kolmapäev, november 28, 2007

official doo doo

I am not sure if you have picked up on the debate over whether or not Tallinn should add another official language. No, not russkie, the native tongue of 43 percent of its inhabitants, but English, the language of those bartenders at Hell Hunt.

When it comes to official languages, sometimes I feel that Sweden got it right. Sweden has no "official language" but I think everyone would agree that you need to know Swedish if you want to get up in the Riksdag and demand to know whether or not Carl Bildt has paid his television license fees.

Finland is often lauded for pampering its Swedish minority -- now some 6 percent of the total population. On the other hand, the languages of the indigenous Sami, Romani, as well as the Russians who form 1 percent of the population are not important enough to be deemed co-equal to Swedish and Finnish. So, in essence, minority Swedish speakers are officially more representative of the state than minority Sami speakers. Reindeer herding peons take notice: your language is only worthy of being co-official in certain regions.

If one were to apply the Finnish method to other countries, you'd wind up with Polish as an official language of Lithuania, Hungarian an official language of Slovakia, Hungarian an official language of Romania, and, of course, Turkish as an official language of Germany. Turks have been living there for decades. They appear to have longstanding ties to Deutschland. This is the ideal of advocates of multiculturalism who think that official languages heal all. Estonia, even, has been advised to take more official language, because that would make all its social cleavages disappear.

Except, I actually think Estonian is developing a more interesting approach to the conundrum to making one person's language "official", another person's "regional", and denying a third person's language any recognition at all. In Estonia, there is one "official" feel-good national language. But following Estonian laws, minorities without long-standing ties to the country, like Ingrian Finns and Ukrainians, have been granted opportunities to learn in their native language and achieve cultural autonomy. In other countries, these groups would not enjoy such protection at all.

Meantime, official work continues in the national language. Estonian, despite its curvy vowels and many cases, is not an impossible language. I have lived in and out of this country for nearly five years and if Edgar Savisaar wanted my opinion of how he is running Tallinn, I'd be happy to give it to him. I'd say that Tallinna liiklus on vastik (Tallinn's traffic is awful), Tallinna uued majad on inetu (Tallinn's new buildings are ugly), and kõige inglise joodikad peaks olema keelatud (all drunk English people should be forbidden).

How hard was that? I don't see why that should ever change. Meantime in cities like Narva or Sillamäe, local officials have every right to communicate with one another and with their constituents in their native language -- Russian. They also must continue to serve their Estonian constituents in the national language too. And in Tallinn, you don't have to pass a law to make English official because it's already being used everyday in correspondence and at meetings by the city's large foreign business population.

So in a sense, Estonia is inching closer to being like Sweden. Estonia will become in time a place where you "officially" can speak whatever you want with your colleagues at work, but if you want stand in the Riigikogu and ask a politician about her mother's salary, it would be best to ask politely ja muidugi eesti keeles.

15 kommentaari:

Estonia in World Media (Rus) ütles ...

I too thought out a good second official language for us! It is non-Russian (just kidding)

Martin-Éric ütles ...

I like that approach of presuming that whoever lives in a given country ought to be able to speak the language of the majority.

However, this is not applied across the board: EU nationals can move to any other EU country for work and study, without being expected to learn the language. Heck, they can even demand to be served in their own language!

Meanwhile, people with the misfortune of not being EU citizens are increasingly being asked to demonstrate that they possess at least working knowledge of their host country's national language, even before they set foot there. This trend started in Netherlands and is spreading throughout the Germanic world. At this rate, it's only a matter of time before it becomes EU policy.

The ridiculous aspect of this is that someone from Australia, will have to learn Dutch before migrating to Nederlands, but a Brit won't need to and yet both of these people speak the same mother tongue.

martintg ütles ...

The ridiculous aspect of this is that someone from Australia, will have to learn Dutch before migrating to Nederlands, but a Brit won't need to and yet both of these people speak the same mother tongue.

Australia has now a strict requirement for knowledge of the english language for prospective migrants.

Australia's policy in this regard has varied over the years. Back in the early 1900's, Australian immigration officials used to test language skills with a 50 word dictation test administered at the port of entry. If the person failed the test they were denied entry on the basis of being an illgal immigrant and deported.

However this law at that time didn't specifically mention that this test had to be in english. Often it was used to deny entry to politically undesirable people. In one notorious case in 1934, immigration authorities attempted to block entry of Czech communist Egon Kisch by administering the dictation test in several different European languages, which he all passed, finally failing the test in Scottish Gaelic.

However before they could deport Kisch, he jumped ship and broke his legs, ending up in an Australian hospital, the case was appealed in the High Court and his deportation order was over turned.

martintg ütles ...

Estonia, even, has been advised to take more official language, because that would make all its social cleavages disappear.

This is fairy tale thinking. Giving official language status to more than one language results in greater social cleavages. You only have to look at Belgium, with three offical languages and a very strong successionist movement in the Flemish speaking north. There is even talk of a union with Flanders and the Netherlands sometime after succession. I can imagine something similar happening in North Eastern Estonia if Russian was ever given co-official language status.

space_maze ütles ...

Tallinna uued majad on inetuD ;-)

But nevertheless, I agree - the idea that Estonian is somehow an "unlearnable" language, and that thus Estonia has no right to expect immigrants to learn it, is completely stupid.

