The Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are becoming increasingly popular as tourist locations, due to their interesting culture and cuisine, nice summer weather and cheap cost of living. But just how widely spoken is English in these former Soviet bloc countries? Can English speaking tourists expect to get by just using English or will some of the local languages be needed in each country?
In general, you can get by in all the Baltic states just by speaking English, especially in the capital cities (Talinn, Vilnius and Riga) and the other major towns. Usually around half the people or just under speak English in these countries, with most of them concentrated in the cities where tourists are likely to visit, so using English is almost always fine for tourists.
The younger population under 40 especially in these countries tends to speak English, since they have all been taught English at school over the last several decades since communism fell. Fluency drops off quite a bit if you are dealing with older people or head out of the major towns and cities, but in the main built up areas and tourist spots you will be fine.
The Prevalence Of English in Estonia
Estonia is a growing spot not just for short term tourism but also for longer term stays. Digital nomads and other online workers are increasingly setting up there longer term due to it’s low cost of living, high quality internet coverage and favorable residency laws. The capital Talinn in particular attracts plenty of tourists and longer term residents.
As a general rule, around half of the Estonian population can speak English, especially in larger cities like Talinn. Younger people under 40 are also especially proficient at English in Estonia.
A 2012 Eurobarometer report found that 50% of the Estonian population can speak English to some degree. This number will have risen further in the intervening years as another generation of youngsters will have come through the school system there learning English. You can count on over half the population there being able to speak English, especially younger people under 40.
This squares up with tourist accounts of visiting there, which are in agreement that you will get by fine is Estonia just using English, especially in Talinn and the other bigger towns and cities. Even if someone you bump into does not speak English, someone close by always will. In hotels, tourist areas and bigger restaurants and stores, you will be fine.
If you venture out into the more rural countryside regions, or deal with much older people over the age of 50, then the prevalence of English will drop, since the older generation did not learn English under communist rule, and will instead speak Russian as a second language. Most visitors stay in the cities though so there shouldn’t be a problem.
Here is a video if you want to learn some basic Estonian phrases. It is one of the Uralic languages, similar in some ways to Finnish but still with many distinct words and pronunciations. Having a few basic phrases will always help you out with the locals.
|Thank you very much||Suur Aitäh||Soor Eye-ta|
|Yes||Jah||Jahh (emphasize h)|
|Good morning||Tere hommikust||Terey Homikust|
|Good evening||Tere õhtust||Terey Ughtust|
|Do you speak English?||Kas te räägite inglise keelt?||Kas teh rygeetey eenglis-ay kaylt?|
|Hello, my name is....||Tere, minu nimi on.....||Tereh, minu nimi on....|
The Prevalence of English in Lithuania
Now we move on to the nearby Baltic state of Lithuania, with a population of around 3 million, almost all of them speaking Lithuanian as a first language. Russian is a prevalent second language, with around 60% of the population still speaking it.
A 2012 survey put English overall proficiency in Lithuania at around 38% of the population – just over a third, with younger people under 35 especially proficient. Around 80% of people under 35 are estimated to speak English in Lithuania.
These number swill have again risen in the intervening years as more youngsters have come through learning English.
Again this distribution of English speakers is heavily weighted towards younger people under 30, with around 80% of younger people estimated to speak it, but very few older people being proficient in English, since it was not taught under Soviet rule. Russian will be the language they can speak. So if you are stuck for directions, find a young person and you will be OK!
You should be completely fine using English around the capital Vilnius, or any other major town, in hotels, museums, attractions and bigger restaurants (some of which will have full English menus). Some signs in the more touristy areas will also be in English as well as Lithuanian.
Tourists universally report that you will be fine speaking English with any younger person under 40, with some native English speakers even managing to live in Vilnius long term without knowing much Lithuanian.
However, learning some basis local phrases is always useful when visiting a country, even if you will likely not need them. Here are some of the more basic greetings and phrases that will endear you to the locals. It is generally not considered a very easy language to learn, but memorizing a few basic phrases is not too hard.
|Hi||Labas||Laabas (emphasize a)|
|Goodbye||Viso gero||Veeso gehro|
|How are you?||Kaip tau sekasi?||Kayp tau seyhkasi|
|Do you speak English?||Ar jūs kalbate angliškai?||Arr Yoos kalbahte Aanglish-kay?|
|I don't speak Lithuanian||Aš nekalbu lietuviškai||Ash gnekal-buh lee-oh-too-vishkay|
|Repeat, please||Prašom kartoti||Prah-shom kartorti|
|Good afternoon||Labą dieną!||Laaba dee-ena|
See here for a full audiobook course in Lithuanian, available for free on Amazon, with a no risk trial of Audible.
The Prevalence of English in Latvia
Now we move to the third Baltic state of Latvia, with a population of just under 2 million and Riga the capital city.
The most recent survey put the overall level of English proficiency in Latvia at 46% percent of the population, with younger people under 40 being especially proficient in English. It is also quite widely spoken in the capital Riga in particular.
This survey is from 2012 however, so that percentage will have grown further in the last several years. Again, tourists report no major problems getting by in Riga especially by using English.
Any time you are a restaurant or shop and the person is under 40, the chances are they will able speak at least a little English in the capital, and some of them will be quite fluent. All youngsters have learnt English post the 1989 fall of communism. Older people will again be far less fluent, speaking a mix of Latvian and Russian with little or no English. Stick to the younger people if you need help or directions!
As usual, any time you venture further away from the center of Riga, the less English speakers you will find, and more Latvian and tourist gesturing and body language will be needed. You will also need some Latvian to converse on the open market stalls in the main town and some smaller stores – having some numbers and basic phrases will help you here.
If you plan on staying in Latvia longer term – an increasing number of Westerners are moving to the Baltic states because of the lifestyle and low cost of living – then it is generally advised to learn some Latvian to get by a little easier for conversing and also dealing with contracts like bank accounts, rental agreements and phone and internet contracts.
Here are some of the more common phrases that will come in useful in Latvia.
|Don't mention it||Nav par ko||Nar par kua|
|How are you?||Kā klājas?||Kah klaa-yas|
|Where can I find..?||Kur man atrast....?||Koor man aatrast.....?|
|Do you have a....?||Vai jums ir.....?||Vai yoos irr....?|
To sum up then, there is generally never any issue for English speaking tourists moving through the Baltic states. English is widely spoken in the areas you are most likely to go, and younger people especially will be able to converse well with you in all three countries.
Longer term stayers can also technically get by only using English if staying in the major cities; however it is still recommended to learn the local language if you are going to be there for more than a short holiday. Having a few basic phrases can also help tourists when shopping around.
And then some practical essentials:
- Essential stats on Baltic States:
- Population: 1.3 million (Estonia), 2.8 million (Lithuania), 1.8 million (Latvia)
- Time zone: EST +7 hours; GMT +2 hours for all 3 states.
- Currency: All 3 states use the Euro
- International calling code: +372 (Estonia); +370 (Lithuania); +371 (Latvia) – (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the right
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- A great multi-currency card that can cover you for all 3 of the Baltic States (they all use the Euro) is the Wise Borderless Card. You can open up Euro balances and spend for free on your card, plus withdraw a certain amount of euros for free each month.