6 resources for learning Estonian

While we could easily live in Tallinn without learning the language (and many expats take this approach), part of the appeal for both of us is learning a new, challenging, and somewhat random language.

Fortunately, now there are so many tools, apps and websites available to help with language learning – certainly far more than there were when I was in France and when Drew lived in Japan – which make it easy to get started, even before you arrive in a new country.

Following are the six tools I’ve used (and am continuing to use) to learn Estonian.

1. Lingvist (free)

Lingvist is a language-learning app with both a free and a paid version, though you only need the free version for Estonian.


Because they released a special Estonian course this year in honour of Estonia’s 100-year anniversary – for the 100 years, they have 100 useful words/phrases. So while you could upgrade, you get all 100 words with the free version.

I used this before moving over and found it to be a great way to start to become familiar with the pronunciation, as well as to learn some basic vocab. (Along with some random vocab, with words including wage-gap, bog, and midsummer’s festival.)

2. Memrise (free)

Memrise is both an app and a language-learning website, with language courses created by the community. The benefit of this is that there are always options for learning more once you finish a course. I started with Hacking Estonian (which includes 153 words, and teaches them in a way that you start to understand different noun cases and sentence structures), and am currently working on Teach Yourself Complete Estonian (which covers 1,007 words, so should keep me busy for a while!).

The Estonian courses are only available on the web version, which is a little annoying. However, what I love about this platform is the points system. For every lesson or quiz you do, you get points, and you can set yourself daily goals within each course you do. (My goal is 6,000 points a day, which I usually hit in 10-20 minutes.) There’s also a leaderboard within each course, so you can see how you measure up against the other students for the week, for the month, and for all time.

As someone who’s a bit of an achievement junkie, who is also impatient and appreciates instant gratification, this set up is a little addictive. However, it’s all for a good cause!

3. Speakly (free trial, then paid)

Speakly is another language-learning app but is more advanced than Lingvist, in that it asks you to fill in gaps in phrases, and these are often multi-word gaps rather than single-word ones.

I found Speakly quite challenging when I was using it at home, because it uses a quiz-like approach with no education beforehand. While this was fine with Lingvist, which focused on individual words, when you’re looking at multiple words that can appear in different orders and often have different endings depending on the case you’re using, it’s quite challenging for a beginner. Often I just get things wrong until I learn a phrase by heart, but I don’t understand how the phrase is constructed or why it is the way it is.

Another annoying thing is that while you can set a target and can work towards achieving multi-day streaks, it’s not clear how points are granted in this system. I think I started with a target of 15 points a day, which I believe means you give 15 correct responses. However, it doesn’t seem to count every response, which means sometimes I would type in the right text three or four times without getting a reward. This was frustrating as I had no idea how long it would take to hit my target.

Having said that, it is an app so is useful for studying on the go if you’ve already completed the Lingvist program, so I’m planning to revisit it once I have more of a foundation in the language.

4. Italki (paid)

Italki is a website you can use to connect with tutors, language learners and conversation partners online, so is a great way to start learning a language if you aren’t in the country.

The challenge with Estonian is that, when I signed up before moving here, there are only two Estonian tutors in the entire network. However, I did manage to have two tutoring sessions with one of them, which were helpful to start practicing the words I was learning with Lingvist, along with some simple phrases. I was also surprised by how much I understood when I saw it written down, based on the handful of words I already knew.

I stopped booking sessions once I moved here because I’d just moved to a new country and had quite a few other things to organise. However, it’s a good way to start speaking with someone if you can’t find any local speakers of the language you want to learn.

5. Welcoming Programme beginner’s Estonian course (free)

The Welcoming Programme is a government initiative to help immigrants settle in Estonia. Once your visa or residence permit is confirmed, you can enrol in various programs for free which introduce you to life in Estonia and how it works.

One of these programs is a beginners Estonian course, which I’m starting next week! (Unfortunately I had to wait until now due to waiting for my residence permit to be approved.)

The full program is 80 hours, with 2.5 hours every Tuesday and Thursday after work until early next year, with a break for the holiday period. I’m hoping this will give me a better understanding of grammar, along with the opportunity to practise, since that doesn’t happen to much in my day-to-day life.

Stay tuned for a full review once I finish!

6. Conversation Exchange (free)

Conversation exchange is a community website where you can meet up with other language learners to practice your respective languages.

Ideally, you connect with someone who is fluent in the language you want to learn, who also wants to learn a language you are fluent in. (In my case, I’m looking for Estonian speakers who are keen to learn English.) You can then meet up for coffee, connect over Skype or become pen pals, and each help the other one learn the language.

I’ve only just started sending out emails to the seven people registered in Tallinn (it’s not a very big city), so am not sure how it will go yet. However, I used this site when I was living in Paris, and made a number of great friends through my exchanges, along with being forced to improve my French.


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