The Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are often grouped together due to historical and regional similarities, but each has its own distinct language—and none of these countries’ official languages belong to the Slavic language family, which Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian belong to (and which some people speak as their native language or as a secondary language in these countries).
So, what are the official languages of the Baltic countries, what should you know about their history, development, and usage, and what other languages are spoken there? Can you get by in English in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia?
Lithuanian language, known as lietuvių kalba in Lithuanian, is a Baltic country language that Lithuanians themselves treasure for many reasons. First, it is considered one of the oldest languages of the Indo-European language family in existence today, its conservative nature preserving elements of Sanskrit and its older cousin, Vedic Sanskrit, considered to be a Proto-Indo-European language.
It has also been slow to change—even slower than Latvian, which belongs to the same Baltic family of languages as Lithuanian, which we will discuss in a minute. The oldest surviving books in Lithuanian are from as late as the sixteenth century.
Keeping Lithuanian Language Alive
Lithuanians also treasure Lithuanian language because it was banned during the period of the Russian Empire in favor of Russian, so it has many associations with Lithuanian national identity and freedom.
The Lithuanian book smugglers worked during the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century to get books printed in Lithuanian language into Lithuania despite the ban.
Literacy of Lithuanian speakers was low due to schools being taught in Russian during tsarist times—Lithuanian was only able to be taught on the sly and literacy was at about 50% (see Lithuania’s Century), so freedom to learn in the native language as well as building an educational system in the national language was an important point for those working to achieve a successful independent nation.
Furthermore, Russian was the official language of this Baltic country when Lithuanian was a part of the Soviet Union, another period of oppression.
Lithuanian language is written in Latin script and contains 32 letters.
Essential words in Lithuanian
Hello: Laba diena or Sveiki
Goodbye: Viso gero
Thank you: Ačiū
Excuse me: Atsiprašau
Latvian language (latviešu valoda) is another language of the Baltic language family (the third is Prussian, which is now extinct). Its development has progressed more rapidly than Lithuanian, its sister language, and while some words of Latvian are similar to Lithuanian, the two languages are not mutually intelligible.
Another difference is that Latvians place emphasis on the beginning of the word, whereas in Lithuanian, the accent is a free accent and can occur on any syllable of a word.
As with Lithuanian, the earliest surviving books in Lithuanian date from the sixteenth century and are related to the Christian religion, but Latvian had a ways to go before becoming the official language of Latvia.
Latvian Language as an Important Marker of Identity
The Latvian nationalist movement of the mid-19th century was stifled by the Russian Empire, which required the use of Russian language. After another brief surge of Latvian nationalism, during the period of Soviet rule—due to the number of Latvian speakers being deported and the influx of Russian speakers—the use of Russian became prevalent. After Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union, Latvian language was required to be taught by schools and became the official language of Latvia.
A minority of Latvians speak Latgalian, what some consider to be a dialect of Latvian and others consider to be a distinct language. Livonian is another language that was formerly more broadly spoken in Latvia but has since ceased to exist as a native language by any living speakers. (see Languages of Latvia)
Latvian language is written in Latin script and 33 letters.
Essential words in Latvian
Goodbye: Uz redzēšanos
Thank you: Paldies
Excuse me: Atvainojiet
Estonian language (eesti keel) differs from the other official languages of the Baltic countries. Instead of being a part of the Baltic language family, it’s a Finnish language—not even a part of the Indo-European language family—sharing some elements of its geographic language neighbor to the north as well as, for example, Hungarian.
Both Finnish and Hungarian—as well as Estonian—are agglutinative languages, meaning that words can be built from attaching words or word parts onto each other to form one longer word. Estonian is considered one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn and has no gender or future tense.
As with the other languages of the Baltic countries, the oldest existing examples of Estonian language dates from 16th-century religious texts.
The Standardization of the Estonian Language
For a long time, Estonian was a language with various dialects, but in the late 19th century, as Estonian language gained ground in publications and people more freely moved around, Estonian dialects gradually faded out of use and a more universal version of Estonian began to be spoken (see The Many-sided Estonian Language).
