English in Estonia: The Country’s Future Lingua Franca?

Josep Soler-Carbonell is a research fellow at the Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics of the University of Tartu and a lecturer at Stockholm University.

Like many foreigners in Estonia, my first memories in this country are full of language-related anecdotes. Back in the summer of 2005, when I first set foot in the country, I remember that I ordered a beer at Tallinn’s Raekoja Plats by saying, “Pivo, pozhalujsta”, trying to brush up the little bit of Russian I had proudly learned a couple of years before that.

Maybe not the smartest choice to order a drink, I admit. The bar attendant did not look so happy about my attempt, and she replied somewhat angrily, saying: “We also speak English in this country”. Indeed, it was quite apparent that I was a foreigner, and the fact that I tried to use Russian with her, not her language either, did not seem to match the expectations of what was appropriate in that context.

English, as we know, is probably the world’s first second language, and over the past half-century or so it has made important inroads into areas and contexts hardly ever present before. In that sense, Estonia has not remained immune to this phenomenon, and for foreigners like me, English is the resource that allows us to get by over the first few months, maybe years, in the country, before we manage to learn some decent Estonian, and past the survival skills stage of “pilet Tartu kell kaheksa, palun”.

But what about the local population? How is English perceived by Estonians and Russian-speakers in the country? Is it a language that is appreciated or feared? And, most interestingly, can English actually evolve into the country’s lingua franca, a language of inter-ethnic communication?

"Greening Lasnamäe" project

Organisers of the “Greening Lasnamäe” project used bilingual signs to appeal to both the Estonian and Russian population. Photo by Carl-Johan Sveningsson / Flickr Creative Commons

The possibility of English becoming Estonia’s lingua franca, that is to say the language that Estonians and Russian-speakers will use to communicate with each other, is something that has intrigued language scholars (sociolinguists, more specifically) for quite some time. The question, however, has not generated a huge amount of scholarly debate, because it indeed seems that this possibility is not very widespread.

David Laitin was the first expert to propose such a hypothesis with an article[ref]Laitin, David. 1996. Language planning in the former Soviet Union: The case of Estonia. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 118, 43-61.[/ref] back in 1996. In his paper, Laitin argued that the country’s language policy was not effective enough to appeal to the interest of the Russian-speaking population (back then, 35% of the total). In parallel, Laitin noted an important tendency by the Estonian-speaking population to incorporate English as a language for international communication. In light of those two tendencies, he wrote: “English rather than Estonian will become the language of normal use between Russian- and Estonian-speakers in Estonia”.

A decade later, other scholars [ref]Hogan-Brun, Gabrielle, Uldis Ozolins, Meluite Ramoniene & Mart Rannut. 2007. Language politics and practices in the Baltic states. Current Issues in Language Planning 8(4), 469-630. Verschik, Anna. 2005. The language situation in Estonia. Journal of Baltic Studies 36(3), 283-316.[/ref] revisited the question and suggested that English was not becoming the country’s lingua franca as Laitin had predicted. My recent paper now re-examines the issue with ethnographically informed data.

There is more evidence suggesting that the use of English in inter-ethnic contact situations is not a very common choice, as others have previously argued. However, it seems that this option cannot be completely ruled out. In other words, the informants that participated in my study explained that sometimes, in given circumstances, English is a viable option when the speakers in a given interaction cannot make themselves understood in any of their languages. That is to say that English functions in these cases as an added resource, which steps in when the other available linguistic resources (in this case Estonian and Russian) are not enough to get by in that specific situation.

In that sense there seems to be a generational divide, which has to do with how the language repertoires of each group in the country have evolved over the past two to three decades. To put it briefly, studies show that the younger generations of Estonians are learning less Russian than the older generations did; instead, they are increasingly becoming bilingual in Estonian and English.

Younger Russian speakers, for their part, are learning more Estonian (as well as English) than the older generations, who tended to be more monolingual in Russian. This means that in given situations, particularly among younger speakers, English becomes a viable option in case Estonian (or a mixture of Estonian and Russian) is not enough to get by and communicate effectively.

For example, a young Russian speaker explained that, “It’s easier for me to speak in English with Estonians; usually we both use English to avoid uncomfortable misunderstandings”; in addition, “A lot of Estonian Russians don’t speak Estonian, and I don’t speak Russian; thus, English is the common language” was also reported by an Estonian speaker of the same age range. However, “It happens very rarely, because usually Estonians and Russians try to speak both Estonian and Russian, like they ‘mix’ them and they can deal with it”, added another participant.

According to the study, the possibility of English being used inter-ethnically is more commonly employed at workplace settings. This is not surprising, given that it is in these contexts where Estonians and Russian speakers tend to mingle with each other in a more direct manner, to a greater or lesser degree.

So, even if this is not a very common practice, we see that in the given circumstances English is sometimes used in inter-ethnic contact situations. What are its effects then? Is it good that this happens or is it something to be avoided? It seems that when English is employed in such contact situations, it can work as a bridge to fill the communicative gap between the speakers in that face-to-face interaction, as already noted. In that sense, if no other option seems to be available to ease the situation, then why should it be a bad thing to try to use any means possible to be able to communicate?

Moreover, with the passage of time, it may be the case that eventually the speakers will manage to get by in each other’s language, and in that sense English therefore does not prevent speakers from increasing their proficiency in the local languages.

This was reported by a young Russian speaker, who explained that, “My Estonian has improved a lot lately, so I only laugh when I see Russians and Estonians speak English. However, when I was 12 I was in the same situation: I had a nice Estonian friend, but my Estonian was so bad that we used lots of English words to understand each other (she didn’t speak Russian at all, just like most Estonian youngsters). Even now I sometimes say some English word if I have forgotten it in Estonian, but usually I only know the Russian word (it is often a word that I don’t use much, at least when I speak other languages)”.

In this light, English can be considered an added intercultural resource, something that speakers may make use of in contact situations when no other option seems to work in order to get their message across. In the hypothetical scenario in which this practice would solidify and become the norm, rather than the exception (as it currently is), then the effects would be different.

It is not difficult to imagine that in that case the use of English inter-ethnically would strengthen inter-group boundaries and divide, rather than unite, the two main language groups in the country, making it clearer who belongs to which group. In the present moment this is fortunately not the case, I would argue. However, I believe it is important to keep paying attention to this question, as it will surely continue to develop and change.

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One Response to English in Estonia: The Country’s Future Lingua Franca?

  1. Jessica Brown says:

    Brilliant blog, thank you very much. It seems very well written and I have taken my time to read it thoroughly.


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