Saturday, October 20, 2012

No Finnish line

When I first met my Finnish husband almost 17 years ago, I never planned to study his native language. In fact, he actively discouraged me from doing so, on the grounds that Finnish was such a minor and complicated language that it was hardly worth my while, and because English is widely spoken in Finland. 

And yet, after we finally moved here, I found that I couldn’t stand not knowing Finnish. I wanted so badly to understand and be understood, and being in the dark linguistically was frustrating and unsatisfying.

And so, here I am, nine months and three language courses into learning Finnish.

My Finnish studies thus far have caused me immense frustration and self-doubt. I still make several mistakes per sentence when I venture out of my comfort zone (read: when I try to have a *normal* conversation with any Finnish person). Sometimes when I try to read a newspaper or magazine article, I feel myself spiralling into panic and despair when word after word is unknown to me and must be painstakingly looked up. Yesterday, my daughter’s friend (aged 7) innocently asked me, “Why do you speak Finnish so badly?” Ouch.

Frequently, I have felt like a failure, and have caught myself wondering if this is a task that’s beyond my capacity.

But I'm not, and it isn't, and dammit, I will not give up! For years I’ve wanted so badly to know this language, and hard though it is, quitting now would only make me feel worse. And so, when I feel overwhelmed and oppressed and even slightly tearful about it all, I force myself to take a deep breath and reflect on some basic truths about mastering a new language:

1. It won’t happen overnight 
I started studying Finnish in January of this year. I don’t know why I expected to see dramatic results within weeks or months. I started studying Japanese in high school and 20+ years later I’m still not perfect at it. I started learning English at birth, and even now I still make grammatical mistakes and come across unfamiliar words. 

Languages are vast and complex. They have tens of thousands of essential words, and each one has to be committed to memory, along with the grammatical rules governing its use. No wonder language-learning takes time.

A lot of time, in fact, since: 

2. The task is never-ending 
Language-learning is a lifelong, cumulative pursuit. There is no finishing line – no “last” milestone that marks the perfect mastery of a language. You are forever either learning more, or reinforcing (and trying not to forget) what you have already learned. 

The news is not all bad, though. Every so often you will feel a sense of achievement – after constructing a grammatically-correct sentence for the first time, understanding the gist of a tv program, surviving a shopping trip, or managing to talk on the phone with someone. It is important to embrace and inwardly celebrate each of these moments, as they are validation that you are making progress. The sense of pride and accomplishment they bring are your reward for sticking with the task. While your journey has no end, each language-learning milestone opens up the path to bigger and greater milestones, and the further you go the easier and more rewarding your journey becomes.

You do need to accept, though, that:

3. Some days it will be two steps forward, one step back 
Sometimes it takes a while for new information to sink in. The older I get, the longer it seems to take! I find myself going over the same vocabulary and the same grammatical rules multiple times because they didn’t stick in my head on the first, second or even third try. There is no point in getting stressed or frustrated about this (or so I keep telling myself). You really can only try to keep calm and have another go. The main thing to remember is – the information will stick eventually, even if it takes three or ten or twenty repetitions. Some days, your brain will seem curiously resistant to new information. These are the days you should put down your textbook and go for a long walk. And then, on other days, inexplicably it all somehow gels. 

Some people (especially your children) will remember new information instantly and forever. Salute them and acknowledge their rare and enviable talent. Remember, though, that most adults simply do not have this talent, and have to work a bit harder to learn new things.

Which leads me to my next point:

4. Don’t compare yourself with others!
Language-learning is not a race – how could it be, when there isn’t even a definite finishing line! We all learn languages for different reasons, at different paces, and with different styles. Some of us are natural chatterboxes; others have beautiful pronunciation; others are naturals at reading and writing. You yourself know whether you’re trying hard or not. If you feel you could realistically try harder, do it! If you’re trying as hard as you can, congratulate yourself, and keep going - at your own pace and on your own terms. Force yourself not to think about that incredible Chinese girl you sit next to in class who has a prodigious memory for new vocab and progresses much faster than you. Try not to feel bad when a seven year old corrects your grammar. Being a beginner in another language, and being severely constrained in your ability to understand or communicate even the simplest ideas, can feel humiliating enough at the best of times. Don’t fuel that internal fire of self-doubt and low self-esteem. This is your own journey.

5. Practice Practice Practice
When I was about 15, my high school French teacher gave us a definitive how-to guide to learning a language:

1. Listen
2. Read
3. Write
4. Speak
5. Repeat steps 1-4 many, many times 

This is far and away the best advice I have ever received in connection with language learning. 

