an unusual question


American literary greats on skis in Shruns, Austria, circa 1926. Ernest Hemingway is second from left, John Dos Passos is second from right. While being masters of the English language, Hemingway spoke fluent Spanish, and Dos Passos was fluent in French.

THERE ARE THREE TEACHERS at our daughter Maria’s preschool: Darja, Leena, and Natalia. Each of them differs in appearance and temperament, though they are as a rule kind, generous, and caring toward our daughter Maria, who will leap into each one’s embrace, as if throwing herself into the loving arms of a favorite aunt.   

These three teachers are similar in another way. They are all Russian speakers. This is a special preschool group, where at least half of the children speak Russian with their parents. And so little Maria has learned to shout out “Dasvidanya” to her teachers when she leaves in the evening, and has even begun to overhear people in the streets of Tartu who are speaking this other language.

“Hey, Daddy, look over there! Those are people who speak po russkie. Privet! Kak dela?!”

While little Maria’s world of languages continues to swell, she has noticed something else. Her father speaks Estonian with her teachers and they speak Estonian with him, even though he speaks English at home, and the teachers speak Russian among each other and with some children. Her father speaks Estonian with the other parents who visit the school, no matter what language they speak at home. Whenever one of them sees another, the default greeting is “Tere.”

One day recently, little Maria presented her father with a most curious and unusual question.

Issi,” she said. “Daddy. If you can speak Estonian with Darja, Leena, and Natalia, then how come you don’t speak Estonian with me?”

“Because I speak English,” I answered her immediately. “That’s why I speak English with you.”

“But you can also speak Estonian,” Maria pressed on, with a strained lilt in her voice. “I know you can. At preschool, at the shop, when we go to the movies. You speak Estonian with everybody! And I speak Estonian even better than English! So why don’t you just speak Estonian with me?”

She blinked at me excitedly from beneath her chestnut bangs as if to say, “No more English! Problem solved!”

“Because I speak English,” I said.

And that’s all I said, really, because I still haven’t come up with an easy answer yet. What should I say? That my Estonian isn’t so wonderful and that I’m not fluent? That I don’t like the letter Õ? That hasn’t stopped many emigre Estonians from raising their children speaking English, or Swedish, or any other language in their adopted countries. They will speak to them in bad Swedish and not miss a wink of sleep over it. So I am a language purist at heart, I guess. A writer.

There’s also the matter of bigger and better, isn’t there? English is the language of international culture, business, and politics. Isn’t it great that you have a father who speaks it as a native language? Now you don’t need to read Harry Potter books with an Estonian-English dictionary. Now you don’t need to ask me what those Justin Bieber song lyrics mean. Now you are better poised to get that wonderful job in Brussels when you grow up. And if you are really in need of work, you can translate the next Disney film into Estonian so that nobody says anything too weird.

These are fine answers, but I don’t find them a hundred percent honest. Because the third, and perhaps most truthful answer, is the most complex. Look at these bookshelves at home, Maria. Look at Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller. Look at that thick Mark Twain anthology I have owned since I was eight years old. English is not just the language of my family or my country of origin, Maria. It is the linguistic music that is playing between my ears. It is the music that I read, the one I write in notebooks when I go out to walk. I write this music with a shaky hand, and use the walls of buildings as a brace. When I speak English to you, Maria, I am not teaching you how to talk. I am teaching you how to appreciate a whole other world of sound meshed with ideas. The gift of this language is one of the greatest I can give you.

This is an answer that I cannot articulate to a four year old. It’s hard for me to even express it now. But I am sure that when Maria gets older, she will come to understand it all the same.

2 thoughts on “an unusual question

  1. I had to be stubborn about speaking English to my sons but I wanted them to be able to communicate with my side of the family, their grandparents in particular. (American woman married to French man, living in France)

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