Key messages

  • The English language is not threatening the maintenance of Estonian. It is important to maintain an emotional bond with the Estonian language and the desire to transmit it to the next generation. Radical solutions (e.g. ‘no language other than Estonian’ or ‘only English for science and business’) do not seem reasonable. Rather, flexible solutions appropriate for each context should besought. Languages die not because of foreign linguistic impact but because their speakers abandon them and are unwilling to transmit them down to the next generation.
  • Identity is an emotional bond which often cannot be determined through objective characteristics. While we cannot choose the country we are born in, or our mother tongue, we can choose our attitudes and develop our linguistic repertoire. While the Estonian language is the basis for Estonian identity and one of the main values of the Estonian people, one should find more values that are shared by society as a whole.
  • Increasing the number of Estonian classes in schools will not help because only too often there is no incentive or opportunity to use the acquired Estonian language skills. In order to create better conditions for Estonian language learning, its acquisition and integration of others into the Estonian society, the current segregative educational system should be replaced by an integrated one as soon as possible, though children who so wish should have an opportunity to learn their native language and culture (including the Russian language and culture). Immersion is an effective way to overcome the fear of using another language, but is not sufficient, since pupils are of the same ethnic and cultural background and in regions with a small number of Estonian-speakers here are very few opportunities to use the language.

The framework

This Chapter talks about language and its links with various aspects of life, such as language proficiency, identity, opportunities for native language maintenance abroad, language change, segregation and self-identification through language. Language is an integral part of human existence and activity, and therefore the topic of language and its related issues is woven through many articles in this compendium. We can distinguish at least three themes that the authors explore and discuss in connection with the language issue.

Firstly, it is essential to maintain the Estonian language. The existence and continuity of the Estonian language and culture is the basis for the existence of the Estonian state: this objective is enshrined in the Constitution and set out in a wide range of legislative acts. Easier migration opportunities and advancing information technology have opened up the world, but also increased the role and presence of English as the language used for international communication (lingua franca). Does this pose a threat to the Estonian language or not? Estonians migrate, too – thousands of our compatriots are living in foreign countries, either temporarily or more or less permanently. Many of them wonder how to maintain links with Estonia and transmit their mother tongue to future generations. Languages, however, tend to change across time and space: today’s Estonian is not the same it was 100 years ago (both because each generation introduces their own changes and because other languages to which the Estonian language is exposed are also constantly changing). Even within Estonia, there are regional differences, not to mention the different forms of Estonian spoken abroad. Therefore, we need to explore the notion of language maintenance (Verschik 2012).

The second topic deals with migration and language. This concerns both expatriate Estonians and the nationals of other countries migrating to Estonia. Some problems stem from Soviet times: for example the desire to preserve isolation and to live in one’s own language environment, to be separated geographically (physical and mental segregation), very few contacts between different language communities, etc. In addition to these issues, we also need to consider new migrants from both poorer regions (including from the territories of the former Soviet Union) and more economically-prosperous European countries: how do we teach them Estonian and prevent the segregation and isolation of different societal groups?

The third key topic is that of identity. As the chapter explains, identity is not equal to banal labelling (Estonian, non-Estonian, migrant, etc.); the complexity of identity must be recognised (a seemingly unitary group, such as ‘Russian speakers’, may include people with such divergent attitudes and linguistic behaviours that the question arises whether they belong to one and the same group) (see Ehala & Zabrodskaja 2014). For example a person may have language skills that are at best average, but may identify exclusively with Estonia and no matter how they describe their ethnic background and native language, it would certainly include the words ‘Estonia’ or ‘Estonian’. Identity can be treated not as a defined, pre-determined notion (ethnic Estonian parents = an Estonian), but as a desire to identify/be identified with a certain group, language, community, etc.

