For example, Patricia Kuhl’s research on foreign language acquisition has attracted the attention of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and for good reason. It gives clues into which teaching techniques are likely to succeed and whether e-learning will work well.

In humans, a sensitive period exists between birth and 7 years of age when
language is learned effortlessly (Meltzoff et al, 2009). After puberty, new language learning is more difficult and native-language levels are rarely achieved (Johnson et al,1989). For both adults and children, social interaction is a very powerful catalyst for foreign language learning (Kuhl 2004, 2010; Meltzoff et al, 2009). This may not be a big surprise since in formal school settings, individual face-to-face tutoring has long been known to be the most effective form of instruction (Bloom 1984). Thus, new computer learning technologies are being developed which incorporate “social” elements to improve learning. This is important since research has shown that young infants can learn foreign language material from a human tutor but not from a television or audiotaped presentations (Kuhl 2004, 2010). Why social interaction (live foreignlanguage exposure) is so much more effective for language acquisition, is still unclear.

People engaged in social interaction are highly aroused and attentive. General arousal mechanisms might enhance learning and memory (Kuhl 2004). The stress of public speaking is associated with enhanced memory and increased levels of the stress hormone,cortisol (Quas et al, 2010). Other mechanisms may be involved as well (Frith & Frith 2010). One study has pointed out that visual observance of a speaker’s face and lip movements aided foreign language learning (Davis & Kim 2001).

In any case, multiple language learning is well-known not to be easy. As shown in the USA, the majority of the population is unlikely to learn a second language unless a strong need and interest exist. Even then competencies vary between individuals. Segments of the population with poorer working memory (due to age or even genetic factors) are unlikely to achieve 100% competency in a second or third language (Andersson 2010; Kyttälä et al, 2010). In any case, a lengthy learning period is involved for learning to speak, write and read. Dyslexics (approximately 10% of the population; Logan 2009) for example, have been noted to perform poorly in second language acquisition (Johansson 2006). Other examples exist as well.

Will dual Estonian-Russian official language status aid the usage and survival of the Estonian language?

Official status for Russian in Estonia has been advocated by some. One claim is that it may serve to “prevent the split of Estonia”. Others find the opposite (that multi-language use serves to split a country along linguistic lines in times of elections; Ukraine and Latvian elections in 2010 are examples). Official bilingualism (see Postimees article: ÜRO: Eesti peaks olema kakskeelne, ) of any sort is unlikely to aid survival of the Estonian language because it would increase the percentage of individuals opting for non-Estonian language usage. Certainly this was the
experience in Quebec (Canada) when I lived there in the 1960s and early 1970s. Before Quebec’s Bill 101 (La charte de la langue française; ; described below) was passed, public signs were often bilingual (French – English). Inhabitants of Montreal could get by very well in either French or English alone and did so. Many Montreal residents thus never took learning the other official language very seriously since they didn’t need to.

Thus I lived on the “English” side of Montreal (where virtually no French speakers were found) and “French” districts were found in other parts of Montreal. Only the city center was bilingual. At no time did the “English” Montrealers feel integrated with the “French” Montrealers. As Sancton (1985) has written, “…the French and English in Montreal formed two distinct societies that seldom came into contact with one another”. It was also the case that, when given the choice, many new immigrants preferred to enroll their children in English (not French) language schools (Sancton 1985). Only when Bill 101 was passed in Quebec to promote “French-only” public signage, did “English”
Montrealers (like me) wake up to the fact that our French language skills needed to be improved.

Mathematical modeling of endangered languages, study of the effects of bilingualism and social structure (Abrams & Strogatz 2003; Minett & Wang 2008) have provided insight into the factors governing language maintenance and decline. The basic model predicts that whenever two languages compete for speakers, one language will eventually become extinct. In Estonia, decline of Russian language usage (Barré 2010) will not cause extinction since a large population of Russian speakers exists in neighboring Russia.

In Estonia, decline of Estonian speakers (bilingual or not) will result in extinction, since no other nation contains a large enough population of Estonian language speakers to compensate for language decline in Estonia itself. Rather, the general rule is “English only by third generation” once people migrate overseas (Alba et al, 2002). The observation that small, culturally isolated populations can often maintain a minority language for many generations (i.e. maintenance of Pennsylvania German among the Mennonite and Amish in North America since their arrival from Europe in the 17th century) is very dependent on their cultural isolation and intergenerational group cohesiveness (Minett & Wang 2008). Abrams and Strogatz (2003) have pointed out that French Quebec is an example where the language decline is slowed by strategies such as policy-making, education and advertising (in essence what they consider to be increasing the endangered language’s status).

In Estonia’s case, being part of the European Union and wanting to engage in collaborations globally, the population will always have varying degrees of bilingualism, trilingualism or more. However, this is different from official state bilingualism, which, because of the special circumstances of Estonian language speakers, would only serve to hasten extinction of the Estonian language.
When Estonian language declines, so does Estonian culture and Estonian
language job opportunities (literature, Estonian language theatre, native songs, Estonian translator job opportunities, etc.). In any case, making Estonia officially bilingual (Russian-Estonian or Estonian-“other more dominant language”) plus adding the necessary English language requirements (of English for NATO cooperation and science competitiveness, as outlined above) would make Estonia trilingual in practice…again, a factor which serves to hinder Estonian language development, not promote it.

Significantly, there are well-known examples of nations adhering to the one nation – one language rule. One example involves the huge Mexican communities in the southern USA. These Americans speak Spanish at home and have the opportunity for frequent visits with relatives in nearby Mexico. However, there is no push in the USA to make Spanish an official second language. These people are welcome to speak Spanish at home but cannot expect diverse job opportunities and other such benefits unless they learn English. In Germany, Angela Merkel has been recently quoted in Postimees (October 17,
2010; Merkel: Saksamaa ühiskond on läbi kukkunud; ) as saying that immigrants are welcome to
Germany but they must learn German. Likewise, Quebec (Canada) with its special status history (of a nation within a nation), is known for its Bill 101 which initiated “French only” signage in Quebec as well as other French language rights. It rightly worried that its population of over 7 million French speakers might decline in the huge sea of North American English speakers, if “French only” legislature was not initiated.

Decline of the French language in Quebec will not cause the extinction of the French language since French is widely spoken elsewhere on the planet. Demise of the Estonian language in Estonia (total population approximately 1.3 million) will cause its extinction since overseas Estonian speakers follow the trend of “English only by third generation” (Alba et al, 2002). Thus Estonia needs careful evaluation of its language path and very quickly….scientific research indicates that only specific windows in a person’s lifespan are available for optimal language learning … and only some methods achieve good results.
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