I can't tell you how often I have heard people ask why I "bothered" to learn Estonian.
After all, it is a language spoken by maybe a million people worldwide. It will get me to precisely one place, here, and since I am part of a tandem, likely only once.
Plus, they tell me, everyone speaks English there. Or at least Russian. I shouldn't get language at all, because that will mean I will be unlikely to be promoted if my last evaluation before promotion is from language.
And all of that is true. Including the promotion part...I was up for promotion this time and was passed over.
I would still do it all again.
I think it is important to study the languages of the countries we go to. I think it sends an important message to that country about the value we place on our relationship with them. I think it makes me a better officer.
But I think it is especially important here.
The Estonian language means a lot to the Estonian people. It is a vital kernal of their culture that they clung to fiercely through occupation, through when they could be jailed for speaking it. It is a vital part of their identity. As an Indian who comes from a people whose language is dead for just those reasons, maybe I get it even more personally.
I also think, as an officer, that I would be limited in my effectiveness without it. Yes, people here speak English or Russian. That is true. But those who speak English are either very young, very well off, or both.
So my options here, if I actually spoke Russian (I know basic pleasantries, and I use them, but I don't know much more than that), would be either to communicate with the young or well off only, which limites what I can know about the country and the people, or I can force them to interact with me in the language of their oppressors. The language that was spoken by the soldiers who came into their homes and took as much as 10% of the population away, never to be seen again. Most people here lost family, and the pain of that is still palpable.
I can't fathom forcing them to speak to me in a language that brings of that kind of pain.
It is true that the reverse is that I cannot communicate with perhaps 8% of the population, ethic Russian speakers who speak neither English nor Estonian. My building's housekeeper is one such person. I stammer my pleasantries with her and play chirades. Ideally, I wish I spoke both languages. My wife will, and I am jealous of that.
But given the option of only one of the two, I would choose again what I choose.
Because I believe it matters.
Because when I went to the grocery store today, and spoke to the woman behind the meat counter, it was clear she only spoke Estonian. And I made mistakes (really I wish the words for hungry and funny were a little more different), muttered, apologized, and corrected myself. And she said to me not to apologize, that I was doing fine and that she understood me completely.
And I could see that it meant something to her that I would learn their difficult language and try to use it with her. She was kind and forgiving of my imperfections because I was trying to respect her and her culture.
And THAT is the message that I hope using the language here sends to the people of Estonian.
That we respect them and their culture and their history enough to try.