“You are in Estonia, so speak English, please”, I have heard this joke once in an Estonian stand-up comedy show, where half of the participants were foreigners. Well, partially that is true, because everyone in this country speaks English, so you don’t actually need language skills to survive. Many of my friends have found a job without speaking a word in Estonian.

Despite this fact, I decided to try my luck with this quite challenging language (it’s estimated as one of the most difficult European languages!), and now I’m preparing for my exam for A2.1 level. Just to prove that it’s hard, it took me 1,5 years (!) to improve it up to this point.

However, my experience shows that some of the words or phrases in Estonian you’d better know. I skip all the “hello”, “goodbye” and “thank you” words, because you can easily find them in a phrasebook. Let me just give you a brief inside into another quite useful expressions that might help you not to get confused here.

1. Ma ei räägi eesti keelt. Kas te räägite inglese keelt?

Even though Estonian society nowadays, especially in big cities like Tallinn and Tartu is quite international, don’t expect people to start talking to you in English immediately. Of course, the first sentence is going to be in Estonian.

To sound polite, I’d suggest that you say in Estonian: “Vabandust, ma ei räägi eesti keelt. Kas te räägite inglese keelt?” You will see that Estonians really appreciate this try, and of course they will switch to English. By the way, if you speak Russian as well, you can add: “Kas te räägite inglese või vene keelt?”

2. Eesti poitsei, palun teie dokumendid. Kus on teie helkur?

The source: apollo.ee

This is a phrase pronounced not by you, but by Estonian policemen. If you are already here in this country, you perfectly know that you are obliged to wear a reflector, especially when it’s dark outside. For those reading this blog, who are not a part of Tartu citizens yet, a brief explanation: a reflector helps the drivers to see you crossing the road in the night, which starts around 4 p.m. in winter season.

So, if you hear “Eesti poitsei, palun teie dokumendid. Kus on teie helkur?” and see people in the uniform, don’t be afraid too much, although get prepared at least for receiving a note. If you are not lucky enough, you’ll be issued a fine, it’s not that big though, around 10 euros. I was lucky never to get fined, but my friends were not.

3. Terviseks!

The source: antikvariaat.eu

Even Estonians admit that their “Cheers!” expression sounds quite funny. So, if you are at the Estonian party for the first time, don’t be insulted or offended by it. “Terviseks” literally just means “To health!”

In case you are interested, how this funny word could have appeared, here is a short introduction into Estonian grammar. These people don’t use prepositions, they form all the forms like cases or conjugations with use of suffixes. So, we are taking a word “health”, that is “tervis”, put it into genitive case (“tervise”), and then simply add a suffix that means preposition “to” – “ks”. Here we get it: tervis-e-ks.

4. “Te maksate koos või eraldi?

Source: thedailymeal.com

A bit more hints about going out. You might have noticed that a lot of articles about foreign culture always tackle the dilemma who pays in the restaurant. Well, in Estonia, they tend to ask for a separate bill. However, that’s not always the case.

So, you are on a date with an Estonian guy or a girl, you had nice dinner together, and now it’s time to pay. The waiter asks: “Te maksate koos või eraldi?” Now you have to listen to your Estonian date reply to understand, whether you should pay for both (koos), only for yourself (eraldi), or do not pay at all (the latter one is usually in case of the girls who hear “koos” from their date).

5. Aga-aga

Source: estonianworld.com

I don’t know what you can imagine if you hear “Aga-aga”. When I first heard it, I was thinking that Estonians agreed with me, even though it was a harsh political debate.

Well, it turned out that was not the case. “Aga-aga” is a typical interjection that helps people to get their thoughts together before saying something really meaningful. Literally it means “but-but”. Basically, it’s the same way when English speaking people use “well” or Italians say “allora”.

I wish I could share more insight with you, but first, my knowledge of Estonian is still quite poor even after 1,5 years of studying it. Secondly, I have no time to dig deeper: on Monday I’m having my final Estonian exam, so I have a bit more boring stuff to learn.

I hope after I shared my thoughts and experience you would like to start studying Estonian and you’ll love it as much as I do.

Head aega! Nägemist!

P.S. Please, share the words or phrases in Estonian you’ve heard and found them interesting/useful/simply funny in the comments.

Written By:
Katerina Bogdanova (Russia)
MA in Democracy&Governance