Doing life in estonian…

With fourteen different cases and an utterly unrecognisable vocabulary, Estonian should test even the most capable linguist! If you’ve studied other European languages in the past, you may find it refreshing to learn one where you effectively have to start entirely from scratch….” So says the encouraging sales plug for an estonian language course…and we get to ‘do life’ in this language! I could think of some easier ways to live!

But what other option do we have? You can’t expect to live in a country, bypass the language aspect, and still expect to be integrated into the society; you have to make some kind of attempt!
So we took the plunge when we moved here ten years ago and started the agonising task of learning estonian, one of the hardest european languages to learn being solely related to Finnish, Hungarian and absolutely nothing else! It has been a huge learning curve and very humbling experience, when you find yourself unable to express your most basic needs…for several years.

If you are not a linguist and wondering what 14 different cases means, let me put it this way, that there are 14 different ways of saying every noun and adjective in the singular…that doubles if you include the plural form. So here is an example; the word for ‘hand’ is ‘käsi’ which can also be käe, kätte, käele, käesse, käega, käeta, käena, käes, käeni, käest, käelt, käel, käeks….and that’s only for one hand, there are another 14 variations for two hands; now that’s a lot of hands!

Then there are the nine vowels, a,e,i,o,u,ä,ü,ö,õ which can be used in all sorts of wonderful combintions. For instance ‘öö’ is the word for ‘night’. If you lengthen or shorten the pronunciation of them you can completely change the meaning of the word. How about this for an interesting combination, ‘Kuuuurijate töööö jäääärel ‘ which translated means ‘a moon researchers work-night next to the ice edge’…addmitedly not a very useful sentence to learn but just sayin’…

In english you can’t play around much with word order; it’s subject-verb-object.
Take the sentence “often stars were seen in the sky”…. You could say this in estonian 24 different ways and still be understood,

Tihti taevas tähti nähti
Tihti taevas nähti tähti
Tihti nähti taevas tähti
Tihti tähti taevas nähti
Nähti tihti taevas tähti etc etc….

There have been times when we have felt totally defeated by the language, have insulted various people without meaning to and embarrased ourselves thoroughly. But you can’t beat the enthusiasm of the estonians when they hear you speak their language, even if it is grammatically incorrect and heavily accented. You score some major points for trying.

So ten years on we find oursleves able to do things that we never thought would be possible , like having a non-english speaking couple round for an evening and not needing a translator present or standing up in church on a Sunday and being able to speak for half an hour with only the odd interjection from the congregation when help is needed. It gives a more interactive feel you know!
So progress has been made and there is certainly more to come. Our latest undertaking is teaching english to estonians. It is nice having the tables turned and suddenly we discover how complicated our own language is to learn ( and teach) when,

The market garden was designed to produce produce.
The city tip was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
In the boat, a row erupted amongst the oarsmen about how to row.
The nurse wound the crepe bandage around the wound.
Dessie decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
Chloe was too close to the door to close it.

What more can I say!!

If you want to hear some estonian, here is a little poem about the smart bug…
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=uzh3-OU1Odw&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Duzh3-OU1Odw

And here is a song…it is a beautiful language to sing in
http://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=plpp&v=8rxqK_7cYEg

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An Estonian Childhood

One of the most common questions I get asked by folks back in the UK is, “what’s it like bringing your kids up in Estonia?”. My answer is always a very positive one as I think there is a lot going for this country. We have three children, two boys and one girl aged, 10, 8 and 6. Our first born was ten months old when we moved here and the other two were born in the Viljandi hospital shown below,

20130414-081304.jpg It’s a rather austere, soviet looking building but actually a very happy and peaceful place to enter this world. Having been born here, our kids have never really known anything other than life in Estonia except for extended trips to the UK during the rather long three month school summer holidays. Belonging to two countries definitely adds a bit of extra flavour to their lives!
Neither my husband or myself are native estonian speakers, so we’ve had to, ‘learn on the job’ as it were, while our children have been thrown in at the deep end by entering the estonian kindergarten system at three years old and learning the language while playing along side their friends. There is no question about it, children take to language learning much more easily than adults. They are like little sponges who just absorb all the information; while us adults struggle to get our heads round grammar rules, they just use it! Not fair!
So two of our children have graduated from kindergarten and taken the huge leap of 40 meters across the road to the local school. Both buildings can be seen in this picture, the kindergarten being the large building at the back left and the school on the right where they stay until they are sixteen years old

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Not a very large existence to grow up in but a secure one. We live in a town where everybody, knows everybody and you still find unattended babies sleeping outside shops in their prams!

I like the estonian education system. Starting pre-school at 6 and real school at 7 makes much more sense to me, allowing younger kids to learn through play and just be ‘young’! The school day is short, allowing time for other activities like craft and music school which is really big in Estonia. And guess what, even with this low key approach, Estonia does really well in the international statistics for education! So a good system all round I say! And where else would our kids learn to cross country ski from seven years old…

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Having said that, five months of snow is way too much for anyone and the kids get fed up being cooped up for so long during the coldest months and long for spring and warmer weather. There are only so many snow men that one can be bothered to build…I rather liked this one, though not our own!

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But summer does come in the end and the long days and three month summer holiday lend themselves to happy family camping holidays in unspoilt nature, bike rides along quiet roads and time to swim in the lakes…..bliss!

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