As already mentioned, written Estonian follows the principle to have a unique letter for every distinctly articulated sound (phoneme). This makes reading and pronouncing Estonian simpler – with a little practice and skill one could be able to produce proper pronunciation of many simpler words. Perhaps that’s why we often think that people learning Estonian as a second language just need to get familiar with our letters and the rest follows.
However, I have noticed that vowels may be bit of a challenge at first. It is a struggle to get used to idea that in Estonian E is always pronounced as eh (as in enter) and I as ih (as in pick). Next, one can but notice that Estonian language has abundance of umlaut vowels such as Õ, Ä, Ö, Ü! While people with some German knowledge would be more or less fine with Ä, Ö, Ü, the O with a tilde on top, i.e. Õ, is something that seems to further complicate this entire pronunciation endeavour. Yet it’s good to know how to keep õnn (happiness) and onn (hut), uks (door) or üks (one) apart!
Here I’ll discuss only the vowels. Before getting specific, please note that while English sounds are mostly produced in the back portion of the mouth (how tongue moves towards the throat etc.), Estonian sounds are produced with the front part of the mouth and lips. For example, our rolling R (similar to Spanish R) is a result of letting the tongue tremble against the back of the upper gums while forcing the air through.
As a true Estonian, I will keep my talk short and give you a chance to hear and see how I pronounce Estonian vowels in the video below. For demonstration, I am overarticulating the sounds for you to better see how my lips are shaped.
I would suggest getting a mirror and practicing your pronunciation in front of it. Read my lips, make mental notes, create associations – whatever your personal style is!