Finnish is often said to be one of the most difficult languages. My mother tongue is Japanese and I started learning English when I was eight. After I got accepted for a Master’s degree programme at a Finnish university, I started learning Finnish as my third language and the journey has been tough, but very interesting. I didn’t even know how to pronounce the name of the city that I was moving to (Jyväskylä) before I started learning. In this article, I’d like to share my experience of learning this beautiful language.
My journey of learning Finnish
Preparation before the move
I decided to study some Finnish before moving to Finland. Surprisingly, I was able to find Finnish language textbooks at bookstores – it helped me a lot. Since the Finnish alphabet has some letters that English doesn't and the grammar is complicated, knowing the basics is a huge advantage and I would recommend brushing up before relocating. I found it difficult in the beginning, but that was only the start of learning this mysterious language.
At university, it is compulsory for all international students to take at least the introductory Finnish course in the first semester, whether they are degree students or exchange students.
Since most students find Finnish difficult and perhaps not the most useful language, only 30 to 40 percent of them continue to the second-level course. My university offered up to the fourth level course, which was equivalent to an intermediate level, and I was one of the ‘rare’ or ‘unusual’ international students who stuck through it all.
Although the language proved rather confusing at first, the quality of the education was good. In fact, Finland is internationally known for its organised and unique education system, and the teachers are knowledgeable about how to teach Finnish as a foreign language.
In addition to courses offered by universities, there are several different language learning options and most of them are offered for a reasonable price in Finland. For example, if you are married to a Finnish citizen and immigrated to Finland, you are entitled to take Finnish classes provided by the government. After I graduated, I wanted to continue learning. So I decided to take courses offered by the public sector, and it cost me less than EUR 100 for four months. The instructions were provided in both Finnish and English, and the people who took the course were of all age groups and from different backgrounds.
After I learned most of the basics of Finnish, I decided to continue on my own since I became busy with my work and I realised that I should focus on practising and using it in my daily life. It’s not easy to motivate yourself to keep learning, especially if you study by yourself.
Two tips I could offer:
- Find a language exchange partner and
- Use several materials that keep you interested
For instance, I found partners through a language exchange programme offered by a city and a language exchange app. As for the materials, I mainly use YouTube videos, news articles written in easy language and a fee-based online course as below.
- YouTube channel: Finnished
- News website in simple Finnish: Yle Uutiset selkosuomeksi
- Online course: The Finking Cap Club
- Language exchange app: Hello Talk
There are many kinds of materials, so I recommend that you explore and find ones that suit your needs.
Why am I learning Finnish?
To understand the culture
One of my principles as an expat living in Finland is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, which means that I try to respect Finnish culture, adopt the local manner and learn the Finnish language. I believe that learning a language is a part of learning culture.
For instance, there is a Finnish word called “sisu”. There is no direct translation of “sisu” in English, but it could be described as something like Finnish mentality or inner strength associated with grit, resilience and guts. This is an important concept for Finns, and it indicates the dignity of the Finnish people that has been developed through their tough history.
Another interesting example would be “kalsarikännit”, which means the feeling of drinking alcohol at home in your underwear without the intention of going out. This unique Finnish word shows the relaxing lifestyle of Finns who like drinking without caring about socialising. Like this, learning the Finnish language enables you to understand more about Finnish culture and concepts.
To find a job
It is possible to find a job in Finland without knowing Finnish, but it brings more opportunities. Many workplaces don’t require fluent Finnish skills, or the company language may be English, which is often the case in the business and IT sector in the international environment. That said, if a job requires working with Finnish customers, regardless of whether in a B2B or B2C sector, you are expected to have a high grasp of Finnish.
Right now, I don’t use Finnish at work since my Finnish colleagues speak English well. Nevertheless, I know that if I could speak fluently, my communication with Finnish people would be smoother and that would strengthen the relationship of trust in various social and business settings.
I like the language
While some people learn languages for practical reasons, such as jobs or careers, others learn them as a hobby or just because they like languages. I think no specific reason is necessary for learning something new. In my case, my main reason is that it will help me socialise and integrate into Finnish culture and might progress my career in the future.
However, I’ve been able to continue learning this complicated language because I like how Finnish sounds. This could be a personal preference but, for me, when Finnish kids or women speak in a high pitch, it sounds like birds singing cheerfully. (I should also mention that, like many others, I’m not a big fan of listening to drunken people speaking Finnish loudly in a bar…).
Can I survive without knowing Finnish?
In Finland, many foreigners don’t speak Finnish. I believe it is better to speak it, but you can manage your life even if you are not fluent.
The English level of Finns is comparatively high, especially among younger generations. In Finland, most movies and video games from English-speaking countries are not dubbed or translated, so they hear or use English from an early age. Additionally, you can get most public and private services – but not all – in English, including tax procedures, electricity contracts, medical check-ups, and so on. I should highlight that some public organisations offer services in simple Finnish to those who aren’t fluent in Finnish or English.
In my opinion, while you can somewhat manage your life in Finland without Finnish language skills, it will certainly bring about positive opportunities and enrich the overall experience.