[lg policy] Estonian language =?windows-1252?Q?=96_?=factors governing usage, global recognition and loss

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 27 16:19:55 UTC 2011

Estonian language – factors governing usage, global recognition and loss (2)
Estonians Abroad 26 Jan 2011 EE Online

D.M. Helmeste, PhD, ( dhelmest at uci.edu )


Issues of usage, global recognition and official bilingualism status
are factors affecting language maintenance and decline. In the case of
the Estonian language, these factors and immigration overseas have the
potential to influence language decline or enhance usage.The desire to
enhance global usage through E-learning is also affected by the fact
that specific biologically-determined windows of opportunity exist for
optimal language learning, with only some methods achieving good
results. Considering the fact that fewer than 1.5 million people speak
Estonian globally, the path for Estonian language maintenance and
enhancement requires careful consideration.


What is the Estonian language? It is the official language of Estonia,
one of the smallest members of the European Union. Being part of the
Finno-Ugric language group, it has a grammar and vocabulary which are
very different from most Western European languages. An interesting
note for readers of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is the use of many
Estonian sounding words in the Elvish language developed by Tolkien.
Admiring the beauty of the language, it is said that Tolkien was
inspired to use many Finno-Ugric words for development of his “High
Elvish” (Drout 2007). In the 1980s, Estonian language loss was a
concern due to the dominance of the Russian language in the Baltic
States at that time. Today, fewer than 1.5 million people speak
Estonian globally (Sutrop 2000). For many people outside of Northern
Europe, Estonian is also the language of a country they have heard of
but essentially know very little about. Using standards outlined by
the UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, “Language
Vitality and Endangerment” report, (2003), the Estonian language has
room for improvement.

The purpose of this paper is to highlight some of the important
factors influencing Estonian language usage, global recognition and
survival today. Many of the arguments highlighted here will apply to
other non-globally dominant languages as well.

Estonian language, literature/publishing: issues of global recognition
and availability

Estonia, unlike England and the British Empire, has never had a
history of colonial expansion with densely-populated colonies speaking
the mother tongue globally. Instead, migration to foreign lands
generally follows a pattern of language decline by the third
generation and eventual cultural assimilation (Alba et al, 2002;
described in more detail below).Given the fact that there are very few
Estonian language speakers outside of Estonia, it is reasonable to
assume that promotion of more global interest and awareness of Estonia
(literary, culture and other) is likely to require access to
information in a globally dominant language. Global awareness of
Estonia is currently not large. As discussed by some Stanford
University educational instructors, it is not uncommon for American
high school students to be unaware of basic facts regarding Estonia
(“Most American high school students have never heard of Estonia. Some
don’t believe it exists”; Diel 2010). Global awareness of Estonia
affects Estonian language status, since it contributes to the number
of people willing to learn Estonian as a second language (as one
American high school student is likely to say: Why learn Estonian if I
am not even aware that Estonia exists?).

Mélitz (2007) has argued that authors of literary works wishing to
reach a world audience are privileged if their writings appear in a
globally dominant language (i.e.English as one example). It has been
calculated that accessibility to a literary work only in the original
non-dominant language diminishes the probability of survival globally
(Mélitz 2007). Thus, translations are needed to reach the global
audience. But non-Estonian publishers, needing to offset the costs of
translation, tend to confine translations to works that have sold
especially well in the original language. Thus the full scope of
important Estonian literature is not always available to non-Estonian
readers. Book publishers confining translations and printing to
best-sellers is not a new trend. Even four hundred years ago, Estonian
printing was governed by financial considerations. In Tallinn of the
1600s, the printing office was the printer’s private property, and
since the printer’s salary came from book sales, he was interested in
books which would generate a large number of orders. Thus printing of
clerical books in Estonian became an important source of income for
Tallinn printers at that time (Paul

Sofi Oksanen’s Finnish-Estonian novel “Puhastus” (Purge) is an example
of Estonian-related literature which has been well received globally
and been translated into multiple languages. Her book “Kõige taga oli
hirm” (Behind it all was fear – how Estonia lost its history and how
it is taken back) is also very important, but, consisting of a series
of essays discussing Estonian history, it has not yet been translated
into English or other globally dominant languages. Delay of
translation into English also delays world exposure to Estonian
history…a sad fact for the North American history student who claims
that Estonia is “interesting” because it is located in the Balkans
(blog comment in:
http://www.economist.com/blogs... ).

