Foreign language learning in Estonia

Mother tongue, or the first language, and foreign languages skills are among the most important competences of people. The purpose of the measures of the Estonian Foreign Languages Strategy 2009–2015 is to provide individuals with better opportunities in the globalising world and to increase their competitiveness in the labour market. The Strategy comprises thematic principles of and guidelines for foreign language learning, teaching and assessment.

According to learning psychology, a foreign language is any language other than the native language of the speaker. The Language Act defines a foreign language as any language other than Estonian and Estonian sign language. A language of a national minority is also considered a foreign language that Estonian citizens who belong to a national minority have historically used as their mother tongue in Estonia.

In Estonia, students traditionally learn at least two foreign languages in school. According to the national curricula, students of Estonian-medium schools can learn English, French, German or Russian as the first foreign language. The majority of students study English as their first foreign language. Students of Russian-medium schools study Estonian as their first foreign language (Estonian as the second language).

According to the national curriculum for basic schools, any foreign language can be offered as the second (B) foreign language depending on students’ interests and possibilities that the schools have. English, Russian, German, French or any foreign language can be offered as the second (B) foreign language. A number of basic schools have started to teach Finnish as the second foreign language. Other foreign languages taught at schools are, for example Hebrew, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Latin and Swedish.

According to the national curriculum for upper secondary schools, the prior division of foreign language into A- and B-languages is no longer valid and students enrol in the courses according to their language levels (B1 and B2 language courses). By the time of graduation, pupils should have achieved the level of an independent user (B- level according the Common European Framework)) in at least two foreign languages.

In order to graduate from upper secondary school, students have to take a state English language examination and/or an internationally recognized language examination in German, Russian or French. More and more students choose to take two foreign language examinations upon graduation.

In vocational and higher education, foreign language studies focus on language for specific purposes. The choice of languages taught and learnt is closely related to the specialty.

Estonia has joined the CertiLingua programme which recognises the achievements of students who obtain level B2 or higher in two foreign languages and demonstrate good skills of international communication. Schools that take students to the required language levels, offer sufficient CLIL studies and involve students in international projects can apply to become CertiLingua schools. There are three CertiLingua schools in Estonia at the moment: Tartu Annelinna Gymnasium, Tartu Kristjan Jaak Petersoni Gymnasium and Viljandi Gymnasium.


Last updated: 16 October 2017