Going to Riga, Latvia with a possible stop in Tallinn, Estonia. Should I learn Latvian or Russian?

We’re just about ready to book our trip to Riga, Latvia for a week of fun. My dear grandmother always stressed the importance of learning the local language before going to that country. However, this is where it gets tricky:

Since we’re heading to Latvia and the languages are at a tie, I’d normally just pick Latvian. But then we saw that we can just hop a 4 hour bus and get to Tallinn.

We’re planning the trip for mid-October, so I won’t have the time/brain capacity to learn two languages by then, so should I learn Russian or Latvian. Russian seems more practical, but it also doesn’t seem as…‘polite’ to the country I’m visiting and it’s up in the air if we’ll make it to Tallinn or not.

Unless you are some sort of language savant, why fucking bother? In my experience, hardly anybody in Riga spoke English, but this was 2001. A lot more people spoke English in Talinn (It’s full of drunk Finnish people who speak English fine for the most part) and even more in Vilnius. With the ubiquitous nature of the internet, gaming and message boards, I’ll bet you’ll have no problem getting by with only English.

I was in Tallinn in 1989, and the only time anyone was nasty to me was when I spoke Russian. Things were…tense between Russians and Estonians then, though it’s been a while and I’d hope it would be more relaxed now, but one never knows. I’d stick to English, or if you speak German or even Finnish (which is very close to Estonian), that might even be handier.

I’m fluent in German and had to use that last year when I was in Istanbul.

As for why I’d want to learn 'em. Well, one is to honor my dead grandma. The other is that I love learning languages and have made good friends when I travel just by trying to speak in their tongue.

Well, for one, to put it plainly you’re not going to learn much Russian in three months unless you can devote fulltime study to it. Just reading it fluently (without understanding it) will take a few weeks. Russian and English are about as different as two languages can be, that both use an alphabet. Unless by “learn Russian” you mean, “learn a handy list of nouns and phrases.”

Latvians absolutely despise Russians, so I don’t think it’s very politic to speak Russian either, even if you could learn enough to have a conversation, which, most likely, you can’t.

The 50% number could be very misleading as well. When I was in Bulgaria in 1997, yes, lots of people spoke Russian, but only older people. Younger people my age, did not speak Russian because they were not forced to learn it in school as the older generation was. They spoke English. Even the college kids who didn’t speak English, spoke more English than Russian. And Bulgaria was fairly friendly to the Soviets, and Bulgaria is a Slavic group language, that uses the Cyrillic alphabet. None of which are true about Latvia/Latvian.

Background for my opinions: our oldest family friends are Latvian, and I studied Russian for three years in college, 1-2 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Latvian. Your English is going to be at least as useful in Estonia as Russian is. And as noted, most of the locals in both places have no love for Russians, even if a large part of the population is ethnic Russian. Since you already speak German, you may find that is also helpful in both places with non-English speaking residents.

I also visited Riga in 2001 and found plenty of people who spoke English - mostly young people, students etc. I second the opinion that speaking Russian in the Baltic states is unlikely to win you many friends. These countries look very much towards the west, not the east, so English and German are probably your best bet, together with enough phrases in Latvian/Estonian to be polite.

I definitely recommend a trip to Tallinn, it’s a lovely city. I stayed there and took the bus to Riga back in 2001. I last visited Tallinn about 6 or 7 years ago and it was still lovely, albeit rather busier. Hopefully it hasn’t been spoilt like Prague by now.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Latvian, like English, is an Indo-European language. Very distantly related to English, but still related. Estonian, which is very similar to Finnish, is a Uralic language, not at all related to English.

I assume you are male and I envy you if so. I have heard that women in Latvia and Estonia are unusually attractive and love Americans with money. I am not kidding.

Russian is not likely to win you friends in that part of the world.

You should hear what a friend of mine with Estonian roots have to say about Russians and his ancestors weren’t even Estonian speakers, they were ethnical Swedes.

Apart from that, you’ll get along well with English in both Tallinn and Riga. I haven’t had any problems in either town.

Well, we just found out about a ferry that goes from Tallinn to Helsinki and back. So, in the short span of 7 days, we’ll be hitting four countries with at least four languages. I might just get phrasebooks.

Don’t overdo it! People would probably not understand your attempts to speak their local language anyway.

Phrasebooks will be useful, but even the attempt at pleasantries in the local languages will probably be greatly appreciated. Avoid Russian, for the reasons mentioned above.

I voted other.

I think you should stop taking half measures* and just learn every potential language for the area.

*Breaking Bad reference, which I’ve been on a bit of a kick since the new season started.

Finns to to Talinn to party, because things are cheaper there.

I was in Talinn a few months ago. They still hate the Russians. We went to the Museum of the Occupation (where they put statues of old Communists in the basement outside the Lav) and the movies were considerably more sympathetic to the Nazis than the Communists.

Our daughter who went with us speaks German, and that seems to be the up and coming language. Estonian would be the best, but is kind of limited in utility anywhere else.

Nice city - lots of clubs there, though we were there only for a day.