The only way you can progress and maintain your language skills is to USE that language, every single day, as much as possible (without doing your head in through over-immersion!) Talk to people. If you hate talking to people, try to write a diary. Read something – anything. Pay attention when people are speaking (in real life or on tv/radio) and try to decipher what they’re saying.

It’s always easier when you have a good teacher to help you learn to do steps 1-4. In the case of Finnish, unless you’re a child (or an adult with a brain that absorbs everything and magically figures out linguistic patterns all on its own), I think it’s virtually impossible to learn correct grammar without the help of an experienced teacher, or else a really good textbook and extremely high self-discipline.

6. Try to enjoy yourself!
Language learning unlocks linguistic and cultural doors, and bridges divides between people of different countries. It is also said that learning another language has powerful effects on the mind, creating new neural pathways and warding off Alzheimer’s disease. For all these reasons, language learning should be something positive – hopefully something that’s even fun and uplifting. Whenever you are feeling low or frustrated about your learning, go back to the stuff that truly interests you and fuels your passion for language, whether it’s talking with a friend, watching a particular tv show, or reading things that intrigue or entertain you. Lately, when I feel like throwing my Finnish textbook across the room in frustration, I’ve taken to swapping it for my daughter’s Risto Räppääjä books. The language is clear and the grammar straightforward, and to my great joy I can follow the stories, even though I can’t understand every word.

In the end, this is what we language learners need to hold on to in times of trial – those moments of great joy. Those moments when we know what it is to transcend the limits of our own nationality and our own native language. Those moments when the puzzle pieces come together in our head and we see, breathtakingly, glimpses of a whole new world that was hidden from us before.


  1. You've described exactly how I feel about it. I've been studying it intensively for a little over a year now, and the fact that I'm still only at B1 or so is very discouraging. And yet, when I think of the fact that I started from scratch -- at absolute zero -- I feel proud of the really massive amount I've managed to learn. Sure, others might learn more faster but, as you said, it's no race. It's a lifelong project. Keep your good attitude, and know that your fellow Finnish learners are in it with you, cheering you on! :)

    1. Elena, if you're already at B1 I'd say you're doing very well indeed after only one year! You are right to feel proud about what really is a massive amount of learning in a very short time. Thanks for your enthusiastic support - I'm cheering for you too!

  2. Here's a writing exercise if you have a hard time making one up: write this blog also in Finnish. You could start with this blog post and translate it. It's your writing so it shoudn't feel so artificial. You could imagine a 7 year old child who wants to learn a new language and would like some encouragement. He or she can't read this now!

    1. Anonymous, you are absolutely right - that would be a great exercise. I am gradually building confidence in expressing my own thoughts in Finnish. I will keep your idea in mind as an ultimate goal...

  3. Try to remember that learning a language is also about un-learning the prejudice imposed by previous languages and accepting a new way of thinking, because that's what a natural construction of a sentence is: a new way of thinking, thinking by a different order of concepts. So, instead of seeing Finnish as construction, it is probably more helpful to try to understand and internalize the underlying logic. That means not pushing yourself too hard to memorize structures but letting yourself absorb it. See past the rules.

    I don't think "speaking" has to mean speaking to other people. It will be tremendously helpful if you, when writing a grocery list for example, simply think of something to say about each item, think how you would say it and then think of yourself saying it. Of course, remember that not everything clever or terse or funny or poetic and not all angles or points of view translate gracefully.
    I mean: I refuse to believe that there are ideas that can't be expressed in any other language, but I think it's like with programming languages (if you're at all familiar with them): technically (or quite literally "theoretically"), everything written in one Turing complete language can be expressed by any other Turing complete language, but it might not be convenient or anywhere near easy and the extreme case may include you writing the major parts of the original language using the "target" language in order to be able to present the idea, because of the needed underlying logic.
    I suppose for natural languages you have the same ultimate fallback of "the English word ... means ... and you can relate concepts using a structure ... which means ... and therefore it's a funny/clever/cool idea of to think ... and ... using the structure like this: ...", So, while technically nothing is untranslatable, you shouldn't try to force anything. There's probably another way to say want to say and, if there isn't, you're being metaphysical or esoteric.

    Sorry about the verbiage.