All these topics are related to multilingualism. In modern linguistics, multilingualism is not seen as equal knowledge of multiple languages and/or learning to speak all languages at a very young age. The main focus is on effective use and communication, i.e. the ability to accurately express meaning and to achieve the objectives of communication (Cenoz 2013). The majority of the population of Estonia is multilingual. Multilingualism is not a recent phenomenon. Cities have always been multilingual: this was already the case even in the days of the Hanseatic League and other similar bottom-up unions, while in the present we have the example of constant day-to-day interactions at street markets and shops, etc. Multilingualism is not limited to multilingual speakers; we can see it in advertisements, on signs and elsewhere (the so-called material culture of multilingualism, as Aronin [2012] termed it). What do multilingualism and becoming multilingual mean in practical terms? In today’s context we refer to the teaching of Estonian and the so-called ‘big’ languages (English, Russian, German, and others) but is it enough?

The articles in this chapter discuss one or more of the following topics: the preservation of and changes in the language; migration and language learning/transfer; identity as the desire for self-definition/ not to self-define; multilingualism and its manifestations. All topics are intertwined and impossible to address individually – it is only possible to highlight certain issues.

Summary of articles

Language is not just a means of communication or a set of words and grammar rules. It can also be understood as a symbol of a person or a group. It can be said that the use of linguistic resources is often prompted by what we are doing, but also by who we are or think we are and which role we are playing. Language may change, yet still persist as a symbol.

The sub-chapters by Anastassia Zabrodskaja, Helin Kask and Kristiina Praakli indicate that languages are not static, as there are no ‘pure’ languages. A rule is a current agreement, which may, for one reason or another, become obsolete (e.g. actual language use and/or the perception of speakers has changed). One might even say that change is built into language. It cannot be prevented and occurs for both internal (structural, etc.) and external reasons (political situation, status and reputation of languages, number of speakers, prevailing language ideologies and rivalry between them, personal attitudes, factors related to communication situations, linguistic contacts, etc.).

The Estonian language is not an exception. Historically, Estonian has been influenced by a number of other languages. The majority of Estonian speakers are multilingual. While in the past the knowledge of German and Russian and in North Estonia also Finnish was common, today most young people can speak English to a greater or lesser degree (and, of course, other languages). Moreover, a considerable number of Estonians are living abroad, either temporarily or permanently. Their language usage is influenced by local languages. Estonian, in its turn, influences other languages, such as the Russian spoken by local Russians or the minority languages with a small number of speakers.

No language, however, is known to have borrowed from another language to a point of extinction. Language maintenance means transmission of the language to future generations, not the preservation of words and construction in an unchanged form. Each language contains words and structures that are actually borrowed, unbeknownst to contemporary users, who consider them indigenous. There are different factors that can put a language in danger of becoming extinct:

  • reluctance to associate oneself with a certain group (the group is considered unattractive, uninteresting, useless, etc.);
  • a negative attitude towards the speakers of a certain language, which results in a desire to distance oneself from the group;
  • limited opportunities to use one’s native language in an alien environment (a narrow social circle, lack of time, lack of ability and willingness to do something about it, etc.);
  • extreme and tragic situations that threaten the physical existence of the speakers of certain languages (mass deportations, genocide).

These reasons are not linguistic. Thus, loans from English to Estonian (or from Estonian to Russian) as such are not a sign of danger. There are inevitable divergences between the variety of Russian spoken in Estonia and that spoken in Russia or elsewhere (e.g. Latvia, Ukraine, Israel, the U.S.). The reason for borrowing is not the lack of equivalents or the fact that speakers are shifting from their first language, but a different reality: in the local variety of Russian, an Estonian word refers to a specific term used in a specific context, so that everybody knows what is being talked about.

Neither does proficiency in other languages mean that one’s native language is in danger. It should be taken into account that the Estonian-speakers (regardless of their ethnic background) who consider Estonian their first and/or main language of communication want to speak to their descendants in Estonian. This implies that there is the desire to belong, i.e. an identity.

