Foreigners tackle the devilishly difficult Estonian language

  • 2004-01-15
  • By Justin Petrone
TALLINN - "Their biggest problem," says Mailis Sutiste, "is the letter 'Õ.'" " Õ" as in " Õun" (apple). " Õ" like "Õde" (sister), or "Õnn" (happiness). In fact, Sutiste's profession - " Õpetaja" (teacher) is even a difficulty for her students to pronounce in a way that is mutually understood amon Estonians to be the true "Õ ."Sure her Estonian class at Tallinna Keeltekool can reshape their "O's" - cut them down, swallow them whole - but they still can't get that "Õ" sound - though they get very close.

Regardless of the " "s - for Sutiste, as well as for other teachers of Estonian, the fact that people are trying to learn their language - and not only Russian-speakers studying to pass the state examination to get full citizenship - is a bit flattering. There is an interest in learning Estonian in Estonia that has never really existed before.
The Baltic Germans spoke German, the Soviets Russian. Estonian was always a "native" or "peasant" tongue. Now it stands alone as the official language of Estonia, and that has created an interest in learning it, an interest that Sutiste says is increasing as Estonia gets closer to becoming an official language of Europe - that is, a European Union language.
"Things have changed," says Sutiste. "Before it was usually Russian citizens who had to pass the state exam so they could get citizenship. Now in the past two years there has been a great interest in our language from speakers of other languages," she says.
In the past two years Sutiste has had 20 non-Russian speaking Estonian students - a large number in such a small country. She taught a weekly class for an EU delegation of Finnish, German and English speakers, and now she teaches Estonian twice a week to a class of foreign expats - an American, a Bulgarian, a German, a Spaniard and a Belgian to be precise.
Jeroen Kleijsen is the Belgian in the class, a true European whose wife is a Swedish national of Estonian background, and who speaks Dutch, French, English, Swedish, and now, Estonian.
Kleijsen says that only French has topped Estonian in terms of its difficulty for him due to its tricky pronunciation. Still, Kleijsen says that it's not the pronunciation that troubles him with Estonian, but the fact that it belongs to a completely different language group, the Finno-Ugric language group, which is wholly distinguished from the Indo-European languages, like Russian, English, Swedish, Portuguese, or even nearby Latvian.
"There is no way for me to relate it to any other language. Every word is completely new to me," he says.
Think about it. It's "two" in English, "dva" in Russian, "tva" in Swedish, "dois" in Portuguese, and in Latvian "divi." In Estonian, it's "kaks."
"Pronunciation is not a problem, although my mother-in-law might not agree with me. It is remembering the word, as well as the endings," says Kleijsen. Many agree that learning Estonian grammar, as well as vocabulary, is a formidable task.
"The grammar is completely different from our way of thinking," says Eberhard Melzer, Kleijsen's classmate. "It's not your typical language based on the Latin system," he says.
That's saying a lot coming from a former German diplomat who can work in German, French, or English, but it is the usual sentiment among teachers and students of Estonian.
Estonian has 14 cases, combined with a dizzying array of colloquial options. Consider case number four - the Sisseutlev - better known to English speakers as how to say "to someplace." "To London" would become "Londonisse." "To Tartu" would translate to "Tartusse." It almost seems like a system presents itself, until you get "to Kuressaare" - "Kuressaarde," "to Rakvere" - "Rakverre", and "to Haapsalu" - "Haapsallu."
Why? The students ask. Why is it this way? The best Estonian teachers can do is shrug their shoulders and explain that that is just the way it is.
One group of students who have it a bit easier are the Finns, who account for 1 percent of the Estonian population, and have resettled, most likely in Tallinn, for business or state interests.
Merly Tammin teaches Estonians to Finns every year at Estfin Arikool, a Finnish-owned business school in Tallinn that offers Estonian lessons both separately, and along with its business courses.
"For Finnish people it is easier than for Russian people because the languages are so similar," Tammin says.
Finnish is the closest related language to Estonian, and the two countries used to share a language up until about 600 years ago when they started to develop separately. Therefore a Finn in Estonia who wants some "vesi" (water) will be served Estonian "vesi." He is well accustomed to the Finnish "talvi" (winter) and therefore totally prepared to put up with all of the "lumi" (snow in both languages) of the Estonian "talv"
While The Finns often have it easy, Tammin says that their confidence often undermines their performance. "One word in Estonian often means the opposite, or something completely different in Finnish," says Tammin.
This mix up can lead to plenty of hilarious errors. For example a Finn in search of a "halpa lippu" (cheap ticket) will be asking an Estonian for a "halb lipp" - "bad flag" - which is most likely to be found at the Occupation Museum, as opposed to the Tallinn ferry terminal.
"They wind up speaking a mixed language that nobody completely understands," says Mailis Sutiste - who has seen it happen before.
Both teachers agree that the success depends on the motivation of the student however, although one factor that figures in strongly is Phare.
The EU funded program encourages the spread of Estonian by refunding half of a student's expenditures upon passing the state exam in Estonian. In total 49.1 million kroons (3.14 million euros) were allocated from 2001 to 2003 for teaching Estonian, mostly to Russian speakers who wish to be better integrated in Estonian society.
That financial support alone gives people who want to learn Estonian a strong incentive to learn, and many hold on to all of their receipts for text books and courses so that they can get half of their investment back.
For Melzer, who has settled down with an Estonian woman and plans to stay in Tallinn, learning Estonian is a process that certainly takes time. "It's a new experience, but I see myself making progress. It works slowly and in a simple way and takes time," he says.
He also understands that his knowledge may be good at the local "t idupood" (food shop) but won't help him much once he sets foot out of the country.
"To be frank, when you move away from this country there's not much you can do with Estonian. But I think it is a compliment to this young, independent country to respect and learn their language," he says.