Kus on pank? I ask the nice lady on the screen. She smiles encouragingly. Jah! she replies, sounding extremely proud. I remain tense, staring at the screen as she shows me a picture of a bathroom. Vannituba! I exclaim. Riho wanders into the room, perhaps thinking that there might be a chance of us going for dinner. Naiste Tualetruum! I shriek excitedly at a sign for the Ladies’ toilets. My computer tutors give me a delighted round of applause. Riho swiftly leaves the room without comment.
I have had enough of this tentative Tere!… Palun… Tänan! nonsense (“Hello… please… thank you”), because it is completely useless unless you fully expect people in real life situations to respond as if they’re taking part in some sort of carefully scripted GCSE roleplay entitled “At The Shops”. If they say the exact phrases you’ve memorised, at precisely the right moments, then you’ll probably get away with it. If, however, you happen to encounter Real People in your daily interactions, there’s a high likelihood of them saying something that is not in the script. And then you’re screwed, basically. There’s nothing like the feeling of confused panic that comes just after the unexpected babbling of the shop assistant, and is immediately followed by a look of understanding and the ego-crushing question: English? Defeated, all you can do is nod humbly and let them switch comfortably to English as you mope over your failure.
Well, no longer. I am going to have a conversation in Estonian before I leave here if it kills me. And not just with the computer dudes, either, much as I enjoy all this discussion about bathrooms and directions to the bank. No, I am going to be capable of talking to a Real Live Person, at least to the extent where I don’t panic when I fail to recognise the words they’re using. They will be bowled over by my polite and charming request for them to rephrase their question, and impressed by my refusal to resort to speaking English.
I’m not entirely sure how I’ll get to that point from my current position of sitting on the sofa shouting “Beer! Keys! Turn left!” at an on-screen teacher with a cheesy grin, but at least I’m trying. It baffles me that Riho moved to Estonia over a year ago, and has not attempted to say anything other than the obvious Tere! and the occasional request for a taxi or tram tickets. He insists that knowing the language is completely unnecessary, but that’s not the point. My single aim in life is now to understand Estonian. Nothing else is even remotely important.
“Are we going for dinner at all?” asks Riho plaintively. “Tere hommikust!” I say to the laptop. “Jah!” says the computer woman. Riho sighs and sadly makes some toast.