The Influence of English Mass Culture on Estonia

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     My paper considers the influence of ‘Western’ mass culture on Estonia. While each culture draws from its own roots, I believe that it may fail to blossom without contact with other cultures. A better understanding of how cultural systems are shaped, reproduced, and changed gives me more power to participate in that process of negotiation – between the impact and the impacted. I feel that writing about these processes is one of the best ways to work toward that enhanced understanding. My search for answers is taking me to study the essence of my own faith, culture and civilization, and the faiths, cultures and civilizations of my fellow human beings in a world that I see is becoming increasingly inter-dependent. When you contribute your own voice to the discussion, you should be aware of the implications that follow from your position. When you listen to the voices of others, you should listen with awareness, deciding for yourself what is at stake and how their positions relate to your own. For many people, the ‘what is at stake’ is the character of Estonian national identity. Some argue that this identity needs to become less culturally fragmented; others argue that the national character gets its strength from cultural diversity, from the freedom at home and in schools to celebrate, honor, and reproduce different cultural traditions. In any discussion of Western ideas of culture and consumerism in young peoples’ eyes, we need to focus on several issues: computer software as a carrier of Western culture and the connection between – and universal language of – Hollywood and American mass culture. How these issues affect Estonia, a small Baltic country, leads to a discourse on our cultural identity, and to my specific look at the effects of American mass culture. Exploring culture is also an educational issue: learning about contemporary culture as well as discovering the links between generations, peoples and cultures is beneficial. Some might say it is actually inescapable. It is said that a learning nation draws upon not only the present but also upon the past. It feeds on its own traditions and on the heritage of others.

When I ask myself, "what belongs to me, to my culture?" I am rewarded with a spectacular variety of responses; in this way, different perspectives and ownership of different cultural traditions enriches everyone. But when I ask "what belongs to us, to our culture?" I find a much more intricate question. Do the people of Estonia necessarily share common cultural elements? If so, who gets to decide what those elements are, and what would my position in this debate over national culture be? Would a greater body of shared cultural knowledge among all Estonians enhance communication and intercultural understanding? We should not be swayed by claims like – ‘My country is right’, ‘My people are the greatest in history,’ and ‘My faith is the only true faith’. Who can legitimately speak for a particular culture? Whose voice counts? In whose name is the dialogue conducted? Do we need to accept that there are multiple valid cultural perspectives and that two such perspectives can both be valid even though they might contradict one another? The questions I ask about our culture are questions about deep personal meanings.

Some Estonians say, ‘Do not interfere in our affairs; you are Westerners and thus you represent just another cultural subset and have no right to make universal claims.’ I think we need to remind ourselves that there are Western intellectuals, and a number of them at that, who have adopted a position of what we call cultural relativism, which means considering the plurality of cultures positive to the point of denying the universal character of human rights. With growing global inter-dependence, separate autonomous phenomena are declining. The West is telling us: ‘we shall be universal, but be universal like me’. Though not the reasoning of all Westerners, such is the global discourse and practice. I am sure that no civilization by itself can claim to represent all humanity nor to assume full responsibility for it. Neither can one single civilization claim exclusive rights to provide a universally valid vision of how to be a good human being and how to live wisely in today’s world.

A language is undoubtedly an integral part of culture, and vice versa, so one cannot separate them without some clear effects. Language expresses, embodies, and symbolizes cultural reality: people view their language as a symbol of their social identity, and this is an especially poignant point for a country like Estonia, force-fed a diet of Russian language and culture for so many years. How do we, Estonians, identify with our language and its uniqueness, and why do we often fret about the loss of our cultural identity? We crave and loathe the same things at the same time: Wanting to be more “Western” in our lifestyles, while retaining our “Estonian” character in our languages and attitudes. “What is to be done?”

Today, the problem facing a pluralistic and democratic society like Estonia is how it will maintain its linguistic diversity. I am sure that we must learn and use two languages in addition to our mother tongue. I, for example, speak English, Estonian and Russian fluently, and I have started learning French. If it is a fact that languages open the door to other cultures, it is just as true to say that an absence of linguistic ability can be a severe handicap. What can be done to steer the right course between authoritarian linguistic policies, which are incompatible with our liberal conception of culture and education, and a laissez-faire policy that would lead to a misconceived homogenization under the banner of globalization, in which even my British and American friends would be unable to recognize their own identity? If present trends continue, people across the world will all be eating hamburgers, wearing jeans and listening to Western rock music at the expense of their own local customs and traditions. Similarly, as cultural diversity disappears, the diversity of global languages will disappear, English becoming the sole vehicle of communication.

Exposure to foreign mass culture is sometimes seen as having an adverse effect on the structure and vocabulary of the spoken and even written language. Characteristically, as a small nation, the Estonian identity is closely connected to its language. Estonian is one of the world's smallest cultural languages to include contemporary terminology for all major fields of life. Recently, there has been a lively debate over the needs and possibilities to protect the national language from foreign influence. We borrow English words in ever increasing numbers, not merely terms from trade and commerce, but words of a much more important kind. English contributions to the Estonian lexicon have become more numerous and widespread. The interface between English and Estonian became even closer due to new means of communication. It is quite difficult to enumerate all the fields of human activities of Estonia on which English has exercised an influence. The result of English influence is that the Estonian language borrows English loan – words, adapts them, and subsequently integrates them into our daily professional and personal vocabularies. Everyday, we hear words like “OK”, “good”, “shopping”, “pub”, “blockbuster”, “pop singer”, and “computer”. In the Estonian version of the popular TV game-show “Who wants to be a millionaire?” every contestant uses the English expression “fifty-fifty”. It seems ironic, then, that some parts of Estonian syntax show a 50:50 balance between ‘own’ Estonian and loan–stems.

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Estonia is greatly influenced by English mass culture and it is definitely the youth of today who are being exploited by it. We drink Coca Cola, wear blue jeans, watch Hollywood movies, listen to American music, use Microsoft software, and eat fast food. We do all these things daily. When you visit schools in Estonia, you will find students listening to music on their CD players: it is mostly American pop music from singers like Britney Spears, Christina Aquilera, Ricky Martin, Ciara and Eminem. Everywhere you go in this small country, which used to be behind the Iron Curtain, everyone ...

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