The Estonian Language Gap

The Estonian Language Gap

After my first week in Estonia I was in awe at the Estonians level of English. Everyone I met had a level of English akin to the Scandinavians, and I was IMPRESSED!

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Fast forward almost a month and it turns out I was wrong. Estonians do not have perfect English, unless of course they are aged approx. 15-35 years old. At first it baffled me. Some people spoke so perfectly it took me a while to realise they were Estonian, whereas others would just stare at me blankly and say “ma ei räägi inglise keelt” – “I don’t speak English”. It didn’t take long to understand the pattern. Every one of my generation and those slightly older and younger spoke English, any one aged any older than that didn’t.

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Being the language nerd that I am, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Once I thought about it, it made perfect sense. Everyone who spoke English would have to have been in school in the late 80’s and early 90’s to the present. Ding ding ding. Estonian became (re-)independent in 1991. So as soon as they did, and even slightly before that, Estonians began learning English, recognising its importance as a global language of communication. Smart people.

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The older generations are what stayed with me though. What did they learn?

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Thankfully I have loads of Estonian friends that I could ask, and my fellow language nerd Liz informed me that previous to this, Russian was the second language taught in schools and used in Estonia – hardly surprising considering almost 25% of the population is Russian even today. This means that there is a huge “language gap” in Estonian society, whereby the young have a level of English that would rival many a native speaker, and the old have none at all, but speak Russian, which the majority of the young do not speak. Then you have that small group, the young Russian Estonians – Russian speakers by culture, Estonian speakers by society (an important part of the Estonian education system is the teaching of Estonian to young non-ethnic Estonians to help them integrate), who also learn English at school.

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Considering close to 25% of the population is Russian, I would estimate 5-10% of those are in the 15-35 age group, which means there are ~100,000 Estonians who can speak three languages by the time they finish their state education – not bad eh? And I’m lucky enough to know one! My lovely friend Anastassija speaks all three perfectly – Russian as her first language and English as her third.

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While the language gap might be obvious now, it’s amazing to think that in the future Estonia will fall into the Scandinavia/Finland bracket of Northern European English speakers, as well as having 25% of the population speaking three languages at native and near native levels. It’s no wonder the home of Skype’s “startup scene is booming” – the linguistic abilities here make it such an attractive place to start!

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Slán,
Lori x

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