Questions and answers: talking to kids in Estonian

"Do you speak to your kids in Estonian only?" Anonymous

When my son was born 5 years ago, I did. For over two years I did.

I didn't have many hesitations about it at first. I was brought up bilingual (Estonian on my mother's side and Russian on my father's) and I was well familiar with Estonia's culture of bilingual families in general - on how it generally takes longer for kids to start talking, but how it then usually helps with all sorts of other learning later in life; and I knew what were the recommended practices in terms of bilingual families, ie it's best to stick to the approach of one-parent-one-language.

But it did feel somewhat tedious to be talking in Estonian to this little bundle of arms and legs who never talked back to me. He was a baby - babies grunt and cry and burp and fart, at first kind of regardless of their language and their nationality. Oh, and! Bear in mind that apart from occasional phone/Skype conversations with relatives, I never talked in Estonian to anyone else.

When my son turned two I started having serious concerns about continuing to talk to him in Estonian and about his language development in general. He just... wasn't doing it. I did keep telling myself to be patient and that it was going to take time, and that he was going to get there eventually, but... just wasn't working. We didn't know why, but he just wasn't talking.

And so sometime around his third birthday I think I started to gradually 'pop' English words in there with him. Simple words: dog, cat, poop, eat. I was still talking in Estonian, but the key words I was doubling up in English, too.

And then last year I dropped Estonian entirely, and stuck to English instead.

The thing is, it turned out that all along The Kid had carried a birth injury around in his brain, something none of us had been aware of until late last year an MRI scan was carried out. It is difficult to say at this stage what it affects and what it doesn't, but it is likely that the lag in his language development has come from that birth injury, so to me personally it was a clear-cut decision that I was going to stay away from Estonian altogether and that all his language was going to become English-based instead.

It has helped that it's become somewhat clear that at least for the foreseeable future my family is going to stay in New Zealand, and so in terms of his education and friends and whatnot, he is not going to need much other than English to get by, and I so in terms of dropping Estonian my point was simply to make sure that what he has is very clear and solid and straightforward.

One language. English. With everyone. (Or like I had written just a few weeks ago: talking in one, I thought, beats not talking in two.)

And so because of all that, The Girlie has been brought up in an English-only environment. It's just simpler that way: if I am going to talk in English-only to one, I may as well do it to both of them.

And so that's a story on how an expatriate Estonian comes to lose an Estonian family-language within her own family :) 

Though on the other hand: it's not all lost yet. There's still "Lotte" DVD's my kids occasionally see :), and an Estonian grandmother who talks to them on Skype, and at some point in the future we may re-visit some key words in Estonian, we'll see how time goes and what our family becomes to look like, but... for the moment it's English only. And I'm quite comfortable with that.


  1. I think the main idea here is being comfortable with whatever you decide.
    It annoys me so much when my relatives nag me about teaching my son Estonian. I talk English to my husband, at work, in shops.. And I tried talking to him in Estonian but it felt weird and uncomfortable. That is silly but if you're used to one language, it's not easy to jump back to the other. And that would mean my husband could not understand what I'm talking to the baby. You have the added obstacle but I think many Estonians living abroad face the same dilemma. I also think that because he is living here and will be needing English, I will do what I can to give him some basic Estonian but won't stress myself out. I think you're doing an awesome job and with your kids :)

    1. Why do your relatives nag you? Just out of interest.

    2. They think I'm sort of keeping him from something. That I just can't be bothered. They way they say it makes me really uncomfortable. Haven't figured out why it's such a problem for them but.. relatives.. :)