Census data shows that approximately 76% of the Estonian population speaks a foreign language. While 10 years ago the most widely spoken foreign language in Estonia was Russian, today it is English, reports Statistics Estonia.
Estonian is spoken by 84% of the population: 67% speak it as their mother tongue and 17% as a foreign language.
According to the 2021 census, 76% of Estonia’s inhabitants, or 975,320 people, speak a foreign language. In the 2011 census, 69% of the population (856,225 people) spoke a foreign language, compared to 64% (851,639) in 2000. The number of foreign language speakers has therefore increased steadily over the last three censuses.
One in two Estonians who speak a foreign language speaks one foreign language (48%) and one in three speaks two (35%). Among those who master foreign languages, 13% speak three and 3% speak at least four foreign languages. The proportion of people speaking one and two foreign languages has increased (43% and 34% respectively in 2011), while the proportion of people speaking three and four foreign languages has slightly decreased (17% and 5%).
The three main foreign languages have remained the same in the last three censuses.
“However, there has been a noticeable change – whereas at the time of previous censuses the most common foreign language in Estonia was Russian, it is now English,” said Liina Osila, project manager of the population and housing census at Statistics Estonia.
English as a foreign language is spoken by 48% of the population. In 2011, this figure was 40% and 26% of the population spoke English in 2000. Next comes Russian, with 39% of the population speaking it as a foreign language according to the 2021 census. 44% spoke Russian as a foreign language in 2011 and 43% in 2000. The third most spoken foreign language in Estonia in all three censuses is Estonian, spoken as a foreign language by 17% of the inhabitants (223,950 people). 14% of the population spoke Estonian as a foreign language in 2011 and 13% in 2000.
Proficiency in foreign languages is fairly equal between the sexes – 74% of men and 73% of women speak a foreign language. However, there are large differences between age groups. The share of foreign language speakers is highest among 15-29 year olds, 90% of whom speak a foreign language. The percentage of foreign language speakers is lowest among people aged 65 and over (68%) and of course also in the youngest age group, i.e. 3-14 year olds (48%).
The municipality with the highest percentage of foreign language speakers is the rural municipality of Viimsi (87%), followed by the rural municipality of Jõelähtme (85%) and the rural municipalities of Rae and Saue (84% each). “For comparison, 81% of the population of Tallinn and 82% of the city of Tartu speak a foreign language. Municipalities in Ida-Viru county have a lower than average percentage of foreign language speakers. For example, in Narva and Sillamäe, 36% and 32% of the population respectively speak a foreign language,” Osila said.
78% of ethnic Estonians speak a foreign language. In comparison with other ethnic nationalities living here, Estonians stand out with a high proportion of English speakers (54%). They are followed by local Latvians (44%), Finns (39%), Russians (29%), Ukrainians (28%) and Belarusians (19%).
The percentage of speakers of Russian as a foreign language is the highest among Latvians – 53%. Estonians are 2 percentage points behind Latvians (51%), while 44% of Ukrainians and 39% of Finns speak Russian as a foreign language.
The proportion of people speaking only their mother tongue is highest among Russians. “40% of Russians living in Estonia don’t speak any other language. For ethnic Estonians, the figure is 19%,” Osila noted.
Estonian as a foreign language is most commonly spoken by Finns living there, 56% of whom speak Estonian. For Russians, the share is 50%, while among Latvians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, the proportion of Estonian speakers varies between 40% and 45%.
If we look at the language proficiency of the Estonian population, whether a language is spoken as a mother tongue or as a foreign language, it turns out that 84% of the population speaks or understands Estonian. This is an increase of 2 percentage points from 2011.
Estonian is spoken as a mother tongue by 67% of the population and as a foreign language by 17% of the population. Russian is the second most spoken language, with 29% speaking it as a mother tongue and 38% as a foreign language (67% overall). “When looking at language proficiency in different age groups, generational differences emerge. Among the elderly, there are more Russian speakers than Estonian speakers. The share of Finnish speakers is also higher in older age groups, as English has replaced Russian and Finnish among younger people,” Osila explained.