Since a small nation is inevitably multilingual, all kinds of translations also play an important role in its cultural history. Translation means not only the creation of new texts, but also the importation of new patterns, expressions, realities and terms. Multilingualism has become particularly topical now, when increased migration flows, more open societies, and rapid exchange of information thanks to information technology developments have raised the visibility of multilingualism as such. Anastassia Zabrodskaja and Helin Kask argue that, in reality, Estonia is country with a functional-multilingualism: in certain domains of life, several languages are used and users switch effortlessly from one to another. Multilingualism is all around us: on the internet and in everyday interaction. Languages are used in parallel or interchangeably, except in formal situations that require strict monolingualism. This should not be construed as a conflict with the policy of a single official language. In Estonia, a single official language has a symbolic importance, which does not mean that the use of other languages should be banned.

Multilingualism and migration inevitably increase the complexity of the situation, as argued by Martin Ehala and Aune Valk. One and the same label may have different meanings at different times and for different social groups. Aune Valk writes about the changing of the Estonian identity in time and space (differences between generations and between Estonians in Estonia and Estonian expatriates). The role of the Estonian language in Estonian identity is, however, more important than that of territory or statehood. Both the use of language and identities are becoming increasingly complex. More often than not, one keyword is no longer sufficient and a more detailed (self-)description is needed. Therefore, the notions and descriptions need to be refined and specified, although this may appear to be too much trouble and cognitively complicated. Identity should rather be depicted as a continuum with more clear statuses (Estonian, Russian, Estonian expat) at each end and a number of more complex ones (Estonian-Russian, bilingual Estonian) in between.

If identity is to be seen as a desire to belong, it is important to look at what is common to all members of society, i.e. which values are shared by all. A person can belong to several groups at the same time or share some values with one group and others with a different group. Different identity strata and values can be depicted as concentric circles. The common area of the circles marks the core values shared by the ‘homeland’ Estonians, other residents of Estonia and Estonians living outside of Estonia. Methodologically, it is even more convenient to depict the combined effect of identity strata (e.g. origin, language, living environment, nationality, principles of social organisation) as concentric circles.

Thus, we can speak of a Small-Estonia and a Big-Estonia, whose intersection is shared core values. The knowledge of Estonian is still an important element, but not the only one. The focus shifts to emotional ties with Estonia, i.e. to the desire to share the same values. This is what Aune Valk and Kristiina Praakli discuss in their respective articles.

When speaking about Big-Estonia, it should be stressed that the position of modern linguistics is that all language users matter, not just monolingual native speakers. We cannot say that the Estonian speakers of a different origin are not ‘proper Estonians’: they, too, are keeping the language alive in their own way.

The issue of migration is discussed in articles by Kristiina Praakli, Aune Valk and Mart Rannut. Learning or preserving a language while living abroad requires more effort and self-analysis (Why do I need it? What will change for me/my loved ones if I fail? Will I still be the same person I was?, etc.). Preserving one’s native language and maintaining contacts with other speakers is facilitated by information-age technology: the Estonians in Finland, for example, have established multiple social network groups (Praakli 2016). These groups provide help, advice and simply an opportunity to speak to their compatriots in their native language. The internet is not just a contributor to the spread of English or any other major language; it is also a powerful unifier of the users of languages with small numbers of speakers.

The consequences of the Soviet-era migration have not yet disappeared. This topic is discussed in detail by Mart Rannut. In legal as well as linguistic and sociological terms, the Soviet-era immigrants and their descendants cannot be compared either with so-called indigenous minorities (the Frisians in the Netherlands, the Livonians in Latvia, Russian Old-Believers in the Baltic countries) nor with immigrant minorities (the Turks in Germany and the Netherlands, the Poles in the UK and Ireland). Of course, it is difficult to pinpoint the moment when an immigrant minority becomes indigenous; it is clear, however, that it takes several generations before this happens. Immigrants in the traditional sense cross a state border, which means that they are aware of the fact that they are entering a different language and living environment with different rules and they need to make an effort, for example, to learn the language or adapt to the rules of their new country of residence. Immigration in the Soviet era was something completely different: the Soviet republics of that time were not seen as ‘countries’ and the knowledge of the de facto country of residence was not necessary. The rhetoric of equality and friendship of all nations and the visibility of local languages (e.g. local institutes of language and literature, street signs duplicated in Russian and in local languages) were merely smokescreens to divert attention: in reality, Russian speakers were free to remain monolingual, while the speakers of other languages did not enjoy the same privilege. Because of this, the Estonian language requirements of today can arouse irritation in those nostalgic for their lost privileges and monolingualism. In essence, this yearning for segregation and desire to create a monolingual world stem from the Soviet language and population policies.

