Linguistic environments

Research (Rannut 2005) distinguishes four linguistic environments in Estonia:

  1. The capital of Tallinn, characterised by extensive multilingualism,
  2. Eastern Estonian towns, characterised by the dominance of Russian,
  3. Towns with a small (15-30%) Russian-speaking minority, and 
  4. Predominantly Estonian-speaking towns and rural areas.

While the number of Estonian-speaking communities abroad is considerable, all those belong to the same type of predominantly non-Estonian linguistic environment. For this reason, we will focus on one linguistic environment abroad only – Finland, as it is a setting with the biggest share of Estonian-speakers, and as such has a significant impact on the sustainability of Estonian.

Multilingual Tallinn

Tallinn as the capital and the municipality with the biggest population is the state’s prestige and power centre. Tallinn and its environs produce half of the gross domestic product, a fact which also is reflected in the situation of its labour market and the residents’ wellbeing. 

Tallinn has slightly less than 394,000 thousand residents, 54% of whom are Estonians, 37% Russians, 3% Ukrainians, less than 2% Belorussians, and less than 1% other ethnic groups. People with Russian as mother tongue are concentrated in residential areas in Lasnamäe, North-Tallinn, and Haabersti. Approximately half of the Estonians and more than a third of the Russians in Tallinn consider their contacts with the other ethnic group absent or minimal (Eesti Koostöö Kogu 2008).

According to the Population and Housing Census in 2011 53.1% of permanent residents of Tallinn consider Estonian as their mother tongue; one half from the rest has command in Estonian as a second/foreign language, and another half do not know Estonian. The knowledge of Estonian differs between generations: while more than a third of seniors cannot speak Estonian, amongst 15–19 year old residents, less than a tenth lacks knowledge of the language.

In Tallinn’s basic schools (grades 1-9) approximately one third of pupils study in Russian, ca 7% of pupils of the same age study in Estonian-language immersion groups. At the upper secondary school level (grades 10-12), the picture is more complex: from 60 to 100% of the curriculum is supposedly delivered in Estonian, i.e. the share of subjects with Russian as the language of instruction varies in different schools. Economically, every fifth enterprise in Tallinn is owned (at least 50%) by foreign capital; the biggest share of foreign ownership is in finance and insurance. The biggest direct foreign investments come from Sweden and Finland.  As a result, in addition to English, Swedish, and Finnish are used in the internal communication of many international companies. This may indicate that the employees are in contact with those languages or use them often. Amongst the population of Tallinn, more than a fifth has command of at least three foreign languages – this is the highest indicator in Estonia. 

Language ecology in Tallinn is influenced by both inbound and outbound migration. Approximately a half of (foreign) visits within Estonia are one-day visits. Neighbouring Finns dominate the tourist sector in both Estonia and Tallinn. Differently from other Estonian linguistic environments, English and Finnish have grafted onto the usual Estonian-Russian linguistic landscapes in Tallinn.

Russian-dominated towns

Narva, Sillamäe, Kohtla-Järve, Jõhvi, Maardu, and Paldiski are cities with Russian-speaking majorities. Most of them are situated in North Eastern Estonia. Residents’ educational level is relatively high, but their potential has not been utilised for economic growth. The insufficient command of Estonian can also explain residents’ modest success in work and career. The area’s annual average unemployment rate (15.0%) is almost double the Estonian average (8.6%) in 2013. However, both Narva and Kohtla-Järve belong to municipalities with the most versatile economic activity. Ida-Virumaa is rather successful by its macro indicators of economic capacity following the counties of Tartu and Pärnu, but is left behind by Harju County’s GDP volume.

The share of residents with Estonian as their home language is less than 10% in Narva, Sillamäe, Kohtla-Järve and Narva-Jõesuu, whereas in other towns of the area this percentage rises to about 30%. The linguistic environment of the Eastern-Estonia is, therefore, predominantly Russian. Also, there are considerably fewer people who know three or more foreign languages in this region (e.g. 2.5% in Narva, as compared to 21.3% in Tallinn). Following the ethnolinguistic composition of local population, most basic schools have Russian as the medium of instruction (except for upper secondary schools in which at least 60% of subjects are taught in Estonian since 2007). One can study in Estonian in the Narva Estonian Gümnasium, in Järve Gümnasium, and in Maleva Basic School in Kohtla-Järve, and Sillamäe Basic School. One can also study in Estonian immersion groups in a number of schools with Russian as the language of instruction.

The most important public sector institutions in Ida-Virumaa are Narva College of University of Tartu, the Ida-Virumaa Vocational Education Centre in Jõhvi, Virumaa College of Tallinn Technical University in Kohtla-Järve, Narva Vocational Training Centre, and Jõhvi Concert Hall of the State Concert Institute Eesti Kontsert. One of the major employers in Eastern-Estonia is the Viru Prison which works under the jurisdiction of Ministry of Justice. 

