243 mother tongues spoken in Estonia

Posted on 14 March 2023, 12:05

Census results show that 243 different mother tongues are spoken in Estonia. Estonian is spoken as a mother tongue by 67% and as a foreign language by 17% of the population. Therefore, a total of 84% of the population speaks Estonian.

Henry Lass, an analyst at Statistics Estonia, said that the proportion of native speakers of Estonian has not increased, but the number of mother tongues spoken in Estonia has risen significantly since 2000.

“While a total of 109 different mother tongues were counted in the 2000 census, a decade later, in 2011, there were 157 of them, and as many as 243 in the 2021 census,” noted Lass. He added that the new languages with the largest number of speakers include Iranian languages (62), Niger-Kordofanian languages (20), Sindhi (19), and Mandar (15).

The most widely spoken languages in the world are English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, and French. According to the census, 3,879 people in Estonia speak English as their mother tongue, while Chinese is spoken as the native language by 419, Hindi by 630, Spanish by 1,378, and French by 1,424 people living here.

“The oldest languages spoken as mother tongues in Estonia are Egyptian, Hebrew, and Tamil. 21 people are native speakers of Egyptian, while Hebrew is the mother tongue of 79 and Tamil of 124 people,” Lass added.

In this latest census, inhabitants were afforded an opportunity to indicate two mother tongues. It turned out that there are a total of 30,710 people with two native languages in Estonia, or about 2% of the population. “The largest number of people – 18,160 – declared Estonian and Russian as their two mother tongues. The second most common combination of two mother tongues, Estonian and English, was indicated by 1,220 people,” said Lass.

According to the census, there are 1,464 sign language speakers in Estonia. Sign languages are the mother tongue for 754 people, and a foreign language for 710. There are 444 people who use Estonian Sign Language as their mother tongue and 480 people use it as a foreign language. Estonian Sign Language has been recognised as an independent language under the Language Act of the Republic of Estonia since March 1, 2007.

In the census survey, it was possible to enter the mother tongue manually. Around 230 people declared a dialect as their mother tongue.

Information on command of languages was collected through the population and housing census survey from the end of 2021 to the beginning of 2022. Responses to the questions on languages spoken are generalisable to the whole population aged 3 and over (data on language command was not collected for children under 3 years of age). People are deemed to speak a language if their language skills enable them to manage with speaking, writing, and reading in familiar language use situations. The census data are collected as of 31.12.2021 and therefore do not include war refugee data.

Read more about Estonian people's language skills here. The data are published in the statistical database.


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