On the surface, publishing Estonian books (on history for example) in
English instead of Estonian, serves to diminish Estonian language
usage. But the long-term effects are increased global awareness of
Estonia and hence more interest in what Estonian writers have to say.
Thus the long-term result is potential prolongation of future Estonian
language usage and writing (compared to the situation where no
Estonian literature translations are available in globally-dominant
languages such as English).

But translations do not solve every problem. We have to consider that
some works, such as poetry, may lose significant value after
translation. A translation can only approximate the rhythms, sounds
and images of the original, and in the case of literature, these
aspects are essential. As Mélitz (2007) points out, we might as well
pretend that there would be no loss if all musical composers wrote for
the cello.

Estonian language in the work force: some factors governing usage
Estonian is the official language of Estonia, yet it cannot be used
for all important endeavors. This less than 100% utility of the
official Estonian language also affects its long-term survival.
Bilingualism and even first language choices for Europeans tend to be
governed by issues of practical utility, power and prestige rather
than culture, solidarity and proximity (Wright 2000). The following
examples illustrate some of this.


Estonia is a member of NATO. NATO official languages are French and
English but English is generally used as the working language. Thus
officers from countries joining NATO in the 1990s needed to learn
English (Wright 2000). English is the global language of air pilots
and is also the working language of NATO Consultation, Command and
Control Agency (NC3A). François Clerc, former Chief of Staff,
Eurocorps (Wright 2000) has made it clear that “no fighting force
could adopt the language policy of the institutions of the European
Union with its policy of equal status for each of the official
languages. Whereas government might be able to envisage working in
eleven languages and functioning through translation and interpreting,
this is not an option for an army when engaged in any kind of military
activity”(Wright 2000). “…going to war with comrades one was not sure
of understanding added to the risks and that the Eurocorps practice of
writing down orders in both languages to lessen the risk of
misunderstanding would not work in the midst of action. ….’il ne peut
imaginer avoir besoin d’un interprète pour transmettre un ordre’
(François Clerc, former Chief of Staff, Eurocorps, as quoted in Wright

For Estonia which has compulsory military training for college-aged
males, English language competency is thus clearly an asset for those
wishing to move up in the ranks in defense.


Important research endeavors today often require huge resources and
teams. Gone are the days when the studious scientist could work in his
basement and come up with major discoveries. Instead, science projects
often require university networks and resources in other countries.
Using cancer medical research as one example, it is indeed possible to
study cancer cells by yourself in your own tiny laboratory…but if you
can network with researchers globally, you have a much stronger
competitive advantage and access to expensive laboratory resources
that may not be available to you locally. It is also a fact that
current medical research investigating relationships between genotype
and disease require large numbers of participating subjects. Since it
is usually hard to find 2-7 thousand subjects locally, these research
studies tend to become global (see dbGaP Genotypes and Phenotypes
database, National Center for Biotechnology Information,
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ga... ). The global researcher is the one
that granting agencies are more likely to fund since this individual
is more likely to have the resources to do cancer research in a timely
and comprehensive manner.

The global language for science is English. One can discuss scientific
concepts in one’s native language, but in the end one’s research is
likely to need publishing in English. This is because most important
scientific journals today are in the English language. It has often
been remarked that many scientists also show a strong tendency not to
take notice of publications in any other language but English, and
that the tendency to publish in English stems from this reason as well
(Ammon 2001). The scientist therefore benefits from English language
skills to both read current scientific reports and to publish one’s
own reports in these journals. For the researcher today, what matters
most is rapid
communication. Thus, delays of scientific results and communication
caused by language translations are generally seen as an unnecessary
expense and waste precious time.

For the researcher, the need to focus on rapid results and saving
people’s lives leads to usage of a language of communication which has
the highest utility… this is currently English for science (Ammon
2001). Another example involves the nature of scientific conferences
today. A good
example is the Society for Neuroscience (www.sfn.org) in the USA which
attracts brain researchers from around the world to its annual
research conferences. Approximately 40% of its 40,000 members reside
outside the United States. Some of the Europeans who attend say that
they like to participate in the Society for Neuroscience conference
because it covers a wider breadth of topics compared to other meetings
(personal communication).

This helps to explain the huge attendance… typically 30,000 people on
average…as large as the population in some small towns! Yet, being an
American conference, the language of communication is always
English….hence scientists who do not have English language skills are
disadvantaged not only with regard to publication venues but also in
terms of global conferences and networking.