Besides the Eastern-Estonian towns, the rural municipalities of Mustvee and Kasepää on the shores of lake Peipsi/Chudskoe are both predominantly Russian-speaking (Estonians less than 40%), but unlike  the other Russian dominated areas where the Russian speaking population is relatively recent, i.e. their migration started with the Soviet occupation, these municipalities are populated by a centuries old community of the Russian Old Believers. 

Predominantly Estonian-speaking towns

In the predominantly Estonian-speaking towns, e.g. Tartu, Pärnu, and Valga, there is a small, but noticeable, Russian-speaking community. The main reason for grouping them separately is the existence of basic schools or basic school classes with Russian as the language of instruction. Some other towns, such as Paide and Räpina, may have pupils studying in Russian, but there are no schools with Russian as the language of instruction which function as an institution supporting Russian and Russian-speaking community.  All towns with an Estonian-speaking majority are, in fact, different with regard to the size and character of the Russian-speaking minority. 

81% of Tartu residents speak Estonian as a mother tongue. In the Soviet era, Tartu was a so-called “closed town” because of its Soviet military airport. Because of the large military staff, residential areas with a large share of Russian-speakers evolved. Those linguistic neighbourhoods have largely been preserved to this day. Besides this Russian speaking minority, Tartu has a small, but recognisable international multilingual community, mainly consisting of overseas students and staff members of the University of Tartu, Estonian University of Life Sciences, and Baltic Defence College. Amongst the general population, the share (18.7%) of those who have command of three foreign languages is larger than Estonian average. 

Pärnu, a resort, industrial and port town, and its satellite, Sindi, have similar shares of residents mastering Estonian as a mother tongue and as a foreign language. Approximately a tenth of pupils in Grades 1-9 study in Russian in Pärnu’s Russian Gymnasium. In Sindi, it is possible to study in Russian only in Grades 1-6. There are many hotels and spas in Pärnu visited by Finnish- Russian- and Latvian-speaking customers. 

In the border town of Valga, 61.8% of permanent residents have Estonian as their mother tongue. Valga is in a special situation because of its Latvian twin town Valka; therefore Latvian is an important language in addition to Estonian and Russian.

Towns and rural areas with Estonian majority

Most of Estonian small towns and rural areas are predominantly Estonian-speaking as the Russian-speakers make up 1-5% of their population, e.g. in Kuressaare 1.4%, in Viljandi 3.6%, in Tabivere 4.1%. Because of the small number of Russians, these places have no schools with Russian instruction. As for other factors influencing language use, those settlements have both similarities and differences. In terms of language ecology, important processes are the decrease and aging of the population. The population has decreased the most in the municipalities along the southern border of Estonia, but also in the south of Virumaa and the north of Jõgevamaa. The average age of residents is higher than in urban areas and there are more retired people than people of a working age. Among seniors, women dominate, among 20-34 year olds there are more men than women. 

Since the 1990s, internal migration pattern is characterized by two orientations — work and study migration of young people heading to urban areas. Another tendency is the urban sprawl of families looking for better living conditions. Although there is a trend of moving out of towns to the suburbs and rural areas with cleaner living environment, only rural municipalities in Harjumaa seem to be destinations. Summer cottages and second homes are built there; as a result, the tax-base of municipalities does not increase. 

Only a tenth of rural employers have tertiary education. 7-10% of working-age people are involved in work migration to bigger towns and Tallinn, in counties people work in county centers or central villages. As laborers women are more mobile than men, but the latter migrate further. 7-10% of the permanent residents of all Estonian counties work abroad, with the majority being men and choosing to migrate largely to Finland. 

Southern Finland with Estonian-speaking minority

Since Estonia re-gained its independence in 1991, Finland has been the main target country of Estonians’ outmigration. By now, Finland has replaced Russia as the state with the largest Estonian diaspora in the world. According to Statistics Finland (22.03.2013), Estonian-speakers make up the second biggest migrant group in Finland after Russians: 62,554 Finnish residents consider Russian as their mother tongue, 38,364 report Estonian. Estonians constitute the largest migrant group when citizenship is considered: 39,763 of Finnish residents have Estonian citizenship and 30,183 have Russian citizenship.

Finnish Estonians are an emerging migrant group of a late but intensive immigration was boosted by Estonian independence (1991), the opening the borders, the eastern enlargement of the EU (2004), and the expansion of the free labour movement with Finland (2006). These developments all contributed to the cross-border labour migration and commuting. Reasons to move to Finland are primarily economic, being directly connected to labour market situation in Estonia. 

