76% of Estonia’s population speak a foreign language
Text Mark Taylor Photo Andrei Chertkov
Census data shows that an estimated 76 per cent of Estonia’s population speak a foreign language. While 10 years ago the most widely spoken foreign language in Estonia was Russian, today it is English. Estonian is spoken by 84 per cent of the population: 67 per cent speak it as a mother tongue and 17 per cent as a foreign language.
According to the 2021 census, 76 per cent of the inhabitants of Estonia, i.e. 975,320 people, speak a foreign language. In the 2011 census, 69% of the population (856,225 people) spoke a foreign language, up from 64 per cent (851,639) in 2000. The number of foreign language speakers has therefore increased steadily over the last three censuses.
One in two inhabitants of Estonia with command of foreign languages speak one foreign language (48 per cent) and one in three speak two (35 per cent). Of those with command of foreign languages, 13 per cent speak three and 3 per cent speak at least four foreign languages. The proportion of people speaking one and two foreign languages has gone up (43 per cent and 34 per cent, respectively, in 2011), while the proportion of those speaking three and four foreign languages has decreased slightly (17 per cent and 5 per cent).
English is the most widely spoken foreign language in Estonia
The top three foreign languages have remained the same in the last three censuses. “However, there has been one noticeable change – while at the time of the previous censuses the most common foreign language in Estonia was Russian, it is now English,” said Liina Osila, Population and Housing Census project manager at Statistics Estonia.
English as a foreign language is spoken by 48 per cent of the population. In 2011, the figure was 40 per cent, and 26 per cent of the population spoke English in 2000. This is followed by Russian, with 39 per cent of the population speaking it as a foreign language according to the 2021 census. 44 per cent spoke Russian as a foreign language in 2011 and 43 per cent did so in 2000. The third most widely spoken foreign language in Estonia in all three censuses is Estonian, spoken as a foreign language by 17 per cent of inhabitants (223,950 people). 14 per cent of the population spoke Estonian as a foreign language in 2011, and 13% did in 2000.
The municipality with the highest percentage of foreign language speakers is Viimsi rural municipality (87 per cent), followed by Jõelähtme rural municipality (85 per cent), and Rae and Saue rural municipalities (84 per cent each). “For comparison, 81 per cent of the population in Tallinn and 82 per cent in Tartu city speak a foreign language. The municipalities of Ida-Viru county have a lower-than-average percentage of foreign language speakers. For example, in Narva and Sillamäe, 36 per cent and 32 per cent of the population, respectively, speak a foreign language,” said Osila.
84% of the population speak Estonian
If we look at the command of languages of Estonia’s population, regardless of whether a language is spoken as a mother tongue or as a foreign language, it turns out that 84 per cent of the population speak or understand Estonian. This is up by 2 percentage points compared with 2011.
Estonian is spoken as a mother tongue by 67 per cent and as a foreign language by 17 per cent of the population. Estonian as a foreign language is most often spoken by Finns living here, 56 per cent of whom speak Estonian. For Russians, the share is 50 per cent, while among Latvians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, the proportion of Estonian speakers ranges between 40 per cent and 45 per cent.
Russian is the next most widely spoken language, with 29 per cent speaking it as their mother tongue and 38 per cent as a foreign language (67% in total). “When looking at command of languages in various age groups, generational differences emerge. Among older people, there are more Russian speakers than Estonian speakers. The share of Finnish speakers is also higher in the older age groups, whereas English has replaced Russian and Finnish among younger people,” Osila explained.