• 2007-12-12
  • By Bernard Trent
One of the recent articles in your newspaper mentions the idea, proposed by Toomas Vitsut, deputy chairman of the Tallinn City Council, of making English an official language in the Estonian capital ["Visions of Tallinn's future 's English language included," TBT #583, Nov. 22, 2007].
I have to admit, when I first thought it through, the idea seemed just about as "pie-in-the-sky" (or would that be "pirukas in the sky" in this case?) as they come. If anything, getting state institutions to fall in step and have the necessary forms and bureaucrats to deal with foreigners who come here to set up business is going to be a major task. Then there's the inevitable political fallout from Russia, who has been pushing, with no success, for the Baltic states to make Russian an official language in Estonia and Latvia.

As everyone who has spent any time in Tallinn knows, once you get outside the government institutions, the number of people, particularly young people, who speak a decent level of English here is already fairly high, so most foreigners can just do what I did 's hire a local to deal with all the red tape. So what's the point of the whole "official language" exercise?
But there's something else to consider: image. Estonia, despite all its e-government and Wi-Fi glitz, is still relatively unknown to the international business community. And if the idea of the official language is to attract foreign investment, image is the first step.

Now that Estonia is otherwise losing its edge in other areas 's cheap labor is gone, much of the smart labor has gone West, operating expenses are skyrocketing due to inflation 's it has to do something radical. For perspective foreign investors, just knowing that English has some kind of official status in the capital could be the key to attracting attention and reassuring those more traditional investors for whom the whole "Eastern Europe" experience is more foreign than they're used to.

Of course, attracting attention alone isn't enough. The numbers have to work out, and there has to be profit at the end of the deal. Given Estonia's aforementioned trends, it also needs a radical rethink the kinds of investment it will attract, now that the prospects for light manufacturing are looking more and more gloomy.
What about then taking the English idea one step further and creating a truly international business zone in Tallinn? It could have its own tax laws and eased residence and work permit requirements, so that international software companies, universities, financial institutions and the like set up shop here. It could be a kind of Geneva of the North, and if it plays its cards right, a place where Russian and Western business interests get together to create institutions for the 21st century.

This kind of radical project may sound far too pie-in-the-sky, way out of league for tiny Estonia. But two things need to be remembered: Estonia needs to adapt if its going to survive, and Estonians have always had the admirable habit of ignoring people who tell them something can't be done.

Bernard Trent, Tallinn

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