Learning Estonian: 6-month language update!

Now that I’ve been here for six months (technically seven, but seven feels much more random and highlights how undisciplined and disorganised I’ve been with this blog, so we’ll go with six), I thought it was time for a life update.

Then I began to write said life update, and spent so long on the topic of learning Estonian that I realised it deserved its own write-up.

So, how’s my Estonian going?

… it’s not.

Don’t get me wrong – I still love the idea of learning this language, but don’t feel much closer to speaking it than I was when I arrived.

The start of my Estonian language learning journey

You might remember that when I arrived, I’d been using the Lingvist app to learn some vocabulary, then later started using Speakly and Memrise. This meant I arrived in Estonia knowing 100 or so words – some of the words were what you’d expect (my name is – minu nimi on; how are you – kuidas läheb; yes, no, thank you – jah, ei, aitäh), and some were a bit random (startups – idufirmasid, bog – raha, wage gap – palgalõhe).

The problem was that unless I’d learned a complete phrase in advance (like minu nimi on), I had no idea how to put the words together in a way that made sense. I tried learning a few phrases to see how I went, which led to interactions like this:

Jacqui: Mul on vaja ibuprofeeni. (I need ibuprophen.)

Pharmacist: Gibberish.

Jacqui: I’m sorry, do you speak English?

Now it’s been six months, including three months spent in the Welcoming Programme’s A1 course, which was amazing! I loved going to my lessons each week, which were like being back in kindergarten so were a lot of fun.

During this course we covered days, weeks and months; numbers; colours; family members; countries, languages and nationalities; directions; and various objects and places.

So now I can answer a select group of questions (what’s the date, what’s the time, how old are you, what’s your name, who’s in your family, where are you from?), and I can attempt to describe my week.

But dealing with real-world interactions? Not so much.

In fact, I feel like I’m in the same position I was in when I first arrived in Tallinn. I know the words for ‘two’, ‘table’ and ‘please’, but I’m still not sure how to put them together to say ‘a table for two, please’ when Drew and I go out for dinner.

Why so hard? Let me introduce you to the wonderful world of Estonian noun cases.

An incoherent, incomplete, and probably incorrect introduction to Estonian noun cases

In the Welcoming Programme course, one of the things we looked at was Estonia’s 14 noun cases.

What is a noun case, you ask?

A noun case is an alteration you make to a noun to indicate its position, or role, in a sentence. In English we only use these for pronouns, so let’s look at a couple of those for context.

Nominative (subjective)ObjectivePossessive

Most of us didn’t do grammar at school, so what does this mean? In English, sentences are structured as subject-verb-object. The subject is the person, place or thing that is doing the verb, while the object is having the verb being done to it. The subject uses the nominative case, while the object uses the objective case.

So in the sentence ‘I gave him a present’, the word ‘I’ is the subject, because it’s the one taking action (giving). The word ‘him’ is the object, because it’s the recipient of the action (being given to).

Let’s add names. If the sentence became “Jacqui gives Drew the present”, Jacqui would be the subject and Drew would be the object.

In English, cases only really apply to pronouns (with the exception of the apostrophe-s we use for possessives) – we don’t change nouns depending on whether they are subjects or objects.

So if we add names to the sentence – ‘Jacqui gave the present to Drew’ – those names wouldn’t change, even if we switched them around. The word ‘Jacqui’ will always be the same, regardless of whether I’m giving or being given a present. The same goes for the word ‘Drew’.

This is not the case in Estonian!

In Estonian, the subject uses one case (the nimetav) while the object uses another case (the osastav). The same goes for any adjectives describing the subject and object.

So ‘Jacqui’ is not always ‘Jacqui’, and ‘Drew’ is not always ‘Drew’. If I translate the previous sentence into Estonian (with the help of Google Translate):

  • Jacqui annab Drewile kingituse – Jacqui gives Drew the present.
  • Drew annab Jacquile kingituse – Jacqui gives Drew the present.

That might not sound too difficult in theory. But just consider the following:

  • There are 14 different noun cases
  • According to my textbook, some of the cases have the same meanings, and I still don’t know which one I should use when
  • Not all of them have the same endings, so you can’t assume that the ending you used for one word will be the same for another

So any sentence more difficult than subject + verb is fraught with danger.

What are the other cases?

After seeing the English table above, you might be wondering, ‘What are the other Estonian noun cases? How can there possibly be 14 of them?’

That’s because in addition to the three grammatical cases (which are the same as the English ones) there are eight locative cases, which indicate the physical position of a noun. In other words, they have noun cases that can replace prepositions like in, with, from, etc.

There are also three remaining cases, and I’m sure there’s a grammatical term to describe them, but I have no idea what it is.

Case nameWhat it means/is used forHow it is formed
NimetavThe subject of a sentenceNo rule here – these are just words.
OmastavThe possessive caseThe word needs to end with a vowel. There are no rules for which vowel this might be – you just need to learn them.
OsastavThe object of a sentenceFrom here, everything starts with the omastav form, and you add a different ending. In this case, the word ends in an a, e, i or u, you will usually add a d, sometimes a t.
SisseütlevIntoAdd sse to the omastav.
SeesütlevInAdd s to the omastav.
SeestütlevOut of/fromAdd t to the omastav.
AlaleütlevOntoAdd le to the omastav.
AlalütlevOnAdd l to the omastav.
AlaltütlevOffAdd lt to the omastav.
SaavBecomingAdd ks to the omastav.
RajavEstablishing (up to, until, to)Add ni to the omastav.
OlevBeing (as a…)Add na to the omastav.
IlmaütlevWithAdd ga to the omastav.
KaasaütlevWithoutAdd ta to the omastav.

So in theory, once you learn the nimetav (basic nouns) and the omastav (possessive), the rest of the cases should be easy. And, in theory, they are.

The problem is when you’re faced with a real-world situation and you’re trying to remember the word itself. What I find is that my brain searches for the word, then I need to remember which one of the 14 endings to use, which is hard when I haven’t barely remember what all of my case options are, let alone the ending that go with them.

So how are my language skills after 6 months in Estonia?

Still pretty much non-existent. I probably have 300-400 words in vocabulary now, and I find I can understand the main messages on billboards and in shop windows, but when it comes to composing a sentence myself, my mind grinds to a halt.

What’s frustrating is that I keep comparing my Estonian ability to my French ability. Now I know words in Estonian that I don’t know in French. I know the Estonian words for wage gap and bedside table, neither of which I know in French. The difference is that in French, I have enough of a command of the language to be able to describe the idea I’m trying to convey.

In Estonian, I have all of these words, yet still can’t ask for a table when I enter a restaurant. *sigh*

Having said that, I did pass my A1 ‘exam’, which comprised 25 written questions, and me having to speak about my week for as long as I could manage. But in real life, I think I’m a good 3-6 months away from being able to converse with a Taxify driver, or complete a transaction at the pharmacy without resorting to English.

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