• 2007-11-28
  • by Sharon Bryan
[Refers to "Visions of Tallinn's future 's English language included," TBT #583, Nov. 22, covering the proposal by Toomas Vitsut, deputy chairman of the Tallinn City Council, on making English an official language in the capital.]
English as one of Estonia's official languages? You should probably think long and hard before agreeing to that. Estonian is a language spoken by a very small group of people, and if English is on equal footing within the home of the Estonian language, you'll find more and more people won't bother learning the "mother tongue."

For one thing, while English is widely considered one of the most difficult languages to learn, it's got nothing on Estonian. The Estonian language, though beautiful, is a challenge. For another, people, as a general rule, are lazy, and will learn the one language they think will give them the most mileage. If learning Estonian becomes optional for living and working in Estonia, you'll find that a lot of people will opt out.
Keep in mind that English speakers are amongst the laziest and most arrogant language users in the world, honestly believing that they should be able to speak English everywhere, and therefore need to learn/use no other language (this is, of course, a generalization, but one with a lot of truth to it).

More importantly, however, is the fact that the Estonian language does not have a foothold anywhere other than Estonia. If the native speakers of Estonian can be numbered at less than two million, and there is no obvious encouragement for others to learn Estonian, the language will become endangered.
At best, Estonian will become the new Welsh, with a determined core of natives and a few hobbyists holding onto the language. At worst, it will go the way of Cumbric, where it is only read and spoken by scholars studying the literature.

There is also a valid argument that Russian is more entitled to official language status in Estonia than English, so if you make English an official language, you may have to extend the same privilege to Russian.
Either way, before you give English official language status, you should think long and hard about how you intend to preserve Estonian and encourage its acquisition and development. It wouldn't be the first language displaced by a more powerful tongue.

Sharon Bryan, Townsville, Australia

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