It is not necessary to learn the Estonian language in order to enjoy working and living in Estonia. Throughout Estonia, you will find people willing and able to speak with you in a variety of languages. English, Finnish and Russian are the most commonly spoken, but many people also get by in French, German or Swedish.
Estonian has no sex and no future – the language has no genders and no future tense. However, it does have 14 noun cases. You win some, you lose some, as they say.
Estonian language is intriguingly different from most common European languages. It belongs to the small Finno-Ugric language group and is, indeed, quite challenging to learn. It is also related to Finnish and Hungarian.
Many people actually study Estonian for the challenge it holds. You make quick progress once you grasp the basics. We can promise you that every step down the road will be terrifically satisfying.
Think of Estonian as a flowy Elvish language with a good, almost Japanese-style beat to it.
Estonian language learning is categorised into levels. Levels run from A1 (beginner) to C2 (fluent in business and professional language)* and help you to get a feel for how demanding a course may be.
Language levels are also used in job adverts for describing the level of language proficiency required.
*According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
There are many options to learn Estonian online or from language books and CDs. You’ll probably find the pronunciation most challenging at first, so using a guide with audio content is essential – these are available through YouTube, private web-based language schools and online courses.
To get up to speed with the basics, try Lingvist’s Essential Estonian. The Estonian startup, which uses artificial intelligence to make learning faster and more efficient, released a compact course of 100 essential phrases in Estonian that’s available through their app for free.
For a comprehensive and well-regarded Estonian course, try Keeleklikk. They teach Estonian to A2 level and use both English and Russian as a base language.
Group and private classes
Once in Estonia, you can join an established language class or find a private tutor. There are several reputable private language schools in larger cities and towns. You may also be able to attend a language class at one of our universities. Just contact your chosen university in September and ask for a beginners’ course. They will tell you the rest.
The best way to start is by just doing an Internet search. Ask for recommendations in expat communities on Facebook or try advertising (or replying to an advert) for a language practise swap (frequently advertised in the universities).
Another popular choice is to join the winter or summer schools arranged by Tallinn or Tartu Universities. These intensive courses – lasting 3-4 weeks on average – are competitively priced, come with cultural activities and are taught in English or Finnish.
Once you have a basic grasp of the language, it’s time to put it into practise. Apart from advertising in universities and on Facebook, there’s a popular “Foreigners Learning Estonian” group in Tallinn. The group meets many times a week together with a native speaker.
Estonian language phrases
Learn these useful (or not so useful) phrases and show off your skills.
- jah – yes
- ei – no
- palun – please; you’re welcome
- aitäh – thanks
- tere – hi, hello
- nägemist! – bye, see you!
- vabandust – sorry
- pole viga – no problem
- kas te räägite inglise keelt? – do you speak English? (polite)
- ma ei räägi eesti keelt – I don’t speak Estonian
- ma saan aru – I understand
- ma ei saa aru – I don’t understand
- ma tean – I know
- ma ei tea – I don’t know
- palun aidake! – please help!
- ma olen eksinud – I’m lost
- kas teiega on kõik korras? – are you OK? (polite)
- kuidas läheb – how’s it going?
- tänan, hästi – I’m fine, thanks
- normaalselt – I’m OK
- läheb – it’s going OK
- halvasti – bad
- mis su nimi on? – what’s your name? (familiar)
- minu nimi on … – my name is …
- ma olen … – I’m …
- tore sinuga tuttavaks saada – good to meet you (familiar)
- mis tööd sa teed? – what do you do? (familiar)
- ma olen … – I’m a …
- õpetaja – teacher
- üliõpilane – (university) student
- ajakirjanik – journalist
- veebidisainer – web designer
- arst – doctor
Now you’re just showing off….!
- Habemeajaja ajas asjaajaja ja teerajaja habet.
“The barber was cutting the beard of the secretary and the pioneer” – a phrase apparently used to check sobriety. Let’s face it, it’s not going to come up in conversation very much, is it?
“The hatch at the end of the tunnel, where the bullet is flying.” Not only a tongue twister, but also a palindrome.
- Kummikutes kummitus kummitas kummutis.
It may sound like the declension of a noun, but no – “A ghost with rubber boots is haunting the chest of drawers.”
- Kuuuurija istus töööös jäääärel.
Enough vowels for you? “The lunar scientist worked during the night by the edge of the ice.”
Foreigners Learning Estonian Facebook group
City Language School
Multilingua Language Center
Opus Lingua Language School
TEA Language School
Tallinn (Estonia) Language Exchange
10 Tongue Twisters To Get You Started on Estonian