laupäev, juuni 17, 2006

The most annoying habit of Estonians

No, it's not their habit of winning the International Wife Carrying Competition every year since the dawn of the Millennium.

The most annoying habit of Estonians is answering all questions in English (or Russian, Finnish, German, Swedish, whatever) when they are asked a question in Estonian. Today I had such a dialogue. My half of the conversation was in Estonian, the other party's was in English. I could have understood most of what he said correctly in the language I am trying to learn (which most Estonians would like everybody that lives in their country to know, by the way), but instead I had to converse with another Estonian unwilling to speak in his language with someone enthusiastic enough to try and speak it with him.

I know others who have had similar problems, including Russian-speaking Estonians who said it took a LONG time for Estonians to respond to them in Estonian, even though they are fluent in the language.

So what's the deal here? Why does everybody encourage you to learn, and then snatch victory from your hands when you muster a correct sentence and wish to have a conversation? Why are Estonians so willing to bend over and introduce another language in a conversation? Why is it that when you go into a R-Kiosk in Tallinn, and two people speak Estonian and the third person speaks Russian, that everybody will talk to the Russian-speaker in Russian rather than have to deal with some bad grammar or some mispronounced words from the non-native speaker?

Is it really so hard to humor us?

38 kommentaari:

Pekka K ütles ...

I am sorry to be the first to comment since I am not a strictly speaking Estonian but only "the next best thing"; a Finn.

This is the complaint by foreigners on the north shore of the gulf, too. I plead quilty to such crime but you should understand that even if it is source of a frustration to you, the reason behind this anoyance is a noble one. We have been brought up with the belief that our strange languages, almost with no relation to any other ones, are completely impossible to be learned by foreigners. When we see you struggle even a least bit, we rush to rescue to save you from the total brain overload. It must be the whole paggage, too, being small and insignificant in the world affairs.

Giustino ütles ...

There are about as many Finns as there are Danes, Norwegians, Croatians.

These are obviously not very high in-demand languages, like Russian, Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese. Likewise Estonia is comparable to other small nations, like Slovenia, Latvia, etc.

Still, it's not like many of us are mere tourists. You don't attempt Finnish or Estonian without good reason.

We need to be able to interact with regular people to learn these languages better. We may be a bit odd, but I am sure there are guys just like me in Reykjavik or Trondheim, Ljubljana or even Tiranë that are trying to do the same thing.

I remember meeting several Americans in Denmark that worked in Denmark and were fluent in Danish. Have you met similar individuals in Finland, Pekka?

Jüri Kaljundi ütles ...

I always reply in English, Russian or Finnish just because it is an opportunity for some additional training in those languages - just as you want to do with your Estonian. Same for many others as far as I know.

Giustino ütles ...

Jüri, te olete noor eestist. Aga minu naisel on sugulased et ei saa äru mitte midagi inglise keeles.

Siis, ma pean õppima!

Pekka K ütles ...

How strange, I don't personally know a single American who's fluent in Finnish. There are a few, I am sure, but not in my slum.
However, I know a few Russian, Spanish, Arab and Indian who could be classified as fluent Finnish speakers. My new theory is that your "I don't give fuck about them foreigners" attitude might be the basic reason. :)

Your comment in Estonian delighted me to a no end for I understood it completely. Damn, it so nice to have somebody in this world that sounds like us!

Pekka K ütles ...

I forgot to mention that, to learn to speak Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish is a walk in a park for a Yank due to the linquistic similarities. You, poor bastard, in another hand picked one of the toughest nuts to crack by trying to learn Estonian and they all are aware of the fact. The Danes can sort of relax when a foreigner is talking Danish to them for how bad can it get?

Giustino ütles ...

Well, I should also say that the Finnic languages are quite beautiful. When you are surrounded by Finnish or Estonian (particularly northern Estonian, which has a more song-like quality) you sort of WANT to learn what these interesting sounds mean.

It gives me a lot of satisfaction to be able to communicate in them to the extent that I can.

lounamaa ütles ...

I believe that the unwillingness to speak our native language is a result of our collective inferiority complex which, in turn, stems from the fact that we have been more or less constantly colonized by foreign cultures since (at least) the beginning of the 13th century.

