My first Estonian classes (aka: Welcome back to kindergarten!)
In my post on resources for learning Estonian, I mentioned the government’s Welcoming Programme, which includes an 80-hour beginner’s Estonian course.
I’m now one week and two lessons in, and it’s so much fun!
There are about 15 people in the class (we lost about a third between the first and second session) and the nationalities vary – Turkey, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and the UK are all represented, along with another couple of places I’ve probably forgotten about (as per usual, I am the only Australian in the room).
All of us are complete beginners (it’s an A1 class, on the European A1-C2 scale), which means the mistakes are many and the laughs are plentiful. Every laugh is friendly, though, as we all know we’re just as bad as everyone else and soon they’re probably going to be laughing at our mistakes.
The teacher’s also a character, and loves poking fun at us. (Last lesson she taught us a handful of verbs, and then went around the room asking us what we were doing. If someone answered with something they weren’t doing, like running, standing, eating, etc., she would accuse them of lying (in Estonian: sa valetad!) and proceed to teach us the first-person conjugation of the verb for lying (valetan), along with the verb for what we were really doing so we could answer truthfully.
While it’s great to finally be putting some of my baby Estonian to practise, what’s surprised me the most is how much fun our classes are.
In praise of mediocrity
A few weeks ago, a read a short New York Times essay titled ‘In Praise of Mediocrity‘, which discussed how hobbies have all but vanished in our Western culture, which values expertise and excellence above enjoyment.
I don’t know about you, but I see this everywhere in my life. When I took up ballet again for about six months in 2011-2012, rather than just enjoying it, I started asking how long it would take me to reach a professional standard (keeping in mind that during the 12 years I spent dancing through school, I never came close to having a professional level of ability. Nor was I interested in it – back then, you see, I knew how to have hobbies). Did I want to become a professional? No – I just wanted to see how good I could get.
When I took up karate at university, I wanted to see how fast I could get my black belt. When I started making my own moisturisers years ago, I began looking into how I could turn it into a business. When I started trying to write fiction again last year (not having written any fiction in over a decade), I started Google-ing how I could become a six-figure self-published author. Whenever I’ve taken up any type of exercise regimen, the focus has been on how to look like an Instagram fitness influencer.
Even when things started out as being ‘just for fun’, my focus shifted very quickly – either to how I could earn an income from an activity, or how I could become the best at it (or, if not the best, extremely good).
The only exception in my adult life has been gymnastics, as I started adult gymnastics earlier this year in Australia (note that I haven’t continued it here because the only place I’ve found that offers this in Tallinn is too far away, being all of a 15 minute Taxify from work).
Why was gymnastics an exception?
Because I am so laughably bad at it that the thought of excellence is like the punchline of a joke. You see, gymnastics requires upper body strength, and I can’t even do a push up.
The other part was that it was fun – you get to bounce on trampolines and do handstands (it took me over a month to do a handstand, by the way – another point in the ‘laughably bad’ column) and cartwheels. You experience how ridiculously hard it is to stay balanced on a balance beam, even though everything you’re doing (like the highly complicated activity known as ‘walking’) is simple on the ground. You fall over constantly (at least I do), which means it’s impossible to take yourself seriously.
It’s like being a kid again – spinning, jumping and getting carpet burn on your face when you face plant.
A1 language classes = kindergarten
This brings be back to my Estonian classes. In the European language proficiency system, the levels are:
- A1 – Elementary (Complete beginner)
- A2 – Elementary 2
- B1 – Intermediate 1
- B2 – Intermediate 2
- C1 – Advanced 1
- C2 – Advanced 2 (Fluent)
Because A1 content needs to be so basic, the classes themselves end up being a bit silly. In fact, some of the highly advanced academic work I’ve had to do to date includes:
- Learning and remembering everyone’s names with a lucky dip where everyone got someone’s name written on a bit of paper, then had to ask ‘who are you?’, ‘what’s your name?’, and ‘are you NAME?’ around the room to find them.
- Telling the time in Estonian from clock faces in our textbook.
- Asking and answering very difficult maths questions, like 8 + 3 =
- Getting called liars when we’ve run out of vocabulary that describes what were actually doing
It’s awesome! In fact, I think learning Estonian is the first genuine hobby I’ve had in years.
When you’re forced back into your childhood due to a lack of ability, it’s impossible to take yourself seriously. It’s also impossible not to have fun.
So if you are a new Estonian resident wanting to learn Estonian, I highly recommend the Welcoming Programme’s language course – I can’t vouch for its efficacy yet, but at a minimum it’s good for a few laughs.