Hell, if German-speaking countries get to ask their immigrants to learn German .. Estonian might be more "alien" to your average indo-european, but no way is it more dysfunctional than German, French or Russian. Once you get over all this, what makes Estonian more impossible than any other language in Europe?

I do love hearing things like "how can you learn Estonian, it has 14 cases!" - when you need to learn two letters at most for each case.

space_maze ütles ...

This is fairy tale thinking. Giving official language status to more than one language results in greater social cleavages. You only have to look at Belgium, with three offical languages and a very strong successionist movement in the Flemish speaking north. There is even talk of a union with Flanders and the Netherlands sometime after succession. I can imagine something similar happening in North Eastern Estonia if Russian was ever given co-official language status.

There always is Switzerland as an example for a country where it does work.

But no, I don't believe it would be a good idea in Estonia. Not till the overwhelming majority of Russians in Estonia become Russian-speaking Estonians as opposed to Russians in Estonia, at least (as Swedes in Finland have become Swedish-speaking Finns that will fall at your throats if you call them Swedes)

Which isn't going to happen while Pervy kanal is more popular than Russian Postimees.

Thomas ütles ...

i believe that this whole english-initiative shall just serve as another slap in the face of the russian-estonian community

stockholm slender ütles ...

Well, I wonder if Finland is a good negative example, as we both have an official minority language and quite a problem free relationship between the language communities. You have to remember that in the 1920's there was a significant number of Swedish speakers that even wanted an annexiation of some parts of Finland by Sweden. (And extreme Finnish nationalists that wanted to abolish Swedish altogether.) So the system has been highly successful in diffusing the tensions.

But I would say that this is a special, unique case that works in Finland where the Swedish speaking community has been integrated to all institutions of the society for centuries, and actually regard themselves (and are regarded by the constitution) as Swedish speaking Finns, not as ethnic Swedes. The language divide has never been a complete social or class divide for example. As a Burkean I would think that we can't export such systems as theoretical models as we can't export the historical experience and conditions along with them.

Giustino ütles ...

i believe that this whole english-initiative shall just serve as another slap in the face of the russian-estonian community

Estonia doesn't need anymore official languages. If Narva officials want to speak to their constituents in Russian, there's nothing stopping them. Likewise, if Noarootsi Parish officials want to communicate with their residents in Swedish sometimes, there's nothing stopping them either.

This framework will work well in the future as other minorities move into Estonia. If Hungarians someday form 50 percent of Maardu, they'll have the right to receive official info from their officials in Hungarian. They'll also be allowed to vote for them in municipal elections if they have residents status.

These are pretty liberal policies for the long-term.

Erik ütles ...

I have been living a little here and there in the world, and it has never crossed my mind that i should have the right to be served in my native language (or english either for that matter). If i live in a country where the majority speaks one language it seems only natural to me that if i want to communicate and integrate in a acceptable manner, then i have to learn that language.
Im now studying Estonian. Sure its not that easy, but as someone else said here, its not impossible either. Im progressing nicely, albeit slowly :)

Colm ütles ...

You really hit the nail on the head there Giustino!
Also thanks for the visit to my blog and the comment. Ma õpin oma tüdruksõbra ema keelt iga päev ja ma teen paremaks. Harjutamine teeb meistriks! :-)

Trek ütles ...

I don't see the point in making Russian (or any other language) a second official language. I live in Tallinn and for all practical purposes, Russian is already an unofficial "official" language. All services are offered here in both Estonian & Russian. I get adverts in the mail and one side is Estonian, the other side Russian. My cable TV is predominantly Russian language channels. Pretty much any clerk in the retail shops will speak both. Go to ARK, Immigration, Maksu- ja Tolliameti, etc and you handle your business in Russian. In many ways, it's easier to get along in Tallinn using Russian than it is Estonian, because most Estonians speak at least some Russian, but not all Russians speak Estonian. Heck, I (a native English speaker) can even speak some basic Russian phrases these days and I haven't even tried to learn it. But this is Estonia and seems perfectly acceptable that Estonian is the only official state language.

Regarding English, everyone knows that English is the international language for business, tourism and politics, so it's a given that English is popular here and everywhere. You don't need to make it official either. It is already the unoffical "official world language." What language are they teaching all the taxi drivers, street vendors and shop owners to learn for the uncoming Olympics in Beijing? What are they going to speak to all those foreign visitors? English.

Estonian, despite its curvy vowels and many cases, is not an impossible language.

Learning Estonian isn't any harder than learning anything else you don't already know. What you put into it is what you get out of it. If you honestly dedicate one hour an evening to learning it, or take formal Estonian language classes and really immerse yourself in it, you'll pick it up in no time. There is a lot to remember, but grammatically speaking, it's not that difficult. Just get over using prepositions and you're golden:-)

Giustino ütles ...

Just so you know, this blog doesnät have any official language.

Trek ütles ...

Just so you know, this blog doesnät have any official language.

I do that ALL the time!

Blogaddict ütles ...

Must be "a Russian thing" that we the "white people" don't get. How else to explain this desire to live outside the realm of reality? Not bothering to learn the language that is surrounding you? I don't get it.

I don't know, if I found myself in the country where people have a different language or even if they communicated by farting for crissakes, I'm sure I'd make at least some effort to get my pronounciations right. It's all about communication. And communication is fun! Official - nonofficial, blah - its all rubbish to me. Heck, I could communicate with russians in pantomime if I did not know their language already.

It saddens me that there is so much ignorance in the world. So many small minded people.