Interestingly, history shows us that while reasons for language
dominance tend to stay the same, the dominant language for science has
changed over time. Thus, a Nobel laureate’s remarks one hundred years
ago, when German (not English) was the dominant language of European
science (1999 translation: Cajal 1916). Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852 –
1934), Spanish histologist, neuroscientist, and Nobel laureate,
advised researchers to learn German for the following reasons: “The
German journals will be consulted regularly because it must be
admitted that Germany alone produces more new data than all the other
nations combined when it comes to biology. … Because a knowledge of
the German language is essential to keep abreast of the latest
scientific news, let us study it seriously, at least to the point of
being able to translate it adequately. … A knowledge of German is so
essential that today there is probably not a single Italian, English,
French, Russian, or Swedish investigator who is unable to read
monographs published in it. And because the German work comes from a
nation that may be viewed as the center of scientific production, it
has the priceless advantage of containing extensive and timely
historical and bibliographic information. …It is clearly not
necessary, however, for the investigator to speak and write all of the
European languages. It is enough for the Spaniard to translate the
following four: French, English, Italian, and German. It is
appropriate to call them the languages of learning, and virtually all
scientific work is published in one of them. … Therefore, if our
investigators want their research to be known and appreciated by the
specialists, they have no choice but to write and speak one of these
four European languages.” [Note: I have underlined words/phrases which
have special significance for predicting choice of the “global”
language of science. These are (1) the language of the country which
produces the most new data; (2) the language of the country which is
the center of scientific production; (3) the language which best
allows the scientist’s research results to be known. Thus it is likely
that globally dominant countries which lead in science will always
determine the language of choice for science.].

Universities in Estonia:

As for many other universities in the European Union, English is a
language often used in academic studies. The example of the University
of Tartu, Estonia’s earliest and largest university, serves to
illustrate the status of Estonian language usage at the university
level. At the bachelor’s degree level, the language of instruction is
Estonian, except for the English group of the Faculty of Medicine
which uses English for the first two years of the program (
http://www.ut.ee/en/studies/de... ). The three year program for
Business Administration (Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences) is given
in English (http://www.ut.ee/en/studies/de... ), and over ten Master’s
degree programmes are taught in English. They include: Applied
Measurement Science, Baltic Studies, Semiotics, Software Engineering,
Cyber Security, International Masters in Economy, State and Society,
among others (http://www.ut.ee/en/studies/de... ). In general, even
courses given in Estonian may sometimes have visiting professors who
give lectures in English.

Additionally, some courses may have Estonian texts but also newer
materials in English (personal communication). At the PhD level,
science research would usually require reading and publishing in
English-language journals (as described above). While use of
non-Estonian languages at the university level is not ideal for
Estonian language maintenance, it is a trend that is likely to
continue for the following reasons: (1) it serves to attract students
and distinguished faculty from other countries more easily; (2) it
facilitates collaborative work with other countries. English is the
current global language of science. One hundred years ago, it was

Because of Estonia’s small population and size, it benefits from
outside scientific and business collaborations more than a large
nation would. It is reasonable to assume that Estonian communications
with the outside world will always require non-Estonian language
skills since no outside territories are Estonian-speaking lands. As
already mentioned, Estonia is a very small country with no history of
colonial outposts (in contrast to the British Empire). Yes, Estonian
translators will be provided at governmental meetings, but they will
not be found in the street for everyday conversation.

Given the lengthy time and commitment that people need in order to
acquire good second language skills, careful thought is usually made
in second language choices. As mentioned above, decisions are usually
based on economic need, prestige and other such factors (Wright 2000).
The personal advantage that the learner can derive from having
acquired a second language generally drives individuals to learn the
language which is spoken by the greatest number of speakers and which
brings the greatest returns (Wright 2000). It is the rare individual
that can learn two or three extra languages very easily.

