Post art by Sylvia Wrigley.
From the author: Language adventures in Estonia. This is part of an ongoing series. If you'd like to see the whole thing, then become a subscriber!
There is a small butcher's shop (they call it a butchery) in the upmarket office area near the central tram stop. I don't go there often, I prefer the markets, however if I'm passing through that area I like to pop in. The staff is friendly and they often have ground/minced lamb, which can be hard to find at the other butchers.
I have restarted my Estonian studies. It is rather depressing, how little I've learned in my two years here. So as a part of my language learning, I'm making a concerted effort to speak Estonian in public. This is harder than you might expect, because the level of English fluency in Tallinn is very high. However, I've found that if I start an interaction in Estonian, people are often happy to respond in kind, only switching to English once it is clear that I haven't understood.
So as I walked into the shop, I called out hello in Estonian and got a cheerful response back: "Tere!"
Having established my preferred language, I looked over the display. "Lambaliha. Kas...lamba hakkliha?" Lamb. Is...ground lamb? Mumbled quickly enough, it's clear that I'm asking a question.
"Ei ole," she said. There is none.
"Ei ole," I repeated. "Hmmm."
"Soovid vasikaliha?" She pointed to a silver tray of ground meat with a sign stuck in that helpfully said "veal" in English.
"Ei," I said. "Veise hakkliha, palun." No, ground beef, please. "Pool kilo. Ei, üks kilo." Half a kilo. No, a kilo. Now note, I have not used a single verb. I'm not actually speaking in full sentences, I'm just using key words in a very targeted way.
She got the beef out and weighed it. The entire tray weighed just 880 grams and she clearly didn't have any more.
I gave a little wave to show that that was good enough, I didn't mind. "Ja pool kilo šašlõkk" And half a kilo of shashlik meat. I mangled the pronunciation but pointed at the same time; clearly it was close enough for her to work out.
"Pool kilo," she repeated. But then, as she got the tray of meat out, she paused and said something else.
This was off script. I shook my head. I had no idea what she had asked me.
She spoke again, a long sentence, rapidly. I wasn't even sure if she was repeating herself or saying something new. I made a shrugging gesture to convey I don't understand, a useful phrase which I have not learned yet.
She spoke again, at length. Finally I cut her off with the only full sentence I could think of.
"Ma ei räägi eesti keelt." I don't speak Estonian.
She opened her mouth and closed it again, giving me a total WTF look.
"Vabandust," I said. "I'm sorry."
She stared at me. "Aga sa just rääkisid eesti keelt!" My Estonian might be terrible but I was pretty sure she was accusing me of having just this second spoken Estonian, before claiming that I didn't speak Estonian.
I didn't dare respond in either language.
"I didn't have a kilo of ground beef," she said. "Only 880 grams. Is that OK?" Her English was completely fluent, of course.
"That's fine. I saw. It's fine, that's enough." I offered my most ingratiating smile but she was still giving me a troubled look as she weighed the shashlik.
There's no way she thought I was Estonian, not with my accent, but she clearly had presumed I was fluent. I suspect that people either come in speaking in English or they speak Estonian, but language learners aren't very common. I wanted to apologize for confusing her, tell her that I was sorry for pretending like I spoke the language. But even though she spoke perfect English, I doubted that she would understand.
As penance, I spent the afternoon memorising the phrase, "Can you please repeat that slowly?"