Language Monthly, November 2020, Estonian

Tallinn, so close and yet so far

Given that every post about learning Estonian starts by explaining why one is learning Estonian, I would follow suit.

Why Estonian? For me, there is nothing exotic about learning Estonian. It is the closest non Indo-European language in my vicinity. Estonia is a neighbouring country: it will take me just a couple of hours to get there. There are numerous linguistic parallels between Estonian and Latvian, as well with Slavic and Germanic languages. In fact, when I am in Latvia, I see written Estonian daily, as most groceries and foodstuffs one buys in the Baltics carry labels at least in five languages, Estonian included. For me, learning Estonian is natural and logical.

Today, I share some links that I found particularly useful. I have used materials both in English and in Russian, which are probably two main target groups: English for international learners, Russian for local minorities.

Three articles (in Russian) on learning Estonian with plethora of resources for beginners and intermediates, including dictionaries, grammar manuals, and texts, through the Language Heroes library (which has resources on 60 languages).

Two articles on the first steps would be interesting for those who learn through the English medium. They discuss some Estonian grammar features, such as two possible cases for the direct object, considered ‘odd’.

Frankly, I do not like grammar explanations given in most English-language resources, as they tend to over-complicate. Yes, Estonian has 14 cases (sort of), but only the first three really matter and form the basis for the remaining eleven, which are logical and regular. Learning them is not more difficult than to learn “on the table” but “in the cupboard” in English, just instead of prepositions, Estonian uses case endings.

An online course Keeleklikk, which exists in English and in Russian both for the beginners and intermediates, has been sponsored by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Science and the European Social Fund. It is said that over 50 thousand learners have followed the course.

I like the course a lot. The sort videos are hilarious, new grammar is introduced through funny model sentences, which are drilled until you recall them, there are many exercises and tests, you can practice speaking with a computer, which is called Samuel and has a deadpan humour, and you can write letters to a real Estonian e-teacher, who corrects them and replies to you within a couple of days. All this is entirely for free!

Among the things I dislike: grammar is explained in a haphazard sequence, and is unnecessarily over-simplified. For example, the three main cases – nimetav (from nimi, ‘name’), omastav (from oma, ‘own’), and osastav (from osa, ‘part’), are referred to as 1st, 2nd, an 3rd form, which does not help understanding their function and usage.

I used an old, the 1980s, grammar book to supplement the course and to inject some logic into my grammar learning.

But my favourite ever explanation of Estonian grammar comes from a radio series Как это по-эстонски? (‘How you say in Estonian?’). It consists of two series of short episodes, some 70 in total, each dedicated to some language feature: e.g. past tenses (in Estonian, there are three), comparisons, conditionals, case formation, use of cases… Here are the complete archives of the first and the second series.

I have become an absolute fan of the radio teacher, Jelena Tammjärv (Еленa Таммъярв), who is brilliant. A native Russian speaker, she has learned Estonian and now seeks to transmit to her pupils not only her knowledge, but also her enthusiasm and fondness for the language.

And yes, her explanation of the use of omastav and osastav for the direct object is so crystal clear and logical, I really pity those who are lead to believe this usage is something odd.

In praise of language maintenance

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no day without a word

How can I learn multiple languages at once? I think this question misses the point.

Many of us, language enthusiasts, at some point engaged in learning several languages simultaneously, with various degrees of success. Based on this experience, some have sworn ‘never again’, while others saw the light and decided this was the way to go.

For me, a more useful question is ‘how can I maintain multiple languages at once?’, which all of us face on a regular basis.

With languages, unless you deliberately maintain your hard acquired skills, you forget. Lest you forget, you need to maintain; and if you want to advance, you need to improve.

I think the secret to successfully maintaining multiple languages at once is leveraging the difference.

The languages should be different from each other. Your level in these languages should be different. Your ambitions and goals in these languages should be different. The time of the day when you study these languages should be different, the skills you practice every day and the activities you do should differ, too.