The power of foreign cultures over Estonians has been so overwhelming that it has created the admittedly pretty backward-assed situation where a foreign language constantly seems to enjoy more presitige in the eyes of the most successful strata of Estonian society than our native tongue.

Thus, when the upper classes of our land consisted mainly of Baltic Germans, many Estonians chose to opt for "kadakasakslus" (literally "juniper germanism" - the adoption of German social practices and language) in an attempt to blend into the nobility and bourgeoisie.

Similarly, the decades of Soviet power spawned several generations of Estonians who learned to speak Russian in order to make their lives a little bit easier. Since old habits die hard, they tend to continue to switch to Russian at the first possibility even after our country regained its independence.

After escaping the clutches of Evil Empire and hopping into bed with the US-dominated capitalist world, we naturally fell under the influence of American culture. But then again, so has every other country in the world. If the French can wear "le jeans", then why shouldn't we be able to dream of how we "lähme autoga kruiisima" and subsequently "ruulime" at Pirita beach. Okay, enough ranting - my point is that we have again fallen under the influence of a foreign culture and that the ability to speak English can, to an extent, be equated with one's potential for social success in today's Estonia.

The result of these developments is a rather schizophrenic situation - we are extremely willing to "bend over" language-wise for foreigners who speak the prestigious lingua franca of the day (i.e. English), but parallelly exhibit hyperpatriotically agressive attitudes towards the remnants of Russian influence in our society.

I could go on and on about the different aspects of the problem you pointed out in your post, but I feel that I have already violated commenting protocol by being overly verbose.

Giustino ütles ...

... but parallelly exhibit hyperpatriotically agressive attitudes towards the remnants of Russian influence in our society.

I think that's because Estonian society has decided to view them as future Estonians.

Interestingly, Rein Taagepera writes in Estonia: Return to Independence, published in 1993, that the Soviet-era settlers are not the first non-Estonians to settle in Estonia.

He describes that during both Swedish and Russian imperial eras, colonists were brought in from other countries - specifically Finns were settled in Virumaa and Russians in Valgamaa - and that with three or four generations these new colonists ceased to use their native languages and adopted Estonian.

If you view Estonia's attitudes toward the Russian-speaking minority in a historical context, then you can see that this attitude is not 'new.'

Indeed it happens in all nation-states. In the US, for example, Mexicans are a historical minority. Yet after three generations most Mexican-Americans cease to use Spanish.

It's not that they don't have access to Spanish-speaking materials - it's that there is great pressure within the society to adopt the majority language.

Also, the last time I was in Estonia (2005) I had less of a problem with the bilingual thing than I did just two years earlier. In all situations where I encountered service personnel with name tags with flowery, Slavic-sounding names on them, they all spoke to me in Estonian. Or rather, they understood my Estonian and spoke back to me in English.

Giustino ütles ...

The result of these developments is a rather schizophrenic situation - we are extremely willing to "bend over" language-wise for foreigners who speak the prestigious lingua franca of the day

Well, you are also a time-sensitive, workaholic people (no offense). I think Estonians just do it in English (or German or Finnish or Russian) because they think it's quicker and most of them are on their way to some appointment when they are hassled by the inquisitive foreigner.

But you should understand that many of the American (or British or Australian) ex-pats enjoy learning the language of his/her adopted country.

Sure there are stubborn individuals that just give up and get by on other people's English skills, but they didn't move to Estonia (or Finland or Sweden or Slovenia or the Czech Republic) to enjoy American-style service.

It's part of their adventurous, Indiana Jones-like life that they can hack it in a totally foreign culture and survive with their pocket dictionaries and wits.

They want to learn.

Breena Ronan ütles ...

I think this is a problem in a lot of countries. You can't learn anything, even a language, without making mistakes, but people are uncomfortable with making mistakes. It can be awkward to watch others make mistakes and struggle, but how will they learn if they don't try? It's difficult because you want to be supportive, but its important to point out grammar mistakes as well.

Anonüümne ütles ...

