How to Learn Estonian, and Other Common Estonian-language Myths

Copywriter Stewart Johnson

Estonian is impossible to learn

Estonian is not nearly as difficult to learn as Estonians often hope it is. Yet the language is frequently ranked among the top five most challenging languages to learn for native English speakers. Considering the stereotype for how many languages native English speakers speak, however, maybe Estonian isn’t that hard after all. This American learned it in about three months – I’ll share my secrets with you below.

Estonian was used as the basis for Elvish in Lord of the Rings

This was actually Finnish, because J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t want Elvish to be completely magical, wink wink. These two languages are very similar, as both belong to the Finno-Ugric language group, but what makes them so unique is that they are not in fact Indo-European languages, like English, Spanish, or even Punjabi. Estonian can trace its roots back to the Ural Mountains, in Eurasia. This general vicinity, it is believed, provided the inspiration for Tolkien’s Mirkwood, or the Woodland Realm of the Elves.

Unlike many languages that use the Latin alphabet, every letter in Estonian is clearly pronounced. My last name (Johnson) is rather common, but when an Estonian says it in Estonian, it suddenly becomes a three-syllable affair with a cough in the middle (even “h” is pronounced in Estonian). There are also nine vowels in the language, which is frequently daunting for learners. But fear not! The easiest way to master the cacophony of diphthongs in this singing language is to consider each individual vowel as a syllable. For example, “laul” (song) is not “lowl” as an English speaker would be prone to say, but “law-ool”, stressing the first syllable.

One vowel in Estonian, “õ”, seems to be particularly difficult for English speakers. It’s somewhere in between the “oo” of “book” and the “i” of “big”. Be sure to learn how to pronounce this, if you want to really impress an Estonian.

Be sure to learn how to pronounce Õ, if you want to really impress an Estonian
Be sure to learn how to pronounce “Õ”, if you want to really impress an Estonian

Estonian has no sex, and no future

While it’s true that Estonian has no gender for its nouns, and no future tenses, the language does have 14 case endings. But what in the world is a case ending? Relax… we have similar grammatical forms in English, we just call them something else, for example, direct object pronouns. Let’s start with the easiest of them: me. “You saw me” (not “You saw I”), and “I saw him” (not “Me saw he”). See? It’s not so hard.

Everyone knows what prepositions are: above, in, on, from, and so on. Prepositions exist in Estonian too, of course, but a select few should instead be thought of as ‘postpositions’, meaning they are added to the end of the word. In English you might say “The airplane emerged from the cloud,” but in Estonian, it’s “The airplane emerged cloudfrom.” It takes a little bit of work, but all you have to do is learn these postpositions. Don’t think of them as some overly complex “case ending” or “declination”.

There is one, however, called the genitive case. It’s the One Case to Rule Them All! Don’t worry too much about it…the genitive is simply the version of a word that you use to make almost all the other case endings. In Estonian it’s often as simple as adding a vowel to the end of the word in question. You’ll soon get used to it if you keep an open mind.

There’s no need to learn Estonian, because Estonians don’t speak much

Estonians are a quiet people compared to many other cultures and nationalities, but this does not in any way mean that Estonians don’t speak, or communicate, just as much as anyone else. I’m not saying that Estonians run around screaming and gesticulating like Italians, but if you’re patient and perceptive (like Estonians), you’ll come to understand the subtle body language, like an occasional blink or nod of the head to stress the importance of a word.

Like all cultures and peoples, Estonians don’t use words and body language alone to communicate. They sigh. A lot. The old adage that Eskimos have 50 words for snow could easily be adapted to this country and its sighing. An Estonian sigh could mean anything from “It’s snowing again!” (sigh) to “Congratulations on buying an expensive luxury car!” (sigh). Occasionally, an Estonian will try to challenge you to say “õ”. If you can manage this, they’ll sigh in disappointment that you’re deciphering their language. Incidentally, an increasingly large proportion of Estonia’s energy production comes from wind power!

An increasingly large proportion of Estonia’s energy production comes from wind power
An increasingly large proportion of Estonia’s energy production comes from wind power

You can learn Estonian by watching TV

While it is technically true that you can learn Estonian by watching TV, it would also depend on the learner’s personal style. Toddlers and young children can soak up a new language merely by being exposed to it. Some people enjoy grinding out exercises from textbooks or taking Estonian language classes, while others prefer the relative ease of an app (but let’s be honest… Duolingo teaches you hundreds of sentences no normal human would ever actually say).

So how did I learn Estonian? I watched American and British television shows, and read the Estonian subtitles. After two or three months, I could read newspapers and magazines. A while later, I realised I could have entire conversations in Estonian. Yes, I made mistakes, yes, I still have a funny accent today, and yes, Estonians will speak Estonian with you if you can trick them into believing that you don’t speak English.

Joking aside, the people of Estonia will generally appreciate it if you make an effort to learn their wonderful language. With patience, hard work, and a little bit of luck, one day an Estonian will say this specific sentence to you in Estonian: “There are people who have lived here their whole lives who can’t say hello.” When you hear this sentence, it will mean you have accomplished what you thought was impossible. You can speak Estonian!

You can read more about learning Estonian

Read more about how Estonian works in this chapter of my book, or you can also read it in its entirety for an in-depth look at what it’s like to move to Estonia.


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