I have this peculiar quirk that I speak, write and think in English, but I was born in Estonia, so naturally my mother tongue is Estonian. Despite that, I can speak and write English better than I can Estonian. I started learning English when I was six, watched a lot of Cartoon Network as a kid and lived abroad for over two years. Definite outside factors like movies, music, books, games etc. have played a strong part in it as well, but the strongest culprit behind it? My ability to express myself… it comes naturally in English, but feels clunky in Estonian.
Let me take you back a bit, when I was 8 or 9. I had to visit a pediatrician because of my speech impediment. It was nothing major, but my S sounded like a flat tire. Spent months practicing tongue movements in front of a mirror. Training the muscles, just so I could flex an S in a word.
When hormones hit my body I became anti-social. Talking to girls my age was impossible and talking with anyone else not too enjoyable. I cramped up and my thoughts were a mess. The thoughts had always resonated within me, but I had no means of expressing it. I can’t sing or dance, draw a painting or write a poem. With my back against the wall, I turned to the internet.
Estonians will remember a website called Rate. In simple terms it’s like Facebook, but older and mostly Estonian. It was the perfect site; you put up some pictures, write a description and started messaging people. Looking for girls around my age, living 5 miles from my house? Oh hell yeah. I remember messaging pretty much anyone who was up for a conversation and that’s how it started. Chatting with random girls, and registering how they respond. What words to use, which to avoid, when to put an emoji or avoid it. Eventually they would want to meet and talk face to face, but verbal conversation was a challenge on its own. Besides the obvious of being cat-fished by a middle aged keyboard warrior, I’d have to get out of my comfort zone.
I can’t recall all of my encounters that I’ve had, but there is one that I can still clearly remember. I took a train six in the morning to go 250 km to a different city. I was supposed to meet with this hot chick, do the talk and be home by nine. The plan was perfect, except for the fact that she brought friends. I cramped up having to deal with more than one person and only ended up muttering something towards an “Hello”. I Hung around with them for an hour until I bailed. I couldn’t force myself to have a conversation. I can’t say that nothing came to me, but all my ideas felt stupid. My own thoughts were embarrassing, because in a way I was ashamed of them. They were nothing dirty or even inappropriate, but they didn’t feel mine. Just to say something to fit in a group never came naturally for me.
Soon after I would meet a person whose name I can almost remember, but will choose not to. She was 19 and I was barely even 14. I do not know why she would choose to spend time with me, but she did. We walked, she talked ,and I listened. I was still a closed person, unable to speak my mind. Too scared to open my fucking mouth and yell out my emotions. Everything was fine until one faithful evening. My usual answer to questions would be either “I don’t care” or “both are fine”. I never really contributed to the conversation. So this one time she flipped out in the middle of the street and start yelling at me. “Why are you so quiet? What are you thinking about? Tell me what is going on in your head, the first thought that pops in, tell me.” I didn’t.
Some months later we would meet for the last time. Not much had changed, but she was moving forward. She had had enough of fixing me, writing me off as a lost cause. Little did she know that I had learnt my lesson. The next few years I spent with a motto in my head. “When in a bind, speak the first thing that comes to mind.” Maybe not the best advice to give someone, but it definitely worked for me. Excluding the possible awkward situations brought forth by my stupid brain, I was communicating. I was making an active effort to talk more, regardless of the quality.
A lot of those ideas would get reinforced throughout high-school. New friends I made outside of school was a big help. I was finally able to meet people with similar interests and mind-sets. One of those places was a summer camp. A few guys there said whatever they wanted, to whom ever they wanted. The key was to treat it as a joke, not to feel stressed about it. It’s not all about the words themselves, but how you say it. The way you articulate it, how you hold your body. One of those people happened to be IVAN. A girl I dated showed me that there is a point when you can talk too much and just end up sounding like an idiot. An idiot showed me that you can say whatever, until you treat it as a joke. A joke told me that we’re related.
Movies and TV-shows ended up sculpting my personality in a similar fashion. Certain verbal and physical mannerisms my favorite characters held all became a part of me. When I binge watched House MD, I became him. I wanted to be dry and witty, show no emotion, but be passionate. The characters in Tarantino movies always talked about what they liked. An interesting fact or something they’ve heard. Movies were something I knew a lot about and could always use in conversation. I learnt a lot from spending thousands of hours in front of a screen, observing the lives of fictional characters. Their personality traits became mine and helped form the person I am today.
Up until this point I had put no thought into the power of language. I used Estonian in my everyday speech and Estonian-English hybrid with my closest friends. The outside influence was obviously there, because I was consuming. All the movies I watched were in English. Want to read a good book? It’s probably written in English. The problem wasn’t that we didn’t have subtitles or translations, I simply didn’t care. I was able to understand the language it was made in. I wanted the original meaning, not the watered down one. Most of the good stuff on the Internet is in English anyway. The more I consumed, the more I felt the shift.
Eventually I started having my more serious conversations in English, because my vocabulary was more diverse. I don’t think any of my Ex’es appreciated that. Having a break-up conversation, while the other person is not even using their mother tongue. Some would try to match, but most gave up eventually and reverted back to Estonian. That was their language, their media, their strong suit. I couldn’t do it in Estonian anymore, even if I tried. I know, because I did. I hadn’t felt that verbally beaten in a long time.
Roll forward to now and the shift is complete. When I streamed, I spoke only English. When I wrote adventure stories and hosted DnD, I did it all in English. This entire blog is going to be in English. I speak English with my girlfriend, most of my friends and sometimes with random strangers if I feel like messing with them. I did stand-up on stage in English, to an Estonian audience. The biggest change is that now I only think in English. My thoughts have forgotten the language I was given first. Sometimes I struggle trying to translate a word to the language I once called my mother tongue.