Tere, tere! Mina olen Leonardo.
And as you can understand from my much elaborated introduction in Estonian language, I am one of the many innocent souls that are trying to learn this exotic and unique language. In five years, I just might be like that guy Douglas Wells (if he ever existed), who said to have spent five fruitless years in trying to correctly speak Estonian. If you haven’t, you can read his interesting story about the “Origins of Estonian” from here. However, I will talk more about my experience in “speaking Estonian”, let us say, a more contemporary view of a foreigner’s attempt to communicate with the native speakers of this parallel language universe: Estonians.
My dad always said “In Rome, do as Romans do”. And so, when I came to Estonians, I said to myself: “In Estonia, do as Estonians do”. HA. Good luck. I can say that I have spent quite some time trying to decipher their secret code, since I have chosen the intensive path to learning Estonian. This means I have taken a huge amount of Estonian language lessons per week for two semesters. The funny thing is, that even though I understand quite a lot, I am still the quiet guy in the corner when surrounded by Estonians speaking in their mother-tongue. With the only difference that now, when I nod with my head and smile, there is more probability that I did this because I actually understood, whereas in the beginning that just meant “Yeah sure, don’t have a clue what you’re saying, but you can just keep talking.”
Ok. Maybe I am exaggerating, but I just want to make the point that, being it so difficult, it is so much rewarding when you can finally articulate some words and sentences. This should encourage any foreigner to learn not only Estonian, but any language. For instance, it has been said that Estonians are quite serious and quiet people, but just try to pronounce vowels like “ä“, „õ“, „ö“ or „ü“ , and you will for sure get a Estonian laughing. He or she will be laughing at you, but hey, still an Estonian laughing!
In Estonian, pronunciation is quite a challenge. They like to repeat the vowels, like sool or tuul, so you have to be careful when doing it. If you don’t do it, the following can happen to you. I was travelling with an Estonian group, and after a month of Estonian courses, I could already enable in real conversations (about me, my family and fruits and vegetables, but hey, what is more real than that?!). So, walking on a sunny and warm day, I said to an Estonian girl next to me that I barely knew “Mul on kumm”, which I thought it meant “I am hot”, referring to the weather. She turns and looks at me, and say “Why would I care if you have a condom?” I am all like “Oh, no, no, I am hot, it is warm” and she is like “Oh, haha, mul on kuum”. From then on, I really make those vowels last a loooooong time.
However, it is not all very difficult. In fact, there are some pretty easy things. For example, there is the joke of why Estonian language really sucks? Because there is no sex and no future (ba dum tsss). However, it really makes things easier. As well, for world capitals you just have to make looooong vowels. Pariis, Berliin, Madriid, Rooma, and so on, and so on. At least, foreigners will be always better at speaking Estonian than Russians living in Estonia and here is why. When I met a new Estonian and spoke as much as “Tere, kuidas sul läheb?” they would reply “You speak way better than most of the Russians living in Estonia.” Every single time, over and over, I spoke better Estonian than a Russian living in Estonia. I really don’t know though, if that’s entirely true.
Another thing that is rewarding is that Estonians consider their language to be so difficult, that when you say as much as “Ma olen Mehhikost” (which means I am from Mexico), they already praise you as “OH wow, you speak Estonian already!”, which is basically like when a baby stands up and fells right back and the you say to the baby “Oh, you can walk already, how nice!”. And the best thing is that, I have just taken the compliment, saying “Oh, well, thanks (I am so awesome).” And then they switch to English, and your moment of glory is gone.
Kidding apart, it is a quite interesting and fun language to learn, but more importantly, an interesting culture to get to know. So, just say “tere” and “palun” and “aitäh”, and that is all you need to get a smile out of the very serious Estonians. Head aega!
Author: Leonardo Ortega, Mexico, EU-Russia Studies