Thus, the Estonian language has the important disadvantage that it
cannot be the exclusive language of use, even within its own borders.
Estonian language overseas and “English only by third generation” in
North American culture

There are relatively small, thriving, expat Estonian communities
outside of Estonia. However, as Estonian-born parents die off, we are
faced with the North American rule of “English only by third
generation” (Alba et al, 2002). This concept is summarized as follows.
New immigrants to America learn English, but they generally prefer to
speak their native language at home. Their children thus generally
grow up as bilinguals, but many of them prefer English, even when
speaking to their immigrant parents. This second generation generally
speaks English at home when they establish their own households and
raise children. Consequently, by the third generation (U.S. born
children of U.S. born parents, at least one of whom had a foreign-born
parent), the general pattern is English monolingualism, and knowledge
of the mother tongue is fragmentary at best (Alba et al, 2002). It is
currently not unusual to find U.S. born children of Estonian-born
parents who are not 100% competent in the language (personal

These individuals may speak some Estonian but do not feel confident to
write or readily translate a letter into Estonian. This may stem in
part from the observation that children need to be exposed to the
foreign language for at least 30% of their waking time for optimal
foreign language acquisition (Genesee 2007). Clearly more research in
this area is warranted. Language specialists have also noted that
while children learn to speak a language relatively easily, learning
to read and write with proper grammar requires additional effort and
concentrated activities (Johansson 2006). Thus it may not be
surprising that there could be dissociation between speaking and
writing skills.

Consideration of recent brain research on language acquisition which
affects proposals for e-learning and bilingualism in general

Recent discussions in Estonia have included the issue of Estonian
citizens moving to other countries to work. How will their children
manage to learn Estonian, being so far away from their native land?
E-Learning is an attractive option, considering that few expat
Estonian communities exist globally. Certainly IT approaches have been
pursued for a diversity of topics, including medicine (Morin et al,
2004; Tang & Helmeste 2000).

Luckily, brain researchers have made great progress on this topic in
recent years. For example, Patricia Kuhl’s research on foreign
language acquisition has attracted the attention of Microsoft’s Bill
Gates, and for good reason. It gives clues into which teaching
techniques are likely to succeed and whether e-learning will work

In humans, a sensitive period exists between birth and 7 years of age
when language is learned effortlessly (Meltzoff et al, 2009). After
puberty, new language learning is more difficult and native-language
levels are rarely achieved (Johnson et al,1989). For both adults and
children, social interaction is a very powerful catalyst for foreign
language learning (Kuhl 2004, 2010; Meltzoff et al, 2009). This may
not be a big surprise since in formal school settings, individual
face-to-face tutoring has long been known to be the most effective
form of instruction (Bloom 1984). Thus, new computer learning
technologies are being developed which incorporate “social” elements
to improve learning. This is important since research has shown that
young infants can learn foreign language material from a human tutor
but not from a television or audiotaped presentations (Kuhl 2004,
2010). Why social interaction (live foreignlanguage exposure) is so
much more effective for language acquisition, is still unclear.

People engaged in social interaction are highly aroused and attentive.
General arousal mechanisms might enhance learning and memory (Kuhl
2004). The stress of public speaking is associated with enhanced
memory and increased levels of the stress hormone,cortisol (Quas et
al, 2010). Other mechanisms may be involved as well (Frith & Frith
2010). One study has pointed out that visual observance of a speaker’s
face and lip movements aided foreign language learning (Davis & Kim

In any case, multiple language learning is well-known not to be easy.
As shown in the USA, the majority of the population is unlikely to
learn a second language unless a strong need and interest exist. Even
then competencies vary between individuals. Segments of the population
with poorer working memory (due to age or even genetic factors) are
unlikely to achieve 100% competency in a second or third language
(Andersson 2010; Kyttälä et al, 2010). In any case, a lengthy learning
period is involved for learning to speak, write and read. Dyslexics
(approximately 10% of the population; Logan 2009) for example, have
been noted to perform poorly in second language acquisition (Johansson
2006). Other examples exist as well.

Will dual Estonian-Russian official language status aid the usage and
survival of the Estonian language?

Official status for Russian in Estonia has been advocated by some. One
claim is that it may serve to “prevent the split of Estonia”. Others
find the opposite (that multi-language use serves to split a country
along linguistic lines in times of elections; Ukraine and Latvian
elections in 2010 are examples). Official bilingualism (see Postimees
article: ÜRO: Eesti peaks olema kakskeelne,
http://www.postimees.ee/?id=32... ) of any sort is unlikely to aid
survival of the Estonian language because it would increase the
percentage of individuals opting for non-Estonian language usage.
Certainly this was the experience in Quebec (Canada) when I lived
there in the 1960s and early 1970s. Before Quebec’s Bill 101 (La
charte de la langue française; http://www.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/eng... ;
described below) was passed, public signs were often bilingual (French
– English). Inhabitants of Montreal could get by very well in either
French or English alone and did so. Many Montreal residents thus never
took learning the other official language very seriously since they
didn’t need to.

