Learning Estonian as a Native English Speaker: An Outsider’s Perspective
As a Canadian, when I first started learning Estonian two years ago, I found that it was considered one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers, something I agree with. However, I have also come across certain aspects of the language that are relatively easy to grasp. Here are seven observations I made during my Estonian language learning journey.
1. Melodic, monotone and something altogether different
I got a first impression that Estonian is extraordinary, magical, very old and mysterious. This was somewhat true but I needed to reconsider some of these aspects after learning about Estonian language, culture and history.
My first impression of the Estonian language, upon arrival in Estonia, was that people spoke in quiet, monotone voices. Estonian sounded soft and melodic, and this was quite different from any other languages I had heard before.
I initially thought that the Estonian language was similar to Scandinavian languages such as Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian, and didn’t know that Estonian, along with Finnish, belongs to the Finno-Ugric language group which is distinctly different from the Indo-European group that most European languages belong to.
I also got the impression that Estonian is an old language, but perhaps this feeling was influenced by frequent walks through the medieval Old Town of Tallinn.
As an English speaker, I found the foreign letters such as ä, ö, ü and õ in the Estonian language to be both fascinating and uncommon, which added to its uniqueness. Pronouncing ä, ö, ü, and õ took some getting used to and even simple words came with some difficulty, such as rolling the r in ‘Tere’ (Hello) or pronouncingäin ‘Aitäh’ (Thank you).
2. Simple, but effective
One of the things I like most about the Estonian language is its simplicity.
When I first arrived in Estonia, the written language was confusing and so many words looked alike to me; the spoken language was even more of a mystery. However, once I learned how simple the language can be I actually felt relieved.
Many shops are simply named after what they sell, like ‘liha pood’ or ‘lille pood’, meaning ‘meat shop’ or ‘flower shop’. The biggest island in Estonia, Saaremaa, translates as ‘Island land’ in English. I found many other instances of this.
Some words can be used to describe many different things. ‘Must’ can mean ‘black, dirty, grimy or dark’. ‘Maa’ can mean ‘land, countryside, country or earth’. The numerous significations of these words are sufficiently different to use the same word to deliver different meanings. Sometimes, it’s not necessary to have an extensive vocabulary in Estonian in order to get a point across.
At times, it seems that, in Estonian, the objective is to minimise the creation of new words. Many complex words in English can be formed in Estonian simply by adding two words together. For example, ‘refrigerator’ is ‘külmkapp’ in Estonian, meaning cold cabinet.
Estonians also get by without using words equivalent to the English a or the and he or she. At first, it seemed impossible to communicate without using these descriptive words, but after some time I realised that it somehow works.
I even find that sometimes English overcomplicates things and that the Estonian translations are straightforward and logical, traits that are also commonly used to describe the Estonians themselves.
These comparisons make me wonder if it is the language that influences the people, or the people that influence the language. Perhaps the most obvious answer is that the language and culture are indelibly intertwined, and they cannot be separated.
In Estonian, it is easy to communicate directly. One example of this is the use of the word ‘pidama’ which can be translated to ‘to have to’. You could say ‘Me peame lahkuma kell kaheksa’ which in English means ‘We must leave at eight o’clock’. In English, this phrase would be less common than ‘We should leave at eight o’clock’, with the former coming off as too severe and demanding.
In English there is more room for interpretation. ‘Should’ can be considered a suggestion, but it depends on the context whether the person using the word is suggesting something or giving a command. For example, an employer might say ‘You should be at work by 9 o’clock’. Using ‘should’, it could be a suggestion, but it is quite clear that in this situation it is actually a ‘must’. In Estonian, there is less use of words like (may, might, shouldand could). The result, I think, is that there is more direct communication and less hypothesising than in English.
4. Nature is fundamental
I started learning Estonian through observing my surroundings. After some time I began to realise that many of the places and streets in Tallinn get their names from nature. For example, Kitseküla (Goat Village), Kassisaba (Cat’s Tail), Kalamaja (Fish House), Kopli (Paddock) and Kadaka (Juniper), Soo (Swamp), Jõe (River), to name but a few.
When I learned that once utterly foreign words turned out to be simple words such as ‘Fish House’, Estonian became much less daunting and I realised that nature has a special place in Estonian life.
Several of my colleagues and acquaintances have surnames associated with the natural world. For example, ‘õunapuu’, ‘kivi’ or ‘tamm’, meaning ‘apple tree’, ‘stone’ and ‘oak’ in English. These kind of surnames are rare in English.
I like the simplicity of these names, and that they have such a direct meaning. In English, it’s usually not so easy to understand what a last name means or where it comes from without doing some prior research.
5. Start from scratch
For an English speaker, learning Spanish or French is relatively simple, compared to Estonian that is! In these languages, there are many words that are similar, so it is easy to assume what many of the words mean.
For example, Spanish words like ‘necesitar’ and ‘vender’ which mean ‘to need’ and ‘to sell’, respectively, are very similar to ‘necessary’ and ‘vendor’ in English. This makes it easy to guess the meaning of words and to make associations that make them straightforward to remember.
Estonian has so few words related to English that it feels like an English speaker must start from scratch, without relying on associations with English. One has to start from scratch when learning Estonian. Trying to relate the language to English only seems to make learning it harder, and therefore jumping into the language like a child, letting go of previous conceptions of language, appears to be the best method.
6. Every letter counts
Pronouncing letters the same way every time they are used is something new for a native English speaker. Even though the logic is simple, it can nonetheless be tricky.
In Canadian English slang, it is common that letters don’t get pronounced. For example, ‘Toronto’ is often pronounced ‘Torono’; ‘vegetables’ often sounds more like ‘vegtabls’.
In contrast, when speaking Estonian, I am usually misunderstood if I skip a letter. For example, if I pronounce the Estonian word for juice as ‘mal’, instead of ‘m-a-h-l’, I might get a blank stare in return. To a native English speaker, a distinction like this may seem insignificant, but in Estonian, it is important to pronounce every letter accurately.
7. The same word but in different cases
One of the most intimidating aspects of learning Estonian is that there are a staggering 14 noun cases. As a beginner, this makes Estonian seem impossible.
I think that because there are so many cases in Estonia, a novice can be fooled into thinking they know very few words. This is another reason why the language seems so difficult.
For example, a beginner learns the word ‘kodu’, meaning ‘home’. They may be familiar with the word ‘kodu’, but when they see the words ‘koju’, ‘kodust’ or ‘koduga’, they may mistake them for unknown words, not knowing that they are actually seeing ‘kodu’, just in a different form. This wouldn’t happen in English, since the reader would see ‘home’ and ‘to home’ (koju), ‘from home’ (kodust) and ‘with home’ (koduga).
Being confronted with so many unrecognisable words I often felt like I wasn’t making any progress. However, learning the cases and getting used to seeing words in their different forms helped me understand how the language works and made it less intimidating.
Learning any language can significantly change the way a person thinks about the world and how they can express themselves. By learning Estonian, I have been granted a glimpse into the Estonian worldview, and this has given me much to think about. I am not fluent in Estonian after two years of studying. I look forward to learning more about the language, so that I can experience Estonia through the Estonian language to its fullest extent.