I can't remember if I have done The Sin... I'm pretty sure I haven't answered to Russians in Russian because I'm not an USSR-edition model and my Russian skills are fairly limited. I actually have found myself answering to questions asked in Russian in Estonian (if I can understand them first in Russian, that is :P). Then atleast they can't say that they haven't even heard or never needed the language :P

Actually recently being in a company where one member obviously was not 100% fluent in Estonian (which doesn't mean that he didn't know how to speak in it, just didn't know it perfectly), i observed people becoming kinda ackward when he spoke. Everybody was like "aww.. he made a mistake.. i can't tell him cause it isn't polite, but i'm sure as hell bothered about it". I found it kinda funny but maybe that's just how our temperament is :S

Tatsutahime ütles ...

I usually answer in the language I am asked (well once I tried answering in japanese to a russian guy in Tallinn, but that was an accident).

Sometimes, still, I miss speaking english so much that I just ... automatically switch. Maybe that is the case for others as well-

perv2126 ütles ...

I'd like to (partially) disagree to the inferiority complex theory. I mean it is how we Estonians usually explain this, but I think it is equally superiority complex. It's like saying: "Dude, your Estonian sucks, but my English/ Russian/ German is pretty darn good, don't ya think?" Quite often it is not even the case, I mean I really got to respect the Russians being as polite as they are when Estonians butcher their language during a conversation. They don't show their discomfort, Estonians usually do. I'm really sorry about this.
So far there has been only one Russian with whom I spoke in Estonian and her knowledge of the language was really amazing, I mean there were occasional grammar mistakes but the extent of her vocabulary was really large. For instance she asked me: "Milles on asja tuum?" (What's the core/ essence of this?) Estonians nowadays would say: "Milles on asja point?" a direct loan from English.

Weltbummler ütles ...

This is a very interesting discussion. Giustino, I understand your frustration well as I have often encountered it myself. In my own experience, without wishing to make any claims of general validity, people like this are found in every country, it's just that there are more in certain countries than others!

I don't mind people responding in English when I am so bad at a language that every sentence that comes out of my mouth is garbled and barely intelligible. However, I DO find it annoying when I speak a language well and say something perfectly understandable only to receive a reply in English just because I am a foreigner.

I feel: if you understand what someone says in the local language, reply in the local language. And if you want to change languages, don’t just switch without warning: ASK.

If they want to practice their English, they should go to an English speaking country or take lessons instead of imposing on you for free. If, as some of them complain, they can't do either of these for whatever reason, that is not your fault as an individual. You are under no obligation to speak English, a foreign language, in Estonia.

Sometimes it’s due to prejudices against foreigners. Some people think that they are doing you a favour by switching to English as “this will make the conversation easier for you”, even when you have just shown that you can speak the local language perfectly well! This is comparable to a situation where a Japanese person is eating perfectly competently with a knife and fork but is forced to use chopsticks as “this will make eating the meal easier for him”. Far from making somebody feel more welcome, this actually creates a barrier: “Because you are a foreigner, you are not capable of speaking our language” (although you have just proved that you are!).

I realise that in most cases the people don’t mean to offend, they just want to be helpful/friendly or get excited at what they see as a “chance to practice” English without stopping to think how you might feel about it

Those who are really offensive and thankfully rare are those who switch to English as if to say, “I’m sure I can speak English much better than you, a foreigner, can speak my language, so just speak English because I don’t want to listen to you trying to speak my language!”

I would recommend that all attempts to speak English be nipped in the bud immediately. Ask people straight out “Why are you not speaking Estonian with me?” and explain how you feel. A lot of them don’t realise that they are being irritating. Others, like the person you described in your original post who stubbornly kept on speaking English with you, are incapable or unwilling to get the message that you want to speak Estonian – some people think they have a RIGHT to practice English with you!

Don’t worry, it will happen less and less with time. I used to have this problem all the time in the Netherlands, but just came back from my first trip where, for the first time, NO-ONE started speaking English with me! Yipee!!

Justin ütles ...

I've found the likelihood of the other person responding in English depends on how good your Estonian is. When I was just learning, they would always respond to me in English (then I'd respond back in Estonian). Now I'm pretty good at Estonian so it's rare someone won't respond back to me in Estonian.

