How difficult is it to learn Estonian?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The short answer to this: not too difficult, certainly less than one might expect. The ideal process by which one learns Estonian is different from most other languages though.

Here's a quick overview of a few things to know about learning Estonian.

First of all, Estonian is comparable to Finnish (the closest language to Estonian) kind of in the same way that Dutch is comparable to German. Dutch is both less grammatically complex (almost no cases, two genders instead of three) than German as well as more similar to English in terms of vocabulary, and Estonian is also less grammatically complex than Finnish and has more Germanic loanwords. Finnish has vowel harmony (Estonian doesn't), Finnish has longer words than Estonian, and other parts of grammar are more complex as well. Possession in Finnish is shown with a suffix on the word being possessed as well as the personal pronoun, but in Estonian it's the same as in English: my/your/his/etc. + noun.

Estonian has no articles: no the, no a. You may also have read that it has a total number of fourteen cases, compared to other Indo-European languages which usually have somewhere from four to eight. This is misleading though, since:

- Estonian also has no grammatical gender (no male/female/neuter nouns), and
- cases in Estonian are almost entirely made up by simply adding an ending on the genitive. Once the student has learned these endings, the only effort needed when learning a new word is to find out the genitive (because almost all cases are based on this), the partitive (which is sometimes very random), and sometimes an irregular illative (the case showing direction).

Let's illustrate this in a graph. German has four cases, but don't forget that it also has three genders, twelve possible combinations in the singular


Compare this with Estonian:

Approximate meaning
of the sea
some sea
merre (also -sse ending)
to the sea
at the sea
from, about, out of the sea
for the sea
on the sea
from the sea
for, to, by, becoming the sea
up to the sea
as the sea
without the sea
with the sea

As you can see, the nominative is just the noun itself so no problem there. The partitive is the toughest part, the illative is usually formed with -sse after the genitive but sometimes with a doubling of a consonant, and the rest is smooth sailing: just the genitive plus the same ending every time. There's a lot to remember in the beginning, but the majority of these cases are very straightforward.

Pronunciation: not too hard, just make sure to avoid aspiration (t, p, and so on should be pronounced without a puff of air coming out of your mouth, so that makes t almost like a d and p almost like a b) and pay attention to long vowels. Everything is written as pronounced though, and Estonian generally doesn't like consonant clusters so many of these taken from other words are reduced. German Arzt for example becomes arst, school (not sure if that word came in through English school or German Schule) becomes kool. The r is also rolled in Estonian.

Word order: Estonian word order is freer than that in English, but interestingly enough it often resembles English much more even than related (Germanic) languages do. German and Dutch start out looking like English, but complex sentences end up moving verbs around to the end of the sentence or fiddling about with word order in other ways. Take this German sentence for example:

Mich hat sie nicht gefragt ob ich komme möchte.

Literal word order: to me has she not asked whether I come want.
English meaning: She didn't ask me whether I want to come.

In Estonian this is:

Ta ei küsinud minult, kas ma tahan tulla.

Literal word order: She - not - asked - of me, - question marker - I - want - to come.

So in these sentences we actually have a much friendlier word order to the English speaker. The kas in the middle of the sentence is a marker used whenever asking a question. Sa oled kodus (you are at home) vs. Kas sa oled kodus? (are you at home?) Oh, also note that ta can also mean he.

Word order is very important in a language because being fluent in a language requires the ability to handle long sentences, and with Estonian luckily there's not much to worry about here.

Verb conjugation: not as easy as some languages like Persian, but nevertheless not too hard. Things to watch out for in Estonian are irregular verbs and two infinitives, but overall it's no more difficult than other languages. Using the negative is especially easy in Estonian because it works the same regardless of person:

ma lähen, sa lähed, te lähete... (I go, you go, you (formal) go...)


ma ei lähe, sa ei lähe, te ei lähe...

Finding places to use it: this is the toughest part here, since Estonian is only spoken by a bit over a million people. Luckily the country is very connected to the internet so there is a lot of online content. There is a lot of TV and radio online, their Wikipedia is fairly large compared to the size of the language, etc. See the Estonian label for more helpful links on this. The current online situation is way better than it was in 1998 when I first returned from a month in Estonia - at the time pretty much the only way to interact with the language was Postimees for news, a single online dictionary, and a few 5-minute news reports online. Estonian has become much much easier to learn online over the past few years.

English ability: Estonia used to be part of the USSR so those that grew up during Soviet times speak fluent Russian, while younger people are generally more interested in English. Estonia isn't like Norway or Denmark though in having a population that is so good at English that it's nearly impossible to avoid it. It's still very easy to talk with people that don't know much English at all.

Living costs: Still much cheaper than most other parts of Europe. Depending on your style of living and preferred method of study, just a few thousand dollars could be enough to acquire a fairly good command of the language through living there.

What studying Estonian is about, then, is creating a good environment in which to learn it (by either directly going to Estonia or doing a lot of online research to find enough sites to create an immersive environment), working hard in the beginning on familiarizing oneself with cases and the rest of the grammar, and then continually practicing. Estonian words for the most part does not resemble English at all, so this is where the most time needs to be put in. If you have put in the required effort to learn the grammar and keep up the vocabulary work, then one day after you have learned enough words it will suddenly click and you'll find it to be remarkably easy to use.


Anonymous said...

spelling errors:

"ma läen" should be "ma lähen"

"sa ei lähi" should be "sa ei lähe"

if you have difficulty with cases then check out online õigekeelsussõnaraamat:

Me said...

Good eye; I've fixed the typos. That site is another good one to bookmark, pretty much the opposite of this one:

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