Linguistic Ghettos


Following the early days of the Georgian crisis, an Estonian news special sought to find out what Estonia’s Russian population thought about the Russian presence in South Ossetia and Georgia. They discovered that many of the Russians in Eastern Estonia have been getting their news directly from Russian state-influenced news sources rather than from international or Estonian TV stations. Thus their opinions tended to reflect disbelief that the world would be reacting so strongly to good-willed Russian attempts at peace-keeping in anarchistic/tyrannical parts of the world.

One of the reasons that given that these Russians have been getting their news from Russian sources is that Estonia has not yet provided news in the Russian language (for the record, I have seen one channel which offers an Estonian based Russian language program). This points to one of the weaknesses in Estonia’s conservative language laws. By allowing for only one official language (as opposed to recommendations widely accepted within the EU for primary and secondary state languages) and setting the bar for proficiency so high, Estonia has driven some of its less linguistically able minority groups back to their familiar sources. Rather than encouraging integration into Estonian culture, these laws are reinforcing a linguistic ghetto.

I am highly sympathetic to the Estonian need to preserve language and culture while surrounded and infiltrated by larger and sometimes predatory languages (speaking of both English and Russian here). However, I think that defensive efforts to preserve cultural and linguistic purity will only backfire given that the nation is already composed of a large minority and draws heavily on foreign investment.

Linguistic integration is in fact happening spontaneously among younger populations who realize that multiple languages only benefit their chances for prosperity and social mobility. This is true in both Estonian and Russian populations. Conservative language laws in these fields are really a moot point. Where they do have an effect is among populations whose language learning abilities have stagnated, those in the later half of their life. This population will remain with us for many years yet and naturally will ally with whoever most warmly receives them. Given the current situation in Eastern Europe, can Estonian lawmakers really afford not to reach out?