Thus I lived on the “English” side of Montreal (where virtually no
French speakers were found) and “French” districts were found in other
parts of Montreal. Only the city center was bilingual. At no time did
the “English” Montrealers feel integrated with the “French”
Montrealers. As Sancton (1985) has written, “…the French and English
in Montreal formed two distinct societies that seldom came into
contact with one another”. It was also the case that, when given the
choice, many new immigrants preferred to enroll their children in
English (not French) language schools (Sancton 1985). Only when Bill
101 was passed in Quebec to promote “French-only” public signage, did
Montrealers (like me) wake up to the fact that our French language
skills needed to be improved.

Mathematical modeling of endangered languages, study of the effects of
bilingualism and social structure (Abrams & Strogatz 2003; Minett &
Wang 2008) have provided insight into the factors governing language
maintenance and decline. The basic model predicts that whenever two
languages compete for speakers, one language will eventually become
extinct. In Estonia, decline of Russian language usage (Barré 2010)
will not cause extinction since a large population of Russian speakers
exists in neighboring Russia.

In Estonia, decline of Estonian speakers (bilingual or not) will
result in extinction, since no other nation contains a large enough
population of Estonian language speakers to compensate for language
decline in Estonia itself. Rather, the general rule is “English only
by third generation” once people migrate overseas (Alba et al, 2002).
The observation that small, culturally isolated populations can often
maintain a minority language for many generations (i.e. maintenance of
Pennsylvania German among the Mennonite and Amish in North America
since their arrival from Europe in the 17th century) is very dependent
on their cultural isolation and intergenerational group cohesiveness
(Minett & Wang 2008). Abrams and Strogatz (2003) have pointed out that
French Quebec is an example where the language decline is slowed by
strategies such as policy-making, education and advertising (in
essence what they consider to be increasing the endangered language’s

In Estonia’s case, being part of the European Union and wanting to
engage in collaborations globally, the population will always have
varying degrees of bilingualism, trilingualism or more. However, this
is different from official state bilingualism, which, because of the
special circumstances of Estonian language speakers, would only serve
to hasten extinction of the Estonian language. When Estonian language
declines, so does Estonian culture and Estonian language job
opportunities (literature, Estonian language theatre, native songs,
Estonian translator job opportunities, etc.). In any case, making
Estonia officially bilingual (Russian-Estonian or Estonian-“other more
dominant language”) plus adding the necessary English language
requirements (of English for NATO cooperation and science
competitiveness, as outlined above) would make Estonia trilingual in
practice…again, a factor which serves to hinder Estonian language
development, not promote it.

Significantly, there are well-known examples of nations adhering to
the one nation – one language rule. One example involves the huge
Mexican communities in the southern USA. These Americans speak Spanish
at home and have the opportunity for frequent visits with relatives in
nearby Mexico. However, there is no push in the USA to make Spanish an
official second language. These people are welcome to speak Spanish at
home but cannot expect diverse job opportunities and other such
benefits unless they learn English. In Germany, Angela Merkel has been
recently quoted in Postimees (October 17, 2010; Merkel: Saksamaa
ühiskond on läbi kukkunud; http://www.postimees.ee/?id=32... ) as
saying that immigrants are welcome to Germany but they must learn
German. Likewise, Quebec (Canada) with its special status history (of
a nation within a nation), is known for its Bill 101 which initiated
“French only” signage in Quebec as well as other French language
rights. It rightly worried that its population of over 7 million
French speakers might decline in the huge sea of North American
English speakers, if “French only” legislature was not initiated.

Decline of the French language in Quebec will not cause the extinction
of the French language since French is widely spoken elsewhere on the
planet. Demise of the Estonian language in Estonia (total population
approximately 1.3 million) will cause its extinction since overseas
Estonian speakers follow the trend of “English only by third
generation” (Alba et al, 2002). Thus Estonia needs careful evaluation
of its language path and very quickly….scientific research indicates
that only specific windows in a person’s lifespan are available for
optimal language learning … and only some methods achieve good


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of the list as to the veracity of a message's contents.
Members who disagree with a message are encouraged to post a rebuttal,
and to write directly to the original sender of any offensive message.
 A copy of this may be forwarded to this list as well.  (H. Schiffman,

For more information about the lgpolicy-list, go to

This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list