Do it for Tartu – what we can offer the City of Good Thoughts (Heade mõtete linn)

“We tried to engage and invite them to an event. We made an effort. But it didn’t seem to work out”.

Over a week ago, I had a conversation with my classmate when we saw each other at “Escape Room to the Future”, Tartu’s Vision Day on bidding for the European Capital of Culture in 2024. It was a bittersweet conversation, because I knew we had much more to offer to this Estonian student town.

On 9 May I attended a day of brainstorming on how to make Tartu the European Capital of Culture in 2024.

I have a personal feeling on whether people should learn a local language as an expat, because I come from Hong Kong, a cosmopolitan city where expats don’t bother much about learning Cantonese, the mother tongue of most Hongkongers. People can survive in Hong Kong effortlessly if they have a decent command of English. English is one of Hong Kong’s official languages, and foreigners can communicate with Hongkongers without speaking a single word in Cantonese, because they tend to speak English to accommodate foreigners.

But how about Tartu?

As I was attending Vision Day, I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to Tartu in 2024 if both the Estonian and international communities keep building their own cultural space without integrating with each other. I reckon, as a home-grown Hongkonger, that Tartu will become just another student town, which loses its charisma and burns out gradually.

I therefore call for our international friends to learn Estonian to save this city. It doesn’t matter how much you can learn in the end – your efforts will eventually pay off to leave a legacy in this cultural capital of Estonia.

  • Tartu Tudengipäevad (Tartu Student Days) is the starting point where foreign students and Estonian students can come together. Although one may realize that an annual festival like this doesn’t stand out from all the other European student cities, Öolaulupidu (Night Song Festival) shows us that the Estonian Singing Revolution is more than a movement for independence – it’s a national characteristic of Estonia and people are proud of their beautiful voices and language. If nothing else, learning to sing in Estonian is the beginning to understanding the language and greater cultural immersion. It doesn’t hurt to translate the lyrics from Estonian to English, then from English to your mother tongue. That’s how we construct the meanings of Estonian words.
  • Multilingualism is a key feature of Tartu. With international students of 88 nationalities at the University of Tartu, we can offer language exchange beyond a few conversations at a language café event. Languages evolve and absorb the linguistic features of one another over time. When we learn Estonian and internalize it in our daily lives, we will enrich the Estonian language itself with a “Tartu context”. A concrete example of doing so is to update the Wikipedia page in our mother tongue, and to work with our Estonian friends to update the Wikipedia page of our native countries in Estonian.
  • The art of survival for Tartu is, above all, to thrive in globalization. An existing culture without its language can barely stay alive. There are a plethora of cultural events for international students in English, which strengthens our sense of belonging as the international community without an Estonian context.

I was interviewed by an Estonian journalist during Vision Day to share my aspirations on what Tartu will look like in 2024. (Photo: Krista Palm)

Collaboration on projects, organizing events, and just hanging out together are practical ways to make it happen.

I’ve been working with Estonian students to organize a simulation of international negotiations at the European Youth Event 2018 at Strasbourg’s European Parliament, which will take place in June. It’s a good opportunity to understand the working culture of Estonian students and how they communicate in the workplace.

In addition to that, I also worked with representatives from Rahvusvaheliste Suhete Ring (International Relations Society) and Tartu Ülikooli Väitlusklubi (TU Debate Club) to organize an international debate on EU-Russia relations recently. It’s such a satisfying feeling to engage both international and Estonian students to attend the same debate together.

As a former exchange student in Aarhus, the European Capital of Culture of 2017 and a student town in Denmark, I can tell you what I regretted most in those 6 months: I only attended 5 Danish language classes throughout the semester because I chose to stay in the international bubble. If I could go back in time, I would have invested more time in learning this peculiar language, instead of speaking English all the time to the locals as a lingua franca.

Learning a new language is a painful process, especially when you know that your mother tongue is much more widely spoken than the new language you are planning to learn, but don’t give up learning Estonian – it’s probably the greatest achievement you will have during your exchange semester/year or your stay in Estonia.

“We can always try harder, even if it didn’t seem to work out. Engage and integrate with our Estonian friends until we have offered everything we could for Tartu”.

Iverson Ng is a first-year student of the EU-Russia Studies Master’s Programme at the University of Tartu. He’s the President of Yale-based transatlantic think-tank European Horizons’ Tartu Chapter, student leader of a European citizenship project entitled “Message to Europeans 3.0”, and a leading organizer of one of the events at the European Youth Event 2018, European Parliament, Strasbourg. 

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