Saturday, September 03, 2011


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.


foxlangserv said...

I have enjoyed reading your recent posts about language. I live in the Czech Republic and have faced similar challenges learning the local language. I get similar reactions, "Why do you bother?", or "Everyone speaks English way better than you can ever hope to learn such a difficult language, so what's the point".

The point is exactly what you said. It is important to speak the language of the country you call home, even if it is for a short time. The message learning the local language sends to the locals is a positive one. It was comments like the ones l listed and you mentioned that motivated me to keep trying.

I could especially relate to your post about the movers saying "they" said that you didn't speak a word of Estonian. I found myself in a similar situation when I visited the doctor for a routine onboarding physical for a new job. When I started speaking Czech, the doctor was surprised and said, "But I was told you didn't speak Czech". Although it was written on the resume that got me hired! After 14 years I still get people trying to switch to English when they hear my accent. I realize that most of the time they are just trying to accommodate, but it still stings my pride. I suppose some things will never change. Good for you for not listening to the nay sayers.

Consul-At-Arms said...

Foreign Service Officers are more effective, in the short term, when they have a working command of the language of country-of-assignment.

Long term, that language ability forms part of the Foreign Service's bank of intellectual capital that underpins its ability to bring value-added to diplomacy and to policy-makers abroad and in Washington. Kudos to you.

p.s. I didn't get promoted this time either, for much the same reason as you. Better luck (to us both) next year.

The Chief said...

Your understanding of why it's important to speak the native language, particularly in a country like Estonia where their language was outlawed for decades by an occupier, shows an admirable appreciation and respect for the local culture. This is even more commendable after realizing that you've sacrificed getting tenured sooner in order to maintain that respect. I'm taking the FSOA this winter so I'm not in the system and don't know all the intricacies, but I would imagine that someone who puts (1) respect for the local culture and history; (2) Americans' reputations in general; and (3) communication skills ahead of individual goals would be an ideal candidate for tenure.

Also, thanks for the comment on my meager blog. I hadn't checked it in almost a year and was honored to find out that you somehow managed to find it and read my posts.

Digger said...

Thanks for that. I am tenured, and I have been promoted before, but I got passed over for promotion this time. Hopefully next year.