While Estonians reside all over Finland, the majority of them are concentrated in Helsinki and its satellites, i.e. to the capital area, and other bigger cities.  According to Statistics Finland (09.2012), the majority of Finnish Estonians live in the Uusimaa region (25 859), followed by the regions of Varsinais-Suomi (3,363), Pirkanmaa (1,945) and Päijät-Häme (1,302).

The gender distribution of Estonian communities has changed significantly. While earlier women dominated migrants in all age groups (20-64) of working age, since 2005, the share of men among working age residents has increased. It means that migration to Finland concerns primarily men. 

In 2012, there was almost an equal size of Estonian men and women working in Finland: 19,589 men, 20,174 women. Estonians work in Finland in different sectors, mostly in construction and building (presumably 15,000) and in transportation, but also in other spheres of the service sector. According to Estonian media, 488 Estonian citizens or persons born in Estonia worked in the Finnish health care in 2009: 338 in hospitals, 102 in health centres, 27 in private medical services, 21 in dentistry.

Language communities in Estonia


The size of Estonian speech/language community has been estimated to the magical one million of whom more than 887,000 live in Estonia, according to the last 2011 census. (RLE06). It is difficult to estimate the size of the Estonian speech community abroad. Those people who consider any of Estonian traditional dialects or varieties (Võru, Setu, Mulgi, Kihnu) as their first language are also included to the Estonian speech community.


The Võru language, traditionally defined as a dialect, is a variety of South Estonian. According to the last census, over 40% of potential speakers of the Võru dialect (cf Võru speakers and Setos, over 87,000 Estonian residents) reside in their traditional area in South Eastern Estonia. While there is a new Võru literary standard, Võru-speakers use mainly Standard Estonian in writing. Otherwise numerous language and media products in Võru are used, at times, less often than the respective products in Estonian and English. The most successful publication in Võru is the state supported bimonthly newspaper, Uma Leht (Our Own Paper), mailed directly to locals. Thus, the Võru language is a semi-standardised, regionally dominant, predominantly oral language, which is in the status of a dialect and has some institutional support. The cultural practices of Võru speakers belong to the traditional culture of Estonia, which, in turn, has been emerged as a result of cultural contacts. Due to urbanisation and globalisation Võru-speakers traditional lifestyle has been homogenized as well as that of other Standard Estonian speakers. Religion has no role whatsoever in the ethnic identity of Võru-speakers; despite of a few animist rituals (e.g. the tradition of making crosses into trees as a burial custom), religion does not differentiate Võru-speakers from other Estonians. (Source: ELDIA)


Setos are an ethnic group who have traditionally resided on the Estonian-Russian border and speak a variety of South Estonian. According to the 2011 census, more than 12 thousand Estonian permanent residents with Estonian as a mother tongue report speaking Seto. The majority of speakers reside outside the traditional territory of Setos. While Võru and Seto speech may sound a lot alike for outsiders, Seto speakers are differentiated by their Orthodox background and identity, but also by some explicit sounds and vocabulary which function as linguistic markers of the ethnic group. As a result of activists’ initiatives, a number of print materials and audio recordings have been produced for language learning. In 2009, a brand new reader was published, in 2012, the Seto ABC book. In the 1920s, most Seto publications were translations from standard Estonian; now the Seto-language original creations have started to be published, as well as history texts such as “Setomaa 2”. The Seto Institute, founded in 2010, has started publishing a Seto-language series “Seto kirävara” in 2013 (e.g. the 2nd edition of the Gospels of John, Luke, Mark and Matthew, the Seto epos “Peko”, a hymnal). A monthly newspaper, Setomaa, is published as well. Setos have several traditional cultural symbols: silver decorative jewellery, unique clothing, the traditional Seto farmhouse, its interior and yard, the small village chapel (tsässon, Russian:  часовня), which has lost some of its functions, traditional Seto singing and dancing, and traditional (religious) holidays (e.g. kirmas, German: Kirchmess). The Estonian Seto leelo polyphonic singing tradition is included in the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. (Source: ELDIA)


According to the last Population and Housing Census (2011) 1,320 Estonian permanent residents reported speaking Kihnu language, a sub dialect of Estonian.  More than 85% of permanent residents of Kihnu island reported having knowledge of Kihnu.  


