The following blog entry has been republished here courtesy of Itching for Eestimaa.
I am so frustrated with the state of my Estonian language skills. Frustrated, angry. I’m angry at myself. I’m simultaneously lying flat on my face in the ring and yelling at myself to get up. Get up off that mat, Giustino, get up!
You might think of the main facets of language ability — speaking, reading, writing, and listening comprehension — as a sort of regatta where the sailboats begin the race and, though one may pull ahead of the other from time to time, they are generally neck and neck on their way to the highly anticipated climax, the finish line of fluency.
But it’s not really like that. No, language abilities are like the tides: the words flow in and the words flow out. My vocabulary has expanded and contracted multiple times, each time gaining new words and expressions, only to later lose some of them. I know other foreign guys here who don’t even bother with the Estonian language. I think of them as perpetual tourists: “I’m on vacation, darling, and besides, all the help speak English.” There are still others who have acquired fluency, who quip little indigestible sayings — they are called kõnekäänud — to you that make little sense, even if you do manage to translate them, unfold them, stake them out, and examine them under a microscope.
Take Nokk kinni, saba lahti. What does this mean? “Imagine you are a bird,” says a friend (and it’s always animals with these Estonians). “You are pecking away with your beak, your nokk, but if you peck too hard, then,” she lifts up a foot, “your beak gets stuck and your tail, your saba, is lahti, exposed.” But it doesn’t end there. “Then the bird struggles to get free,” she leans in to demonstrate, “and it pulls and pulls and pulls, and then, bang!,” she tosses her head back, “the bird loses its balance.” I stare. “It’s like you try to fix one problem, and you just wind up with another problem,” she tries again. “Ok,” I nod. I’m still waiting to use this expression in real life, but the best I’ve done so far is quote from a gin advertisement: nokk džinni, saba lahti.