Estonianisms – Common Mistakes Estonians Make in English


Two Estonian high school students—Laura-Olivia and Kevin-Mark—recently took a Cambridge English assessment test, which was administered by two older Estonians, Õie and Tõnu. This is a partial transcript of their conversation:

Tõnu: Welcome to your Cambridge English assessment test. Today we’d like to talk about common mistakes Estonians make in English, but first I’d like to ask you a question. Did you find the house alright?

Kevin-Mark: I’m sorry, I think you mean “building”?

Tõnu: This is a house, isn’t it? A four-story house.

Laura-Olivia: What’s in this building?

Õie: In this house are offices, in addition to there also being a café.

Kevin-Mark: Then this is a building.

Laura-Olivia: He’s right. One family lives in a house. Any more than that, and it’s an apartment building.

Õie: We were taught that “maja” is “house” in English. You’re thinking of a private house (eramaja).

Kevin-Mark: As opposed to a public house?

Tõnu: Õie, perhaps we should listen to them. They are from the YouTube generation. They’ve grown up watching YouT—

Õie: “OK Boomer”, at least that’s what I think they say. Today’s kids are the TikTok generation, not YouTube.

Laura-Olivia: That’s right! YouTube kids are already old, in their 20s.

Younger Estonians speak English differently

Kevin-Mark: Are you ready to ask from us your first question?

Tõnu: You should say, “Ask us your first question”, not “ask from us”.

Kevin-Mark: Sorry, you’re right of course. I always make that mistake.

Õie: Moving on. If I were to ask you a question on paper, would “you” be capitalised if the question is for both of you, or only when the question is for one of you?

Kevin-Mark: In English, “you” is never capitalised, unless it’s at the beginning of a sentence, or in a title.

Tõnu: But can “you” be capitalised as a show of respect?

Laura-Olivia: No, never.

Kevin-Mark: It wouldn’t depend on the people that you’re asking?

Laura-Olivia: “…the people whom you’re asking”, or just, “the people you’re asking”. Would you say in Estonian, “inimesed mida nägin”?

Kevin-Mark: What do you mean?

Laura-Olivia: People are referred to as “who”, things are referred to as “that”.

Tõnu: You have a point, but lots of native English speakers make that mistake.

Laura-Olivia: Still a mistake though.

Tõnu: Fair enough, yes it is.


Being understood in English is still more important than being perfect in English

Õie: For my next question, how will you cope when you go to university in an English-speaking country?

Tõnu: Are you asking how they’ll get by, or how they’ll manage? Because in English, you only cope with a problem. Going to university abroad isn’t a problem.

Kevin-Mark: Well, it might be easier to…get by…as you say, in a university that is two times smaller than one in a large city.

Õie: If you say it’s two times smaller than a university in a large city, that would mean that the university in the large city is already small, and this one is even smaller.

Kevin-Mark: What do you mean?

Laura-Olivia: Simple logic. Small, smaller. Cheap, cheaper. If a coffee is four euros in one café, but two euros in another, you can’t say that it’s two times cheaper, because four euros for a coffee is already ridiculously expensive, it’s not already cheap.

Kevin-Mark: How would you say it, then?

Laura-Olivia, Tõnu and Õie together: Half as much.

Kevin-Mark: But…if a coffee is one euro here, and seven and a half euros there? It’s not seven-and-a-half times cheaper? I mean, one over seven-point-five times as much?

Laura-Olivia: It’s a fraction of the price. Or just “a lot cheaper”. English speakers aren’t as precise about everything as Estonians are.

Õie: Are there any other questions we could discuss about common mistakes in English if we’re still here?

Kevin-Mark: Yes. “If” is a conditional, “when” is a certainty. You just said, “…if we’re still here”, but, well, you’re here. Right now. That’s a fact, so you’d say “when”, or better yet, “while”.

Laura-Olivia: I see. So when I say to you—

Õie: —if.

Laura-Olivia: If—I say to you, “If I see you tomorrow”, that means it is only possible that I’ll see you tomorrow, but if I say, “When I see you tomorrow”, that means it’s a certainty that we’ll see each other?

Kevin-Mark: Exactly.

English has incredible variety, from different cultures, times, and accents

Õie: For our final question, we would like you to explain what is wrong with what we are about to say. I saw this on the English list of services offered at an Estonian swimming pool years ago. For “laste ujumine”, they used, “the swimming of babies”.

Laura-Olivia and Kevin-Mark together: Laal!

Õie: I’m sorry?

Kevin-Mark: It means, “LOL”. Ha ha ha?

Tõnu: And what makes this funny?

Laura-Olivia: It’s the mental image it creates.

Õie: Such as?

Kevin-Mark: It makes me think of someone holding a baby with a rubber band and propeller attached to its back, winding it up, and letting it go in the pool.

Laura-Olivia: “And little Sofia went sailing across the surface of the pool, when her mommy swam her too hard.”

Kevin-Mark: Nice one. Or translating “asjaajamine” as “the doing of things” or “the running of errands”. It brings a headless chicken to mind, running around like crazy.

Tõnu: Very good! And how would you say this correctly, like a native English speaker?

Laura-Olivia: Just running errands, doing things, swimming for babies.

Kevin-Mark: It’s called a gerund, making a verb into a noun, like I just did with “making” in this sentence.

Õie: We would like to thank you both for your time. Personally, I think you did very well.

Tõnu: Yes. Good luck in future!

Kevin-Mark: “…the future”.

Laura-Olivia: No, that’s British.

Kevin-Mark: But I learned American English.


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