A few times an Estonian has responded back to me in Russian, assuming my bad grammar meant I was not a native Estonian speaker (true) and therefore a native Russian speaker (false), so I just answer back "Me ei oska vene keelt" and then they get confused :)

Weltbummler ütles ...

I had similar experiences Justin. Often I would find that people in Germany and the Netherlands/Flanders would reply to my German/Dutch in English, but now that I am better at these languages I never have the problem in Germany and rarely in the Netherlands and Flanders.

Well done on confusing those Estonians :) That'll teach them to switch languages without asking! :)

Nele ütles ...

Yup, Dutch and Flemish practice the same trick with sadistic pleasure :) As I have a Flemish accent (I am afraid all Estonians tend to speak Dutch with Flemish/Estonian softness) I face in Holland even double-trouble. Taking into consideration that Flemish and Estonians have undeniable similarities in their history I support rather lounamaa theory.
However this attitude sucks. Due to my nice German last name I have heard tens of Flemish speaking something-like-German to me. Dutchspearkers’ German is mostly like Estonians’ Finnish :D

Weltbummler ütles ...

Very interesting Nele. The German you hear from Flemish must be like the Nederlands than Flemish hear from me (my Dutch sounds rather like German - when I ask for stamps for letters/postcards I sometimes am asked "Naar Duitsland, ja?")

I appreciate that it must be annoying to be treated like a German just because you have a German-sounding last name - people not treat you as an individual but as a stereotypical member of a group with percieved characteristics!

What's annoying about Estonians/Dutch/Germans/etc. replying in English when you address them in competent Estonian/Dutch/German etc. is that they don't recognise the language competence you have just displayed, but react as if you, as a foreigner, could not possibly have any competence in their language. i.e. not treating you as an individual, but as a stereotype

Anonüümne ütles ...

giustino, estonian is not easy, definetly not :-D

You wont understand me, if I was talking estonian a lot, and I wouldn't understand you, if u were speaking estonian :-D

I saw one american on TV once, he knew estonian so damn well, he spoke like 3 minutes or so, and i didnt understand half the things he said :-D


Anonüümne ütles ...

Andres, have you personally heard Guistino speak Estonian? If not, with all due respect, how on earth can claim that his level would not be good enough for you to understand him and him to understand you.

It's exactly this stereotypical attitude which Estonians have to foreigners (He/she can't possibly speak Estonian well, if he/she's a foreigner) which is so irritating

Anonüümne ütles ...

I never was in Estonia but I often faced the same problem in Spain, in such cases I pretended not to understand any English at all. In one extreme case I bought a (Spanish!) newspaper and when the shopkeeper kept on saying the price in (bad) English I gave it back and told him I would buy it somewhere else. I think you can always ask Estonians why they don't want to speak Estonian to you and if your Estonian is almost as good as the other's person's English (or better) I think you can feel free to say that.

Martien ütles ...

Jüri you say you always answer in English but couldn't you show a little bit of understanding to the foreigners who want to learn your language? I guess you will meet enough tourists that don't speak Estonian and are happy that they can speak English in your country.

Anonüümne ütles ...

One comment on that Spanish newspaper salesman who kept replying in English in Spain:

There are unfortunately too many people like that salesman who just switch to English without asking. This is silly, rude, and not customer-friendly.

Firstly, from a personal point of view, it is simply discourteous just to start speaking English when addressed in the local language. If you want to speak English or any other foreign language you should ask first!

Secondly, from a business point of view it is silly - you should serve the customer in the language that HE prefers, not the language that YOU feel like speaking. If you just start speaking English without asking if the customer wants to speak it, it is unsurprising that he may be annoyed because he is not being given the service he wants.

If I encounter such a person, I ask them immediately "Why are you replying in a foreign language?" If they keep on speaking English I tell them "If you are going to refuse to speak to me in (the local language), I will go somewhere else".

It is ironic that if a customer asked these people for service in a foreign language, they would willingly oblige. WHY then are they so unwilling to give service in the local language?

Anonüümne ütles ...

