Population census. 76% of Estonia’s population speak a foreign language
Census data 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 mother tongue and 17% as a foreign language.
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 the age of 3). A person is deemed to speak the language if his or her language skills enable him/her 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.
According to the 2021 census, 76% 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% (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%) and one in three speak two (35%). Of those with command of foreign languages, 13% speak three and 3% speak at least four foreign languages. The proportion of people speaking one and two foreign languages has gone up (43% and 34%, respectively, in 2011), while the proportion of those speaking three and four foreign languages has decreased slightly (17% and 5%).
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% 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. 44% spoke Russian as a foreign language in 2011 and 43% 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% of the inhabitants (223,950 people). 14% of the population spoke Estonian as a foreign language in 2011, and 13% did in 2000.
The proportion of foreign language speakers is highest in Viimsi, lowest in Sillamäe city
Command of 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, with 90% of them speaking a foreign language. The percentage of foreign language speakers is lowest among people aged 65 and over (68%) and understandably also in the youngest age group, i.e. among 3–14-year-olds (48%).
The municipality with the highest percentage of foreign language speakers is Viimsi rural municipality (87%), followed by Jõelähtme rural municipality (85%), and Rae and Saue rural municipalities (84% each). “For comparison, 81% of the population in Tallinn and 82% 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% and 32% of the population, respectively, speak a foreign language,” said Osila.
Estonian as a foreign language is most often spoken by Finns
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 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 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%," noted Osila.
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%.
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% 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% and as a foreign language by 17% of the population. Russian is the next most widely spoken language, with 29% speaking it as their mother tongue and 38% 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.
Information on command of languages was collected through the population and housing census from the end of 2021 to the beginning of 2022. Nearly half of the total population participated in the survey, and the breakdowns were calculated taking into account the people who refused to answer the question. The aim of the survey was to find estimates for the questions asked. A more detailed description of the survey can be found in the methodology document.
For further information:
Helen Maria Raadik
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press [at] stat.ee