Getting Started Reading in Estonian – Joseph (USA)

Before coming to Estonia, I thought I would need Estonian to get around in everyday life. As it turns out, I was wrong. I’ve probably had fewer than five encounters in Estonian outside the classroom, pleasantries in the store excluded throughout the past year. However, I love reading, so, naturally, I’ve tried to leverage my language abilities with books. However, having never read a book in another language, I had no idea where to start or how difficult it would be.

Four months in, I attempted the first Harry Potter book.
I thought about all the books I could get, and while at the Apollo bookstore in Kaubumaja, I stumbled across Harry Potter ja Tarkade Kivi (and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone). I thought, “this shouldn’t be too bad.” I was already familiar with the plot. I read it for the first time when I was pretty young, so I assumed it was at a pretty easy reading level. But, as it turns out, I was very wrong. At this point, I had been learning Estonian for about four months. Therefore, I hadn’t been introduced to every part of speech yet, and my vocabulary was unbelievably small. Even having the English version available to reference, I knew so few of the words that I still had to look up most of the words in the sentence to figure out which was which. I made it through the first few pages but eventually had to set out to search for a more accessible book.

Five months in, I found a book at a reasonable reading level.
A few weeks later, I was in the book store when I saw Tanja Räägib Eesti Keelt (Tanja speaks Estonian) on the “new books” shelf. It’s a book about the author’s experience learning Estonian. Each chapter is about a different mistake she made during the process. The author is a native Russian speaker, so some chapters are specific to differences between the Russian and Estonian languages. Even though I don’t speak Russian, I could still understand why the mistake is funny or easy to make because the text usually gives at least a brief description of it through the surrounding dialogue. While I don’t think it targets beginners specifically, the combination of the chapters being one or two pages and topical, it is a relatively easy read. It also contains a decent amount of dialogue and doesn’t have complicated grammar. While it is more challenging than some of the books I’m discussing in this post, I think it’s the best combination of accessible and interesting.

Around seven months in, I found a “graded reader.”
While reading Tanja Räägib Eesti Keelt, I found another book called Meie Elu (Our Life). This one was written by two University of Tartu Professors, Linda Palts and Monika Urb. The authors wrote it at an A2 level. Therefore the grammar and vocabulary are simplified and limited in scope. The characters in the book write each chapter as a “blog post,” making each chapter have a specific topic. The chapters are once again only a page or two, but there are also pictures to help with understanding. When I found this book, I had been learning Estonian for about seven months, and around this time, I was nearing the end of Keeleklikk. There was some new vocabulary, but I didn’t find it a particularly challenging read. After finishing Tanja Räägib Eesti Keelt and Meie Elu, I gave the Harry Potter book another chance. I made it through two chapters before the spring semester, and my Settle in Estonia course started, and I stopped reading.

Picture of an open Estonian book
Photo credit: Joseph Haske

Approximately nine months in, I was somewhere around the A2 level.
For a timeframe reference, this was around February. The Settle in Estonia course was slightly below my level, but it was good speaking practice, which I had lacked up to this point. For it, they gave us a book called Margus, Kass ja Õunamoos (Margus, Cat, and Apple Jam). Similar to Meie Elu, this book is at an A2 level. However, it contains fewer pictures, and they aren’t as helpful for understanding the story. Overall, the story is ok, and I didn’t think it was very challenging, although to be fair, it was already my third bookfourth if you include my attempt at reading Harry Potter.

About a year and a half in, and I’m taking the B1.2-B2.1 course at the university.
This brings me to this semester and almost a year and a half into my Estonian learning journey. In my university course, we are working out of K nagu Kihnu. If you are familiar with E nagu Eesti this is the second textbook in the series. While it is technically a textbook, I will include it on this list because it is more of a “collected works with exercises.” It contains blog posts, news articles, and other sources to introduce different grammar concepts and vocabulary. In terms of exercises and presentation, it is very similar to the first book. However, in terms of the content, I feel like there is a rather significant jump in difficulty and new vocabulary because it contains relatively easier but still native content.

I’m currently reading a book by a native author for native speakers.
For my class, I also have to read a book by an Estonian author. For this, I chose Inimväärne Elu (Decent Life). The author’s name is Andrus Kivirähk which you may recognize from our earlier posts, which I will link to at the bottom of this post, about The Man Who Spoke Snakish, a book I highly recommend—and intend to reread one day in Estonian. I chose Inimväärne Elu because it is relatively short, only 80 pages. However, it is undoubtedly the most challenging on this list. But what makes it so difficult? For starters, a native speaker wrote it for native speakers, so there are no holds barred related to any aspect of writing. The grammar is complicated, and the vocabulary is pretty diverse. The next thing is that there is no English translation. One of the things that makes a book like Harry Potter easier to read is that it is available in pretty much whatever language you like and in Estonian. This fact gives you the ability to have a reference to something you understand. Without this, going into a paragraph where I know relatively few words, I’m essentially blind. I have to piece together the sentences, sometimes rearrange them into an “Englishified” word order, which, if you’ve been studying Estonian for any length of time, you’ll know isn’t as easy as it might seem at first. I can’t give a proper review of this book yet since I haven’t made it very far; however, I can say it looks promising.

The tl;dr of this post is to just go for it.
If you’re looking for your first book and you’ve finished an A1 course, there’s no reason you can’t start with Tanja Räägib Eesti Keelt. I think Mees Kes Teadis Ussisõnu (The Man Who Spoke Snakish) is a good option if you want something with an English translation available, but it will be more difficult. If you want a real challenge without help from a translated book, something like Inimväärne Elu is a good option. Good luck and happy reading.

Here are some additional experiences of ambassadors reading Estonian literature:
Estonian Literature as a Cipher for the Estonian People: A Conversation
Speaking with Snakes: A Metaphor for Estonian Language and Culture