Why “Searching for My Roots” Also Means “Working on My Fluency”

I grew up in California as an Estonian-American. Despite the fact that only my father was Estonian, my parents were unusually avid: my mother learned Estonian from him and they raised us together in an Estonian-speaking household, with a strong sense of identification with Estonia.

Before I was three years old, I knew how to respond when someone asked: “Veervay? What kind of name is that?” “Estonian,” I’d say. And when the nearly inevitable question – what kind of a language is that? – came up, I knew well that my mother often answered “It’s close to Finnish.”

Estonian girls in California

Estonian girls in California (Virve is on the left). Photo from personal archive.

When I parroted this and a friend’s parent asked whether being “close to finish” meant nearly extinct, I was at a loss. “Close to Finnish” for me was a phrase with context but no meaning. I did know, however, that Estonia, the country – and hence the language too – was in some real sense endangered, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, as we were unable to communicate freely with our relatives or visit them whenever we wished. I had been there once, at two and a half. I would go again when I was nine years old, and again when I was thirteen, but we were always denied visas to travel out of Tallinn to Laulasmaa, where the family had a small, beloved summer house.

I had the experience of my world turning inside-out when we visited Tallinn: our most private, intimate language – the language through which we defined our close family ties – became the public language around me: street signs in Estonian! A movie in Estonian! The bus driver speaking Estonian! As if everyone were in on the joke somehow, part of our strong, family bonds. And then the bewilderment when I wanted to prove my independence in Estonia by buying a loaf of bread all by myself, and the shopkeeper spoke to me in the harsh roar of a different language.

I was unusual in middle-class America in being bilingual, but in Estonia in the 80s, everyone had to speak at least some Russian, enough to get by in the marketplace and the bureaucracy.

And then in high school, I had another shock. My civic education teacher, Mr. Cox, gave me the chance to tell the class about my experience voicing political protest when Mikhail Gorbachev came to visit Stanford. The local Baltic community organised a unified group to meet his convoy with flags and signs demanding independence for the Baltic states. I began my story by saying “Well, I’m Estonian, so…” and was immediately interrupted by the teacher: “Wait a minute! You’re American, first and foremost.” I was taken aback.

But it’s obvious that I’m American: what distinguishes me is my Estonian connection. I care about the future of Estonia. I have close relatives there. I speak the language! He wouldn’t let me continue until I acknowledged the fact that I am American. How differently the two nations conceive of national belonging, of the importance of language and questions of identity.

For Estonia, the existence of the nation is very closely tied to the aims of continuation and vitality of the Estonian language. In America, the premise of coexistence among immigrant groups  rests on cutting off old ties and blending into the melting pot. Speaking English, and losing the foreign accent within a generation, is not an aim but a given. In utilitarian terms, English is the clear winner, at this point in history.

When I came to Estonia for a semester abroad in 1992, people in Tartu were not used to foreigners, not used to Estonian spoken with an accent. When I broke through the ice, some wellwishing peers told me what the giveaways were: the antiquated vocabulary, my antiquated name, and the aspirated stops: the T’s especially. I narrowed in on those T’s and listened very carefully and learned to make them a little less American. I struggled to sound native; I couldn’t look native, with my jeans, my bright white smile, my eyes outward and searching for contact in the cold winter streets. People were startled by my gaze, some looked twice: do I know you?

Virve with daughter

Virve with her elder daughter at 2 years of age. Photo from personal archive.

Now, more than 20 years later, I find myself in a world again turned inside-out. The private language of my childhood has become my public language, and I am raising my children speaking English at home. Imparting a sense of being American-Estonian in Estonia is certainly not the mirror image of my youth, Estonian-American in the USA.

Speaking English is not mysterious. Yet even the dominant language of hegemony can mark solidarity. My five-year-old daughter still thinks that more people speak Estonian than English, and takes English to signal her special relationship with her mother.

I now work at the University of Tartu as Adviser to the Rector on Internationalisation – working on bringing more international students and staff to the University, on giving UT’s own students and staff more chances to go abroad, to mix their ideas, their habits and experiences with others with different backgrounds, to bring in a more global outlook and international contacts.

The impact of English is more insidious and more all-encompassing than Russian ever was, barging in on all spheres, from pop culture to politics, classes to computer games. Yet the world around us has changed, with the collapse of the bipolar worldview making the world more complex and unpredictable, the Internet giving the illusion of vanishing frontiers between cultures and nations, and the need for a global language expanding.

After I came back to Estonia, and lived intensely with the language, I had the satisfaction of occasionally being taken for a “home Estonian”. The world around me was changing quickly. Now everyone had jeans, soon there would be other faces looking around with a smile, even shiny white teeth.

And after spending another few years abroad, in the UK, I had another realisation. Mr. Cox was right: I am both Estonian and American, and both are intrinsic parts of my being. I no longer want only to blend in. My dual heritage has claims of its own: I owe it to myself and to society to voice criticism – of America for its commerciality and superficiality, of Estonia for its homogeneity. I am no longer afraid of being different, and meanwhile Tartu has also become more tolerant of difference.

Now the University of Tartu is consciously carving for itself a two-fold position: the primary institution of higher education in Estonia as well as a serious player on the international research front. In certain subject areas like language and history, being in the forefront is inextricably tied to publishing also in Estonian, and outreach to the Estonian public.

UT has reached the 350-400 position in the Times Higher Education Rankings, an achievement which is naturally connected to publishing in English and conducting cutting-edge research with respect to developments in the world. This game forces the university and the nation to face some very delicate choices.

In order to continue world-class research, we need world-class scholars, from doctoral students to top professors. We need new blood, competition, and channels of dissemination. With limited human resources, however, it does not make sense to teach any subject in parallel, in two languages. Estonian graduates must be fluent in English, to get by in academia and the job market.

Yet – and here’s the real bind – if the university allows certain subjects to be taught only in English, then Estonian, as a vital language viable in all domains, will suffer. It will fall behind as terminology ceases to get translated, to be transmitted from one generation to the next. It is the university’s responsibility, then, to maintain Estonian in all subjects. How, then, to walk this tightrope?

This is not only Estonia’s dilemma – these same questions are faced across Europe and beyond. Not every nation feels the dilemma as acutely as a nation with only 1.3 million inhabitants, but the same elements play a role even in larger nations’ approaches to language, education, and research.

I am delighted to be part of the organisation in Tartu of a Symposium on Language and Identity. I urge and invite anyone who shares my fascination with this topic to join us at the Symposium (please register online), on October 20-22 in the White Hall of the UT History Museum, for discussions on Europe’s languages and identities and a concluding discussion of language and language policy in Europe’s universities. You may come out with a slightly altered understanding of who you are – or why.

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