    1. No need to apologize to me about verbiage - I myself am not a woman of few words :)

      I do agree that absorbing the feel of a language is very important. When I still knew only a smattering of Japanese, I spent time in Japan as an exchange student. Consequently, I acquired the language mostly through immersion, and I've always strongly advocated this method of language-learning, as one tends to plug right into the target language and not constantly translate in one's head or try to make sense of sentence by referring back to one's native language. However, I found it almost impossible to learn Finnish the same way. I found that until I learned some basic grammar, Finnish in its "natural habitat" was practically impenetrable to me. Now that I've studied for several months and have reached an intermediate level in terms of my knowledge of basic grammar, what I hear and read in daily life is finally starting to make sense, and suddenly I can feel myself managing to absorb the language in a more natural way. There are lots of things that feel very different in Finnish compared with English - Finns' use of the passive tense (and the perfect tense, too) and elements that are tied to cultural differences (like the whole issue of Finnish polite language and the way in which it differs from how one would be polite in English)... The challenge will be to step away from making comparisons, and ultimately be able to switch from one system of logic to another when switching languages.

    2. The prevalence of perfect tense may be partially explained by thinking of the latter part something akin to an adjective. I can't think of why it would be so different between the languages but I suppose the participle just works a bit harder in Finnish. Or maybe you just haven't noticed its use in English.

      I can't explain the passive voice either. I could be cultural but it could also be because there aren't any dummy pronouns as far as I know.

      Switching isn't always easy, but at least you're not a programmer, right? I mean after spending the day programming (i.e. immersed in logic) and reading and writing technical English, I was having some major problems producing any Swedish in a speaking/social interaction oriented learning event I had to attend. I understood things quite well, though.

  4. LOVE LOVE LOVE the list. It's all VERY VERY true and wise. My Finnish course teacher always says that it feels like going one step forward, two steps back. I also had some kids say to me when I was doing the training in the daycare, "Puhut suomea hassusti." LOL LOL LOL!!! Kids are really honest hi hi hi...

    But anyway, just keep going and a few years from now you'll look back and realize just how much more you understand compared to the beginning. :-) To be honest, nowadays at work I don't really care too much about being grammatically correct anymore (as compared to when I was in the classroom) - not that I don't want to, but in everyday language people use puhekieli, so as long as I understand what other people mean and I can respond to them in a way that they understand, then that's enough.

    1. Amel, I'm guessing that these days your sentences tend to be grammatically correct without your even trying! :) but you're right that in the end communication is more important than correct grammar. Besides, Finns are unbelievably forgiving when it comes to technical errors!

      I did have a minor breakthrough earlier this week. I attended a mothers' meeting at my daughter's preschool, and every other mum there was a Finn. When the meeting started, as usual someone said politely, "Should we speak English?" but instead of saying (as usual) "Oh thank you! Sorry everyone!" I decided to be brave and I suggested we speak Finnish so that I could practice. I was quite amazed to find that I was mostly able to follow the proceedings! It is taking time, but I do believe I am making progress!

    2. YAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYY for you!!! KUDOS! GREAT JOB!!! And I know what you mean about the amazement you felt. :-) It happens gradually and it's hard to gauge, but over time we do understand more and more, don't we? :-D It's even better if you look back after 2-3 years (go back to the books you first thought were REALLY hardddddd after 2-3 years and you'll be splendidly surprised!) :-D

  5. Love this post! So much that is true and what I've experienced myself. I know my Finnish can still be improved (by a lot), but it would help if I spoke the language more, on a daily basis, which isn't happening right now.

    The biggest thing I found with learning Finnish is actively listening to people/tv/radio/etc and speaking! Don't be afraid to make mistakes. People will generally still understand you. And if they don't the first time around, try again and use more/different words.

    I also fully agree with Blind Sniper that learning a language, especially Finnish, requires you to think differently. Finnish is just constructed and put together differently than English. Translating directly from one to the other doesn't always work too well. It also drives my husband nuts when I (still) do it. LOL

    Good luck and keep working at it.

    1. Heather, thanks so much. It really is hard sometimes to be courageous and just jump in and use Finnish (especially when it's so easy to rely on English) but you're right - it's worth making the effort. I will keep trying!

  6. Katriina, I think you have summed it up beautifully, with the main point to remember being at the top of your list.

    Do you think that maybe some of your frustration with time is from the fact that you already speak a second language very well? That you have not only spent 2 decades to get to where you are in Japanese, but that you also forget (or just take it for granted) that making yourself understood in a language other than English was not always 'natural' to you?

    If you wind back the memory banks and remember how thrilled you were the first time you bought a bus ticket successfully in Japanese, or told a host mum about your day somewhat comprehensively, or had a friend speak to you at native level speed for the first time, you'll probably remember that the level of your Japanese then wasn't anywhere near what you would be satisfied with now, but you still think of them as major moments in your Japanese speaking personal history. Don't deny yourself the pleasure of the same milestones in Finnish just because you have passed them while travelling along a different road!

