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At the Conference ‘A Century of the Estonian Official Language’


Honourable language enthusiasts!

The last one hundred years of the Estonian language have been very wide-ranging. Jubilant, on the one hand, as some point out that the first Estonian-language university was established and Estonian became the official state language, to name just two important beginnings out of many. We have had the opportunity to freely debate our language policy and make independent language choices before the occupation as well as since independence was restored.

However, there were also very critical times in which we had to defend our own language from strong outer pressure over a very long length of time. That period brought us back together around our language. Think for example how great of a national undertaking it was to draft and pass a language law thirty years ago.

The last one hundred years have shaped our present attitudes. We should remember these experiences, but at the same time, we must not get too stuck in them.

Language has a foundational part to play in our behavioural space. For every small people, one’s own language is the most crucial tool for self-realisation and knowing one’s identity. A nation may indeed be small, but its language does not have to be if the people wish and are able to keep their language widely used in all fields. To keep their language great. Estonian is not a tiny language: we can only make it small through our carelessness, reducing opportunities for using it, and thereby diminishing the language’s value and dignity.

If we want to protect and promote our own language and culture, then we must consider how to make Estonian-language instruction as accessible and interesting as possible for children in an ever-globalising world, in which a whole range of high-tech devices are a natural, everyday part of life. We must think about how to spark and maintain a cheerful curiosity in the Estonian language among children. It may seem like a difficult task, but we must not ignore it.

For children, the whole world becomes accessible from the very moment they learn how to brush their fingers across a screen. Children already use the Internet a great deal for learning, so we should make it more interesting and diverse for them. We have wonderful devices that can help children learn on the Internet.

If we fall behind the times in developing digital opportunities in Estonian, it could pose the greatest danger to our native language over the coming century. Estonian is not yet a large digital language today, so let’s take that great leap.

In doing this, it is important that Estonians venture out into the world and come back. Now is a time of roaming. We must be able to offer Estonian-language schooling, no matter what corner of the world one may reside in. This will help keep Estonian children close to the Estonian language. Our fine and beautiful Estonian language. A full Estonian education through secondary school should be available on the web. Through such a system, children could freely acquire new knowledge and also test it. I’d like to remind you of the University of Tartu curator and first Estonian Minister of Education Peeter Põld’s idea from nearly 95 years ago: ‘May every lesson be a language lesson.’ Thus, we must make it possible to preserve Estonian as our native language everywhere around the world through Internet-based lessons in a variety of subjects. All this would make teachers’ job simpler both here in Estonia and elsewhere: having the necessary educational programmes that help teach different subjects in Estonia to students, wherever they may be.

The Estonian language and its instruction also help to stitch together the historical rift between the various ethnic groups in Estonia and bring local residents into our behavioural space. In modern-day Europe, millions of people live in countries where the public linguistic environment differs from the language they speak at home, and there, it is entirely natural for children to start learning in the official language at the very first level of education: nursery school. By the time they reach school age, children are already familiar with the linguistic and behavioural space of their country of residence and have adapted to it. In their studies and later on in life, they are fully equal to those whose home- and school languages are the same. They might even be in a slightly better position, since their choice of languages is broader and their universe that much richer.

Here in Estonia, we must help children with non-Estonian home languages become proficient in the official language, in Estonian, already during nursing school. We do not always have to prepare all kinds of methodologies long beforehand, but can simply interact with them in Estonian: children are clever and quick-witted. So, please, let us not repeat the old and frustrating idea that the Estonian language is an extremely difficult one. This is not so, and we constantly see proof to the contrary. I saw all of this working nicely in Sillamäe, where there are fewer ethnic Estonians than in Luxembourg. The Pääsupesa Nursery School has no children whose home language is Estonian, but all the tots converse just wonderfully in Estonian and are receiving fantastic preparation for entering the local Estonian-language primary school.

If we do not choose this path, then we will be wasting the time of Estonia’s children and our entire society’s resources. There will be many losers and the winners will not care about Estonia’s fine circumstances; quite the opposite. Of course, proceeding from here, we must consider how every school-aged child in Estonia can attend an Estonian-language school so as to be sufficiently present in the local cultural space. The lack of teachers in places where they are needed the most right now is most certainly an issue that needs to be addressed. Still, I’d like to bring up the somewhat bold example of Finland, where the six teachers of the Estonian Global School teach lessons in 20 schools in the city of Vantaa. Perhaps we may use this as an example for smart planning and reasonable compensation here at home, too.

Estonian as the official language plays an extremely important role in our communication with and understanding of the state. The entirety of our legislation is in the Estonian language, as is the behavioural space of our public sector. A lack of understanding of this behavioural space may lead to misunderstandings and unfortunate consequences. I spoke about this while working in Ida-Viru County last autumn, and do you know what? The people there understood, and I hope that before long, it will no longer be necessary to translate documents back and forth in some of the region’s city councils. The readiness is there and people must be encouraged, not dealt sharp corrections of each and every linguistic error they might make. However, there is also another side to understanding the state, which is the state’s own judiciousness to communicate with its citizens in nice, clear Estonian so they do not get lost in a forest of bureaucratic terms. Documents written in the official language must be comprehendible, and this is the obligation of every official and lawmaker. Of course, Estonian’s entire linguistic family can come to its aid in this area by offering support, for example, to ensure that documents meant for translation in Brussels are in clear and comprehendible Estonian.

The Estonian language will persevere if we ourselves are prepared to contribute to keeping it a language of culture. Without Estonian-language higher education, it has no future. The language will begin to softly fade away if we are negligent about teaching in the Estonian language in even slightly more complex fields out of convenience or momentary gain. In addition, those living here whose native languages are not Estonian will lose any kind of need or interest to learn the language, because they will be able to get by somehow else in the public space.

I’d like to quote the University of Tartu curator Peeter Põld’s remark made at the opening ceremony of the Estonian-language institution in 1919: ‘The university is a national cultural plantation: as a partner in the common, global endeavour in international science, it cannot tear itself from its surroundings, the phenomena of which it must above all enlighten; the youth of which it must firstly pull along…’ This is to say that we must find a reasonable balance so that the position of the Estonian language is not compromised, but instead strengthened.

Directly tied to this is the development of Estonian scientific terminology, the active participation in which every scientist must take as a matter of honour in their field. They are the ones who hold the most precise knowledge of their area of expertise, and I am quite confident that they also wish to make their work understandable to their compatriots. Linguistic experts can be of great assistance in doing so.

 All of this together makes up the issue of appreciating our language. If we ourselves reduce the importance and opportunities of the Estonian language, then we will certainly and rapidly find ourselves in the situation described very vividly in one of Kristiina Ehin’s poems. When an Estonian university student wished to write a review for their creative writing homework in English and Ehin, as the teacher, did not permit it, then:

The student nods obediently,
but shoots me a glare as she leaves,
as if I was forcing her to wear
shoes she had outgrown.

Let us not turn the Estonian language into shoes we have outgrown, and let’s not diminish our native language’s position and attraction. To conclude, dear friends, in connection with this conference dedicated to the Estonian language, I’d like to remind you of a very topical wish expressed by the poet Juhan Viiding:

Have strength is the ancient wish
Have strength is the wonderful wish
The wish holds good and earnest care
Let this wish sound by the Master there

Strength I need is the ancient reply
Strength I need is the sole reply
It’s the language of balance between work and its refrain
Let it sound again and again and again