Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Russian v Estonian (Languages)

Having lived in the Baltic States for the last four years I've come to realize what a useful lingua franca Russian still is. Not a popular statement with some, no doubt. But the fact remains, since I've moved between Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, eaten in enough restaurants, had enough run ins with police for minor traffic infringements (I was never once stopped by the police in 15 years of driving in England; in the first year of driving in Lithuania I lost count once I'd got into double figures) and tried to chat up one or two girls, it's become abundantly clear that Russian language skills are a must have here. Still.
The being held up for half an hour at the Lithuanian Polish border by officials suspicious of my UK passport and LT registered car ('I think he's from the Ukraine' one was heard to say, in Lithuanian) in pre-schengen days could so easily have been avoided; though I could have just spoken Lithuanian to them.
Here in Tallinn it's a bit different 'cos the standard of English is higher than in Riga or Vilnius (both of which were also good) in my experience, and also since Russian has a political connotation to it that's, if certainly present, not quite so seemingly contentious in the other two cities. But there's still a sizeable Russian speaking population here. Only yesterday I was surprised when the Russian shop assistant at my local Comarket perked up and said 'pazhalasta' in reply to my 'spaseeboh'; she had assume I was Estonian and used the standard 'aitäh'... since I'm neither Estonian or Russian it's not an issue for me and I give both languages equal footing.
There are few things more turgid or egregious in my opinion than ex-pats pontificating about Russians, or the relative situations of the Russian and Estonian languages here, seemingly almost always people who can speak neither language.
For the people that live here, sure it's a live issue. For outsiders, STFU. I don't think British people would think much of someone coming over there and gobbing off about Northern Ireland or, Scottish independence or the position of the muslim community in the UK regardless of their views.
So, I'm learning Russian and making really good progress. In fact in some ways my Russian is better than my Estonian already, even after just two weeks of learning (as opposed to a year and a half of Estonian). How so? Well, for English speakers, Russian is easier than Estonian, of that I'm convinced. There are plenty of cognates, and it is a very efficient language. But more than that (all foreign languages are hard in the end!) I've got hold of the Michel Thomas courses. For those not familiar, he was a language teacher who set up a school in Beverley Hills and whose clients were the great and the good, although he'd come from a Polish-Jewish background and fought in the French Resistance during WW2. In fact his discovery of the ability to block out pain whilst being tortured by the Gestapo was something he applied later to the language learning practice, which is effortless and certainly painless. No myriad of teacher's and student's books with catatonically dull or irrelevant subject matter and opaque grammatical explanations, no notes, no memorizing. His method's a bit like marmite, it tends to polarize people between likes and hates and it has its detractors. I'd done the German one some years ago and so was already a fan, and so I tried the Russian course, which is not done by the great man himself (he passed on a few years ago) but uses the same method and has an engaging lady teacher. One of the two students is intensely irritating, sitting  a bit close to the microphone I think, and abusing Russian pronunciation horribly, but not enough to put me off. I'll see how I go next time I'm in Comarket....

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