The early 19th century gave birth to Estonian literature, and the birthday of the father of Estonian literature, March 14, is celebrated as Mother Tongue Day.
Estonian became the national language of Estonia in 1919, but under Soviet occupation, the status of official language was shared with Russian. When Estonia gained independence from the USSR, Estonian once again became the only official language spoken in this Baltic country.
Estonian is written with a Latin script and contains 27 letters.
Essential words in Estonian
Thank you: Aitäh
Excuse me: Vabandage mind
The Importance of the Baltic States’ Official Languages
Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian are not only official languages in these countries and spoken by the ethnic communities native to those territories; they are also powerful symbols of independence and identity.
National awakenings stressed the importance of cultivating, preserving, and using the native languages spoken in the Baltic countries, and when oppressive forces used language as a tool to subjugate peoples, the importance of making sure these languages survived and using them increased.
Independence from the Soviet Union gave the Baltic countries the opportunity to finally solidify their languages’ status as the official languages for government and communication, and each of these languages is an official language of the EU, which all three countries belong to.
Non-official Languages of the Baltic Countries
It should be noted that, while official documents are written and the governments operate in their official languages in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, other languages are in use in a non-official capacity and for the sake of communicating to various population groups. Of course, in everyday life, various languages are used among different ethnic groups or as a universal language in groups of diverse speakers.
The Prevalence and Use of the Russian Language in the Baltics
The first of these languages is Russian, which many older people—those who grew up in and remember the time of the Soviet Union—speak. Of course, Russian minority groups in the Baltic countries also speak Russian among themselves and consume Russian-language media.
As a result, if you speak Russian, you may be able to get by in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania even if you do not speak any of the official languages of the Baltic countries. This may be especially true in Latvia and Estonia (and even more especially in towns such as Narva, where Estonia is a minority language), which have more significant Russian populations than Lithuania does—in Lithuania, younger people focus on learning English and typically use it with ease.
Swedish as a Minority Language in Estonia
In Estonia, Swedish is also spoken on islands and in coastal areas, and German, partially due to the historical influence of German in Estonia (but also because German is a useful language if you live in the European Union), is a popular language Estonians choose to learn, though very few people speak it natively at this point.
Polish Language in Lithuania
Lithuania has a significant population of Polish speakers as a result of Lithuania sharing a border with Poland and the two countries’ historical union under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Poles in Lithuania have lobbied to get greater recognition of the use of Polish language in Lithuania and have asked that their names be printed in Polish on their Lithuanian passports, for example.
Other Non-official Languages of the Baltic Countries
Minority languages in the Baltic countries also include Belarusian, Ukrainian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Karaim (a Turkic language spoken by the Lithuanian Karaite Jews), Romani (spoken by the Roma people), and Tatar (a Turkic language spoken by the Tatar ethnic group).
Speaking English in the Baltic Countries
English is widely spoken as a second language in the Baltic countries, most often by younger people who grew up with English-language music, television, and English classes at school. However, due to the prevalence of Russian in general and learned as a second language in the Baltic countries, it won’t be a given that you can communicate in English if you don’t know the official language of the country.
On the other hand, in tourist areas, menus and information geared towards travelers are available in a variety of languages, English included. Furthermore, if you’re in one of these countries for an international conference, particularly in the tech field, English will be widely spoken and may even be the language that panels and discussions are conducted in.
Learning the Official Languages of the Baltic States
Of course, if you want to try learning one of the languages of the Baltic countries, the people you speak to in those countries will be delighted. Due to the small population of speakers and the prevalence of two other widely spoken language used for communication (Russian and English), not many foreigners attempt to learn Estonian, Latvian, or Lithuanian—and far fewer succeed in doing so.
Each of these countries offers language courses to foreigners through universities and private language schools, and learning these languages is possible to a smaller degree using online resources. However, due to the difficulty of the languages, immersion is best, so you will find your best success when you plan to spend several months in the country that speaks the language you’re trying to learn.