I am Estonian living in Japan and reading this topic really rang my bell. I have the same problem here and its driving me nuts. I use Japanese and they come back to me with not so top notch english. and for the same reasones already mentioned above - feel inferior in some respect, want to show off their english.
Thus the problem seems global :)

Marie W. ütles ...

Küll on jama... Eks mõned, näiteks poes, tahavad lihtsalt viisakad olla ja arvavad nimelt, et välismaalasele meeldib, kui on tore ja lihtne inglise keelt purssida. Vist loodavad, et klient tuleb tagasi, kui nii viisakad oldi. Aga eks neid ülbeid "mina oskan sinu keelt paremini kui sina minu oma" tüüpe ka leidub kõvasti. Ise arvan, et tasuks selgitada, et tahate keelt õppida. Mulle on mitmeid selliseid vastu tulnud, Eestis ja mujal, ja kuigi alguses tundub natuke imelik pooleldi õpetaja rollis olla, sellega harjub ära, eriti kui inimest beel teist korda kohata.

Anonüümne ütles ...

To the Estonian living in Japan: I think for you it would not be too hard to pretend that you don't speak English or that at least your Japanese is better than your English. After all you learned English only at school and Japan is the country were you live, isn't it? Or try to downgrade you English a little bit. This is another trick I played in Spain now and then, e.g. to a waiter who clearly wanted to show of his English " sorry sir I speak not good England language but I try.. I want glass off eh.. eh... (switching to spanish) vaya, un vaso de agua mineral por favor" :)

Anonüümne ütles ...

If someone just starts speaking English unnecessarily, just say (in the language of the country) "Would you speak (the language of the country) please?" If they keep speaking English say (in the language of the country) "I asked you nicely to speak (the language of the country). Would you please speak it." Never answer anything they say in English as it will only encourage them. If they still persist then there's no point continuing the conversation.

Anonüümne ütles ...

I suspect that those Estonians who don't respond in Estonian don't want to offend you, but maybe they don't realise that their behaviour comes over as dismissive or belittling as they may not have been in a similar position themselves.

I agree with those who advocate asking them why they are not replying in Estonian. Then they might start to understand.

I am also 100% against people in service industries who switch languages with the customer without asking. Why are they trying to force the customer to speak a language he or she does not want to speak? That makes no business sense. I have no time for salesmen/waiters etc. who start speaking English with me. If they want my money they can damn well serve me in the language I want to converse in. If they were customers they would expect to choose the language of communication!

Anonüümne ütles ...

Please can someone translate this into English for me......?
praegu anam juukseid ei kasvata ja veits vanem naen valja,need on mu ratas ja passikas,su tagumik naeb ikka vaga sex valja .kahju et mul siin paremaid pilte pole a kas vahest sulle helistada voin mul skypi pole kahjuks a se sama kui telefon ju

the reply in Estonian is....
kle a kas sa oma tel nr annad mulle v,ma vahest enne kui uni tuleb helistak

my friend and I found it on her boyfriends e-mail think he is seeing someone else. Thank you

Estlib ütles ...

@sweets76: translation to english:

translation begin:
Im not growing hair any more and i look a bit older. Thats my bike and passport(? - there was an estonian slang word im not familiar with here). your ass looks very hot/sexy. Too bad that i dont have better pictures (im assuming hes talking about his own pictures) but can i call you sometimes? i dont have skype unfortunately but thats basically same as a phone, right?...

Reply translation:
Hey, maybe you give me your number, i could call you sometimes when i fall asleep.

translation end

I know exactly why i reply in english to someone who can speak estonian but is of other origin.
If i reply to them in their own language, i honor them (thats my way of showing honor) and am worthy of existing side-by-side. if i reply in estonian, im looking down upon them for any insolence they have done. unless they ask me to reply in estonian, the purposes will be switched. thats just how i see it (cuz im estonian). also, somebody brought up the point of loaning words from english with this example: "mis on asja point?". i personally dont use much of this slang. i usually just say: "mis on asja mõte/idee?"

Anonüümne ütles ...

I speak Estonian language, others too but when someone want to talk with me in Estonia.. I will

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