There is a joke that an “Estonian has no sex and no future,” referring to the fact that there are no genders and no future tense in the Estonian language. But in fact, it is beautiful to listen to, intriguingly different, and terrifically satisfying to use once you get going. There is even a story that an Estonian phrase (sõida tasa üle silla – meaning “go slowly over the bridge,” perhaps more a traffic sign than romantic utterance) came second only to Italian in a sort of language beauty contest.
Many students of the language are studying precisely because of the interest and challenge the language holds, and make quick progress once they have grasped the basics, particularly of pronunciation.
Throughout Estonia, you will find people willing and able to speak with you in a variety of languages, with English, Finnish or Russian being most commonly spoken, and many people also managing French, German or Swedish alongside their native tongue.
In a country where most people speak at least two languages with ease, learning Estonian may not be strictly necessary, but it certainly can help you understand the country at a deeper level.
You will hear Estonian language learning categorised in terms of levels which run from A1 (beginner) to C2 (fluent in business and professional language), according to the Common European Framework of Reference for languages. The levels help you get a feel for how demanding courses may be, and are also used, for example, in job adverts to describe the level of language proficiency required. B1 level is required if you wish to become a naturalised Estonian citizen.
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.
Group and private classes
You can find Estonian teaching in either an established group class or with an individual tutor, once in Estonia. There are several reputable and established private language schools in the larger cities and towns, and you may also be able to attend a language class at one of the universities as an open university student. This option is limited based on the timetable and levels of classes offered, which correspond to the student body as a whole, and tend to increase in difficulty as the academic year advances. Contact your chosen university in September for beginners’ courses.
Because language schools change their timetables and private teachers’ availability varies, the best way to start is simply with an Internet search. Ask around the expat community through one of the active Facebook groups for recommendations, or even try advertising (or replying to an advert) for a language practice swap, which are 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, which last three or four weeks on average, are competitively priced, come with cultural activities and excursions and are taught in either English or Finnish. They attract a wide variety of attendees from all over the globe (and all walks of life) and can be a fantastic way of kickstarting your learning.
Once you have a basic grasp of the language, there are several options for “language exchange” to practice your skills. As well as the choice of advertising in one of the universities or through a local Facebook group, in Tallinn there is a popular “Foreigners Learning Estonian” group, who meet several times a week to practice, alongside a native speaker or two, as well as sharing a meal or a drink at Kamahouse cafe in Kopli. Look up the group on Facebook for the most up to date details, meeting times and locations.
There are many options to learn some Estonian online or from language course books and CDs. As most foreigners find the pronunciation of the words most challenging, using a guide with audio content is essential – these are available through YouTube, private web-based language schools and online courses. Just try to pronounce kuuuurija (moon explorer) or jäääär (the edge of the ice) without help.
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 Estonian course, which is popular and well regarded, try Keeleklikk that teaches Estonian to A2 level, using either English or Russian as a base language, and also has modules on culture and history.
Foreigners Learning Estonian Facebook group
City Language School
Multilingua Language School
Opus Lingua Language School
TEA Language School
Tallinn (Estonia) Language Exchange
10 Tongue Twisters To Get You Started on Estonian