The change in the number of people of non-Estonian origin who can speak Estonian, compared with the last Soviet-era census (1989), indicates that third- and fourth-generation immigrants are actually the first bilingual generation of immigrants. As revealed by the survey of 2015 conducted by the Estonian Institute of Human Rights, the younger the respondent the more likely it is he or she has learned Estonian at a very young age. There is a strong correlation between the knowledge of Estonian and whether this knowledge is considered important: those with good knowledge of the language also value it. However, linguistically-isolated communities still exist in north-eastern Estonia and also partially in Tallinn.

The desire to live among your own people and to speak in your native language is understandable; however, what is worrying is that the segregation of Estonian- and Russian-speaking populations persists, and this also causes spatial segregation (there are certain parts of Tallinn with closed monolingual-Russian communities, which the Estonians want to move away from). Segregation is not merely geographical, it is also virtual (information space, communication networks, literature). Thus, language-based identity and geography interact and mutually reinforce each other: the number of speakers of each language is sufficiently large to cope without being in contact with the other.

This is where we need to think about language learning. A perception has spread that sees no sense in making life more complicated through bilingual teaching, insisting instead that the number of Estonian classes should be increased (those who can speak Estonian and actively use the language disagree). In spite of the apparent logicality of such an approach it is ineffective. Even when Estonian is taught intensively at school, there is no incentive to use it in a segregated community and to create communication networks outside the habitual language environment. The attitudes of members of such communities to the Estonian language can be characterised as: ‘yes, I can speak to a degree but I don’t because I do not see the need for it’. This does not mean that the knowledge of Estonian is considered completely useless; rather, it is the delegation of responsibility: ‘although the knowledge of Estonian is necessary, in my neighbourhood I can manage with Russian only’. This results in more limited opportunities for higher education, in the labour market, etc. Therefore, it is of strategic importance to break the mechanism that reproduces linguistic and social segregation by replacing the two parallel education systems inherited from the Soviet era with a single secondary-education system (with opportunities to learn Russian and other languages and cultures available for those who may request them).

Another problem is somewhat unexpected – the link between the knowledge of Estonian and English. As Tiit Tammaru (Postimees 2016) has commented regarding the statistics of language proficiency, the knowledge of English is more prevalent among Estonians than among the Russian-speaking population, even among the younger generations. This indicates that while the Estonians are oriented towards the rest of the world, the Russian-speaking population continues to be oriented towards the Russian-language information space.

Good knowledge of the English language – today’s Latin, the language for all important international discourse – is definitely necessary. English, however, is not a substitute for the knowledge of other languages. While universities offer opportunities to learn other major European languages, there is a lack of awareness in society of the importance of the so-called small languages. What is offered are standard sets of languages: English and (occasionally) Russian or German to Estonians and Estonian and to some extent English to Russian-speaking learners. Nevertheless, it can’t be considered normal that information about the closest neighbours of the Baltic countries (and even Finland) could be obtained exclusively through a major foreign language.