Let me give a concrete example with the three languages I am improving, maintaining, and learning right now: English, Italian, and Estonian.

Although I use other languages with some degree of regularity, this year I deliberately chose to focus on only these three. I aim at engaging with each of them daily, and I need to fit my language studies into my otherwise busy schedule.

The three languages belong to different language families: English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, both are Indo-European, whereas Estonian is a totally different story: it’s Finno-Ugric.

For English, my goal is to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve that, I am learning idioms and will move to phrasal verbs in July and August. When I read in English, I write out words and expressions that I liked and would like to use. I have started doing a hard but extremely useful exercise of shadowing native English speakers.

Time-wise, I always read my English book in the morning: on a good day, I might have a 30 minutes sting before work; often, only 15 minutes, which is plenty to learn at least one new expression. At the week-end, I would spend some time in the afternoon writing out new idioms, revising and recalling my expressions and old idioms. I would try to shadow at least once a week, usually in the evening.

For Italian, my goal is maintaining and reviving. I used to speak Italian daily, which is not a case now. Last year, due to my intense focus on Spanish and multiple trips to Spain, my Italian began to suffer from interference – hence this year’s decision to remedy the situation.

To do so, I read for pleasure in Italian every evening (which has a huge advantage that I fall asleep thinking in Italian). Occasionally, I write out Italian expressions and idioms. I also have been learning one Italian poem a week, at the weekend.

Over summer holidays, I will work on revising some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar, such as tenses, irregular verbs, and subjunctive. Finally, when I switch my focus in English from vocabulary to pronunciation and intonation, I will switch my focus in Italian to vocabulary.

For Estonian, I am learning the language from scratch. I started last year, learning the bare basics prior to my trip to Estonia, and doubled down this year, following an online course for beginners.

I do my Estonian lesson every day, just after finishing my work. I go through the lesson, do exercises, and learn a few new words.

I have found that a half an hour a day of Estonian provides a perfect transition from work to home mood, since engrossing myself in Estonian grammar and grappling with new vocabulary is such a contrast with my work activities.

At the week-end, I spend time revising, recalling, listening and writing down useful sentences and expressions.

A final tip. In language learning, regularity is the key. If work gets busy or life happens, I might miss a day for one of these three languages, but I try to never miss more than one day for any of the three, and I never have a day when I don’t spend some time with at least one of them.

If time is really shot, I would spend as little as five minutes reading one page, learning one expression, listening to one dialogue.  No day without a line, no day without a word.

Kaheksa, üheksa

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üks, kaks …

These are not incantations, but words ‘eight’ and ‘nine’ in Estonian, a language I am learning.

While learning numbers, I had a huge difficulty remembering the words for ‘eight’ and ‘nine’: which was which?

Then it dawned on me that inside kaheksa hides kaks, ‘two’, in its form kahe, and inside üheksa hides üks, ‘one’, in its form ühe. Clearly, kaheksa (8), was constructed as ‘2 (kahe) out of 10′, and üheksa (9) as ‘1 (ühe) out of 10′.

But ‘ten’ in Estonian is kümme, where does this mysterious -ksa come from?

It took me some time and effort to find reliable sources of information, given that my Estonian is basic and I have only faded memories of Hungarian, another Finno-Ugric language on my list.

Estonian etymological dictionary gives etymology for kaheksa and üheksa, and proposes two explanations: -ksa derives from *detsa, a proto-Iranian (hence Indoeuropean) word for ten (compare word for ‘ten’ in other Indo-European languages). Alternatively, –ksa is interpreted as an old negation form.

Curiously, it is believed that seitse ‘seven’ might be a loanword from Baltic or Slavic languages, which are of the Indo-European family (compare Russian семь, Czech sedm, and Latvian septiņi), whereas numbers one to six are of of Finno-Ugric  or Uralic origin.

This heterogeneity of construction and origins of the first ten numbers is sometimes interpreted to suggest a base-6 system among ancestors of Finno-Ugric people — apparently, a heated linguistic debate.