The Mulgi language, a dialect of Estonian, has been and is spoken in five historical church parishes in South Vijandimaa: Halliste, Karksi, Tarvastu, Paistu, and Helme and the language area has extended to the surroundings of Ruhja (Rūjiena) in North Latvia. There are more than 18,000 permanent residents in the traditional Mulgi area, which approximately overlaps with the current municipalities of Abja, Halliste, Helme, Hummuli, Karksi, Paistu, Põdrala, and Tarvastu, and towns of Mõisaküla and Tõrva, of whom less than 16% reported the knowledge of Mulgi language.  Only more than 30% Mulgi speakers reside in Mulgimaa, the rest live elsewhere in Estonia. Most of the Mulgi villages are dispersed settlements; small towns are located alongside the Valga-Pärnu road. Similar to other peripheries, Mulgimaa suffers from outmigration and an aging population.  

In 1996, the society of Mulks, Tallinn Union of Mulks, and the Viljandi County Goverment founded the Mulgi Institute which reorganised into the NGO Mulgi Cultural Institute three years later following the initiative of Mulgimaa municipalities. Since 2005, Mulgi-language news is broadcast on Thursdays on Vikerraadio, the radio channel of Estonian Public Broadcasting. Since 2005, the Mulgi-language quarterly, Üitsainus Mulgimaa, has been published. A reader, the children’s song and play copy-book, a number of audio recordings, and the Mulgi dictionary have been published. In 2013, Mulks chose a flax blossom blue-black-white tricolour with five knots from red ribbon (symbolising five parishes) to represent them on flags (and other items).


There have been Russians living in Estonian during at least the last 500 years. The biggest migration waves have been motivated either politically (17th century Schism in Russia, 20th century Soviet occupation) or economically (immigration of foreign labour after Soviet occupation). According to the last population and housing census, people who speak Russian as mother tongue form 29.6% of Estonian permanent residents and the bulk of them reside in Tallinn, elsewhere in Harjumaa and North Eastern Estonia, Ida-Viru County. The majority of them are the post-WWII immigrants and their descendants. Russian is used as a home language by several other ethnic groups originating from the territory of the former Soviet Union. Therefore, the Russian-speaking community is so diverse that it is difficult to call it a community. 

Russian Old Believers

Russians living on the western shore of lake Peipsi/Chudskoe are known as Russians of Peipus or Old Believers (Rus: староверы, старообрядцы). The reason for their ancestors’ immigration was the church reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century and the subsequent schism (Rus: раскол). According to the last census (2011), a little less than 2,900 Estonian permanent residents identified themselves as Old Believers, earlier, in the 2000 census slightly over 2,500 residents were Old Believers. The traditional Old Belivers’ settlements are Mustvee and its adjacent Raja village, Kallaste and villages of Kolkja, Kasepää, and Varnja in the shore of lake Peipsi, and Piirisaare, an island in the same lake. Many Old Believers reside in Tartu and Tallinn. Instead of ethnic and linguistic markers, religion has been at the core of Old Believers’ identity, demarcating ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Large scale Russian-Estonian bilingualism is distinctive to Old Believers’ linguistic practices.

In 1998, the Estonian Old Believers’ Association of Culture and Development was founded, and in 2008, the Old Believers’ Cultural Centre. There are signs of interest and a desire of younger generations to maintain their predecessors’ traditions: children have been baptized again according to Old Believers’ customs, and they have been taught Church Slavonic. 

Other languages

According to Statistics Estonia, approximately 22,000 Ukrainians, 12,000 Belorussians, 2,000 Jews, 2,000 Tatars, 1,500 Germans, 1,700 Latvians and ca 1,700 Lithuanianas, and 1,600 Poles reside in Estonia, mostly in Tallinn and surrounding Harju county, however Ukrainians and Belorussians also reside in Eastern-Estonia, and Latvians in Valga county. It is difficult to determine language use based on the census data, a significant proportion of ethnic Slavs speak Russian as their first language. Despite this, they try to keep their native/ethnic language and traditions alive. The Integration and Migration Foundation supports outreach educational activities of Ukrainians, Armenians, Jews, Belorussians, Uzbeks, Tatars, Azerbaijani, and Georgians.

After regaining independence, Finns have become a considerable immigrant group. According to Statistics Estonia, they numbered 7,311 in Estonia in 2013. Most of them (appr. 3,000) reside in Tallinn or its surroundings, ca 1,500 in Ida-Virumaa and the similar number in Tartu or Tartumaa. Many of them have arrived in Estonia to work or as entrepreneurs. Several own a summer cottage in Estonia; the most popular areas for this are Saaremaa and coastal areas of Western Estonia. Approximately 300 Finnish students come to study at University of Tartu, which is their favourite among Estonian institutions of higher education. There are over 100 Finnish students in Tallinn. Approximately 4,500 Finnish-owned enterprises are registered in Estonia; 3,500 are in operation. There is also a private basic school with Finnish as a language of instruction in Tallinn.