Over three quarters of Estonians speak a foreign language

The data from the 2021 census show that an estimated 76% 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% of the population: 67% speak it as a native language and 17% as a foreign language, Statistics Estonia, the country’s official statistics agency, said in a statement.

Information on command of languages was collected through the population and housing census survey from the end of 2021 to the beginning of 2022. A person is deemed to speak the language if their language skills enable them to manage with speaking, writing and reading in familiar language use situations.

According to the 2021 census, 76% of the inhabitants of Estonia – 975,320 people – speak a foreign language. The number of foreign language speakers has increased steadily over the last three censuses – in 2011, 69% of the population spoke a foreign language, up from 64% in 2000.

One in two inhabitants of Estonia with command of foreign languages speak one foreign language (48%), one in three speak two (35%), 13% speak three and 3% speak at least four foreign languages.

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,” Liina Osila, the population and housing census project manager at Statistics Estonia, said.

English as a foreign language is spoken by 48% of the population. In 2011, the figure was 40%, and 26% of the population spoke English in 2000. This is followed by Russian, with 39% of the population speaking it as a foreign language, according to the 2021 census.

Infographic: English, The Global Language? | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

The third most widely spoken foreign language in Estonia in all three censuses is Estonian, spoken as a foreign language by 17% of the inhabitants (223,950 people).

The proportion of foreign language speakers is highest in Viimsi, lowest in Sillamäe city

The municipality with the highest percentage of foreign language speakers is Viimsi (87%), a small borough near Tallinn. In the capital, 81% of the population speak a foreign language; in the country’s second largest town, Tartu, 82% do. For comparison, in Narva and Sillamäe, just 36% and 32% of the population, respectively, speak a foreign language.

Command of foreign languages is fairly equal between the genders – 74% of men and 73% of women speak a foreign language. However, there are large differences between age groups. Ninety per cent of the 15–29-year-olds speak a foreign language, while 68% of the people aged 65 and over do.

The share of people speaking only their mother tongue is highest among Russians. “40% of Russians living in Estonia do not speak any other language. For ethnic Estonians, the figure is 19%,” Osila said.

Estonian as a foreign language is most often spoken by Finns living here, 56% of whom speak Estonian. For Russians, the share is 50%, while among Latvians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, the proportion of Estonian speakers ranges between 40% and 45%.

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