As regards migration and language learning, the group with which the newcomers want to integrate is of high importance. It would be dangerous if they followed the established segregation pattern: socio-economically more successful and younger immigrants from mainly European countries tend to make choices similar to the Estonians regarding residential areas, while the choices of those coming from former Soviet republics resemble those of the Russian-speaking population. It is possible that some of the new immigrants will continue to use English as the main language of communication, given the good knowledge of the language among younger generations in Estonia. The one exception could be the few intellectuals and civil society activists who have recently left Russia for political reasons – they may continue to identify themselves as Russian-speaking people, but not with Russia as a state as they consider the political climate in Estonia more suitable.


The chapter as a whole illustrates the increasing complexity of how language as such, as well as specific language skills, are linked with the living environment, the creation of communications networks, choices of residence, the labour market and identity. Since humans are linguistic creatures, the issues related to the knowledge, choice, change, acquisition and preservation of a language form an integral part of the description of transformation in human development.

Both language and identity change in time and space. Language does not mean solely the formal standard language – which is, in reality, just one language form considered appropriate in certain situations. Each person’s linguistic repertoire is diverse because the use of language depends on a number of factors, such as the degree of formality of a situation, the background of interlocutors/audience/readers, the purpose of the communication, etc. Language perception is constantly changing; to understand this, it is sufficient to read a text in Estonian, published a hundred years ago. Language variation in space is manifested in local dialects, but the emigration of users inevitably leads to even more diverse language use.

Language change is a natural phenomenon in the development of all languages: there are no ‘pure’ languages. Changes caused by other languages are also natural and the Estonian language is no exception. Many everyday words as well as structures and pronunciation varieties have been historically borrowed from other languages. In fact, the need for multilingualism has never been called into question in Estonia (unlike in some large countries). The second thing is that the popular concept of multilingualism differs from the scientific one; for example, it is often mistakenly believed that a multilingual person has an equal command of all the languages he or she speaks, has learned those languages at a very young age and identifies equally with all of them. This is not necessarily the case. Multilingualism is increasingly described through use rather than level of proficiency, as the latter is often difficult to measure. The knowledge of several languages and their skilful use does not threaten the Estonian language or the Estonian identity.

It is often thought that multilingualism creates problems; in fact, it is rather the opposite – what tends to cause problems is militant monolingualism. Estonian society is multilingual, however, seen in the bigger picture, the Estonians tend to know and use more languages than the Russians. This is explained, on the one hand, by the fact that small ethnic groups are more open to multilingualism and, on the other hand, by the inertia inherited from the Soviet era when Russian-speaking people had the privilege of remaining monolingual, while the speakers of other languages did not enjoy the same right. There are also other negative consequences from the Soviet language and demographic policies. While there are some positive trends (a larger number of those who know and use Estonian, a more open Estonian identity, openness of society), linguistic segregation still persists. Concerning the increasing number of new immigrants, it should not transpire that their linguistic and social behaviour start reproducing the existing segregative patterns.

Identity cannot be described in simple terms; it depends on the purpose of the description: for example, is the purpose just to state a person’s ethnic background/nationality or is it to put the description into a broader context (including comparison with similar, yet different identities, such as Estonian-Russian as opposed to Russian-Russian). This complexity should be taken into account; otherwise, the accuracy of analyses will suffer and inadequate evaluations will arise, leading to incorrect conclusions, wrong decisions, lack of willingness and capacity to discuss and clear matters, continued tensions between the two communities and the persistence in Estonia of language and identity-based parallel societies.


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Cenoz, J. (2013) Defining multilingualism. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 33, 3-18.

Ehala, M. & Zabrodskaja, A. (2014) Ethnolinguistic vitality and acculturation orientations of Russian-speakers in Estonia. In Ryazanova-Clarke, L. (ed.), The Russian Language Outside the Nation: Speakers and Identities, 166-188. Edinburgh, Scotland, UK: Edinburgh University Press Ltd.

Praakli, K. (2016) Estonian-Finnish codeswitching seen from Facebook conversations. Philologia Estonica Tallinnensis 1, 104-124.

Verschik, A. (2012) Keelekontaktide uurimise võlu (ja kasu). Keel ja Kirjandus, 8-9, 658- 673.

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