The language myth
By Vincent Freeman with additional reporting by Adam Mullett
First published July 16, 2008
Tallinners can be strange. Not only do they dislike Russian-speakers speaking Russian, they don’t like Finnish tourists speaking Finnish.
“We are not in Finland. If you can’t speak Estonian, speak English” would be a typical response.
It’s understandable that Estonians prefer English — it is, after all, an international language. Also, in this part of the world, it is politically neutral. Russian, German and even Swedish can be associated with occupation and colonization. Estonia and the other Baltic states are small nations, and they can’t expect everybody to learn their language.
There are also practical reasons. The fact is, a lot of people living in Estonia don’t speak Estonian. It is possible for two people born in Tallinn in the same year to be forced to converse in English because it is the only language that they have in common. It’s part of the great Russian-Estonian divide.
The trouble is that the Estonians don’t actually speak English all that well. According to official figures, Finns actually speak English better than most Estonians.
Some 50 percent of Finns consider themselves fluent in English, compared to a third of Estonians, according to figures from their respective foreign ministries.
Estonians don’t realize this, of course, because they don’t speak English to each other..
It is one of the great myths of the region that you can get by with just English. It’s not that people don’t speak the language — it’s that the people who you need to speak it don’t.
One third of Estonians speak no English at all, and it seems that they all work in some form of customer service.
It’s the check-out girls, receptionists, immigration officials, police officers, and border guards, not to mention the average plumber, carpenter, builder, and car rental clerk. It’s the people who make life sustainable who are linguistically challenged.
“I was at a doctor’s, an expert in his field, and none of the receptionists spoke a word, even the young dolly girls,” said John Bosworth, who runs an IT company in Tallinn.
“If it weren’t for my girlfriend, I think I would have starved to death by now or died of some horrible disease,” Bosworth said.
Bosworth is a monoglot, like many Englishmen, but he’s been living in Estonia for five years. He recently realized that not bothering to learn Estonian was a mistake.
“If you are serious about living here, you need to learn the language or make friends with people who do,” he said.
Liina Luts has lived in England for the past few years. Only when she settled in England did she realize how badly she spoke English.
“I was proud [of my] English until I started working for an English company,” she said. “My English was not only far worse than the British, but far worse than any of the foreigners,” she said.
Luts, who is now back in Estonia, has concluded that Estonian linguistic skills aren’t quite as high as Estonians would like to think.
“I was over in Holland, and not only do they speak perfect English, but they speak French and German as well,” she said.
But if you think Estonia is bad, spare a thought for the monoglot Anglo-Saxon living in Lithuania.
Lithuania is almost unique in being a small, white, European nation where people really don’t speak English.
Viktorija Linikaite, a Supreme Administrative Court law specialist, explained that the trouble starts in school.
“People in small towns don’t need English and have no motivation, so they don’t care and don’t learn,” Linikaite said.
But of course, what then happens is the small-town kids move to the big cities looking for work.
Lithuanians, it seems, are more parochial in their outlook. “In Estonia, they show movies in their native language. In Lithuania, everything is translated or dubbed,” Linikaite said.
John Simmons is an English language teacher from Australia based in Vilnius.
“I get by in Lithuania with a lot of pointing, guessing and a little bit of knowledge of the language. The problem is that Lithuanians aren’t used to hearing their language spoken by people whose native tongue isn’t Lithuanian, so when I speak, they can’t understand a word of what I’m saying because of my accent,” Simmons said.
“People tell me I have a very soft accent when I speak, but still people don’t understand. I also think that sometimes you meet someone who pretends they can’t understand you in order to annoy you.”
English in Lithuania is worse than in Estonia and Latvia for a few reasons. One is the close proximity to the southeastern European countries, which all share Russian as a common language, whereas Estonia is closer to Scandinavia. They like to do business with their northern neighbors.
Latvia has the most advanced tourism industry in the Baltics and has cheap flights coming from all over Europe, bringing tourists, their money and their English.
People in Lithuania have a lot of free things coming their way at the moment from the EU, including English lessons. John Simmons said having free English lessons at work is a lot like having light bulbs at work: “If they didn’t have them, it would be a problem, but if they do have them, it is absolutely nothing special. Zero motivation,” he said.
“People want to learn, but only if someone else does the work for them,” Simmons said. “In my experience as a teacher, these people who get free lessons from their workplace never bother to learn — they just turn up to avoid doing other work in the office.”