I’ve just returned home from a two-week course in Estonian at the University of Tartu. During my stay I celebrated the beauty of the town in a photo-blog, and ideas for further blogs (such as “Why Estonian?”) are gestating. But I have an immediate urge to capture my impressions of starting to learn Estonian, as they start to crystallise into memory – and before the colours fade away.
It’s 40 years since I last learnt a language from scratch. I took up Russian at university, and spent three weeks at an intensive summer course in 1979 – but in East Anglia rather than the USSR. I have little memory of the acquiring a new language. Instead my recollections of that summer are dominated by a bizarre concurrence of Thatcher and the Skylab satellite.
When I try to delve back further into my linguistic memories, I find odd snapshots of teenage angst … Worry as I set off for my first exchange trip to Germany in the knowledge that I hadn’t yet learnt the subjunctive. Embarrassment at addressing the postman with the informal “du” pronoun rather than the polite “Sie”. More embarrassment when I thanked the mother of the household for providing “Futter” (animal food).
Even further back, I remember the disappointment of my first exposure to French. I must have been about 7 when the Wilson government (Anthony Crosland?) decreed that all primary schools should teach French. I was excited at the prospect, but got it into my head that it was like a code to which I simply needed to learn the key – only to find it was a painstaking affair of memorising lots of words. Ever since then, learning vocabulary has been my least favourite linguistic chore.
And so to Estonian.
I had deliberately not tried to learn any of the language before the course, focussing instead on background reading. So I arrived in Tartu, after a few days in Tallinn, knowing only “hello, please, thank you, and latte” and a few words I’d learnt in the supermarket such as piim “milk”.
Over the next two weeks, our teachers Katrin and Heli guided us along a carefully constructed path of stepping-stones through the forest of the Estonian language. First the basics: good morning, what is your name, where are you from (there were almost as many nationalities in the class as there were students), what languages do you speak? We learnt to count and tell the time.
After a few days we encountered the genitive singular case, from which it’s a short and easy step to the plural. Our new world acquired colours, we learnt a song (Mis värvi on armastus – “What colour is love?”), I discovered that two of my class-mates were in love …
By the end of the first week the mists had cleared sufficiently for me to be able to work out how to ask someone whether they spoke English before launching into it. (My chances of getting the answer yes were largely dependent on age.) I could ask for coffee and cake.
I enlisted the waitresses of Café Werner as informal teaching assistants. They were unfailingly patient, speaking slowly as if to a small child, reading out the price of lunch rather than showing me the till screen, correcting my fives and sixes … And they did all this in a sweltering 30⁰ heatwave.
In the second week we learnt to complain about the heat, about tiredness and headaches. We described our families, and I learnt the word surnud “dead”. “No, I have no mother, nor father, nor grandmother, nor grandfather – but I do have a daughter, a husband and a mother-in-law.” “I have no aunts but I AM an aunt and also a great-aunt.” I felt more at ease once we’d learnt the past tense, as – apart from satisfying my obsession with grammar – it gave me so much more to talk about.
As the second week wore on, an awareness of what we didn’t yet know became as important as remembering what we’d learnt. For example, talk of nephews and nieces was to be avoided because it involved a more complex layer of Estonian kinship terminology. And we began to appreciate the ingenuity of the course in keeping us well away from the precipice of the partitive plural, which is WAY TOO DIFFICULT FOR BEGINNERS.
Towards the end of the course, one of us tried to say “he is drinking a glass of wine”. This seemed innocuous enough, as we’d practised eating and drinking conversations, and we’d also learnt about containers (“there is a bottle of water on the desk”). But putting these two concepts together plunged us into the treacherous bog of the “total object”, not to be approached for several summers.
Nevertheless, with so much still to learn, I returned to Tallinn feeling like a different person. I had a new lens through which to view the world, and could start to decipher some of it. Names in Estonian, both of people and places, often have meanings, and I was beginning to understand them: Tartu’s river Emajõgi = “mother river”, Vene = “Russian street”, Rootsi = “Swedish street”. President Kaljulaid = “rocky islet”.
I could navigate a menu in Estonian, with the help of my Glosbe app. I recognised meega as the comitative case of mesi: “with honey”.
JRR Tolkein once compared discovering Finnish to “entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before”. Estonian is closely related to Finnish, and I can identify with that description. But he was recalling an experience from his youth, at a time depth of over 40 years. For me, fresh from my first trip to Estonia, learning an unfamiliar language at 58 is more like a shot of oxygen to the brain.