    1. Anonymous, you are absolutely right that I've conveniently forgotten what it was like to be a beginner Japanese speaker! If I do try to cast my mind back, though, I can think of lots of times I struggled with the language but somehow managed and was extremely proud of myself as a result. On one of my first days as an exchange student, a teacher told me to bring several items to school with me the next day, and I wrote the words down phonetically without understanding what on earth they might mean (I got help from my host mother later on!) Another time I remember learning all the lyrics to a favourite Japanese song so that I could take my turn when we all went out to do karaoke (with masses of help from my kind host-sister, who wrote out all the words and helped me decipher the ones I couldn't read). And on my final day at school in Japan, a teacher spontaneously suggested that I say a few words at school assembly - I was petrified, but I got up there and managed to say what I wanted to say. These were all huge milestones for me, and they were only the ones at the very beginning of my language-learning journey.

      I probably don't take enough time to savour the milestones on my Finnish journey - as you pointed out, this isn't the first foreign language I've tried to learn, and also I'm older and more impatient this time round (and more jaded!) - but you are quite right that I should slow down and allow myself to be proud more often. Anyone who takes the trouble to learn another language deserves that much.

  7. It is always a pleasure and privilege to read your posts Katriina. I am no great linguist. My current attempts to improve my poor Spanish are a bit funny to be honest. But you've made me feel I could actually do it! I understand the desire to 'know' a language - without it it is as though you cannot understand its people and will never get the culture. You will do it. I know you will! Yx

    1. LML, bless you for your kind encouragement! It's so true that without learning a country's language, you can never fully understand that country's people, and I'm such a people person that this result is just not an option for me! Thank you for your warm wishes :)

  8. Hello!

    I happened to stumble upon your post. I was left wondering, do you feel like speaking Japanese makes it easier to pronounce Finnish? At least on a very superficial level it seems like Finnish and Japanese pronounciations might be somewhat close.

    And good luck with the study.

    1. Lauri, thanks so much! Actually, I have found that Japanese and Finnish are surprisingly close in terms of pronunciation - for example, both languages have double vowels and double consonants, and the basic vowel sounds are quite similar (though Finnish has more vowels, and also that tricky "r" that doesn't exist in Japanese!)

      I really appreciate your kind encouragement - kiitos kovasti!

  9. Sorry, trying to find an email address for you and can't. I have a new "anonymous" blog set up. If you'd like the link drop me an email via Bloggertropolis. Would be great to keep in touch!

    1. Steve, you bet! I wouldn't miss your new blog for anything!

  10. Great blog. I started to try & self teach myself Finnish, but it's proving near impossible, especially as I do not hear or use it on any kind of regular basis. I need to try & get back in to it soon though! ....... Feel free to have a look at some of my Finland-related blogs over at


    1. Steve, thanks so much for stopping by for a read! I am very impressed at your efforts to learn Finnish by yourself. It certainly isn't easy to study languages at the best of times, let alone without help from a teacher. Good for you, and all the very best -- don't give up! I look forward to checking out your blog.

  11. Congrats on learning Finnish! keep on trucking. I took a few Spanish classes but it wasn't that easy although it was great fun. I speak fluent german but that's just because i was taught as a baby. That's the easiest way!

    1. Emma, so sorry for my slow response, but thank you very much for your comment! Yes, I couldn't agree more that learning a language as a child is the most efficient way to go. My girls seem to inhale Finnish effortlessly!

  12. What a wonderful and honest post. I feel for you, and I also admire you for the courage you're showing in learning the language.

    Reading this also reminds me of how difficult learning a language as an adult can be. It makes me want to show much more tolerance when I encounter someone learning to speak English here in the U.S.

    Great post.

    1. Thanks so much, Eli. Learning a language as an adult really is not easy, and I must admit that it has made me much more tolerant and understanding of others' efforts. When you think that every single word and grammatical pattern must be learned from scratch, committed to memory, practiced until it becomes second nature... it's a massive task! All the same, I think it's wonderful that the world is still so diverse in terms of language, since language and culture are inextricably linked, and small cultural nuances can be lost in translation. Language is the key to understanding people and where they are from, and for me that is the biggest motivation for learning a foreign language.

    2. To be fair, though, learning pidgin English is easy and everyday interaction is a lot closer to pidgin English than Shakespeare.

  13. Hi Katriina, I am Onur. I couldn't find a contact me page here. I would like to talk to you on a proposal for an expats-in-Finland oriented project. If you are interested in, please contact me at info (at)

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