How to learn Finnish: tips and advice for new students

"Why should I learn English?" is not a question people ask themselves a lot these days, is it? For many non-native English speakers, it is an obvious choice. "Why should I learn Finnish?" on the other hand, is a trickier one.

Exploring a new language is a journey

As you might have already noticed, many international students get by in Finland just fine, speaking only English. And while whether or not you should learn Finnish while studying in Oulu is, of course, for you to decide, if you ask me, my answer is definitely yes.

I am both a language learner and a language teacher, so let me share some advice on how to get on top of your language learning. Many students tend to ask the same two questions before starting to learn a new language:

  1. Is it hard to learn?
  2. Can I learn it by myself?

And, of course, Finnish is no exception! Potential learners are afraid that it would be too hard to learn and impossible to do it themselves. It's hard to be objective because each student learns differently, but I'll try my best.

Exploring a new language, especially while you're living abroad, is undoubtedly a journey.

And like all journeys, it might not always be smooth and easy, but it will let you experience many amazing things.

Is Finnish hard to learn?

Finnish is a language of the Finnic group of the Uralic family of languages. If you've never tried to learn a Uralic language before (for instance, Hungarian or Estonian), learning Finnish might seem challenging.

For starters, here come fifteen noun cases. Depending on what language is your native, you might not even know what noun cases are and why people would make their life so difficult and use so many of them. Finns have a different perception of time and space, hence the difference in the logic of the language. But as soon as you get the hang of it, grammar stops scaring you that much.

If I were to compare Finnish to English or Russian (my native language), I would say that Finnish grammar is much more logical and structured; there are fewer tenses and not so many prepositions, which gives you more freedom in how you phrase your idea.

From my personal experience, Finnish, being different from any other language I studied before, can be challenging at times, but frankly speaking, it shouldn't be much harder than any other language you would want to learn.

There are so many ways to learn a language - pick what works best for you.

Can I learn Finnish by myself?

This question is no easier, but if you want a short answer, then yes, you can learn Finnish by yourself… if you do it right. In the modern age of the Internet, finding a learning resource is probably even too easy. Of course, not all of them are equally good, but doing as little as putting a simple "learn Finnish online for free" search on Google could be a good start.

Now that the most commonly asked questions have been answered. Let's have a closer look at what you should do to learn Finnish efficiently.

Learn common words first

Getting fully fluent will take some time, but learning the most common words and phrases is your first step to fluency. If you still don't have a Duolingo app, it's a good place to start.

Think of the situations where you might need Finnish. A train station? A hospital? A store? What might I need to ask at a store? What might I be asked? Preparing some emergency phrases in advance could be a game-changer when you least expect it.

Don't dive into the authentic materials headfirst

Of course, using authentic media is a fun and effective way to learn a foreign language. However, using audio and video made for native speakers from the beginning without a steady foundation may prove overwhelming and ineffective. Passive listening is a great way to "fish" out familiar words in context.

However, while listening to a recording in a foreign language, the worse the understanding is, the shorter it will take for the listener to lose concentration. Watching Finnish YouTube or shows is great! Just remember not to make it your main source of learning.

Memorize words in context

A good idea to learn words fast is to put them in a sentence. Long lists of single words won't take you far in a conversation. Instead of writing down random words, try to put them in context. That way, you know how the word is used in real life. Plus, if you have a sentence memorized, it can also help you learn grammar.

For example, I want to remember the word maksaa (to pay). I can write it down, but what next? How can I use it? What cases do I need? To make my learning smart, I put it into a sentence.

Onko mahdollista maksaa kortilla? - Is it possible to pay by card?

Which helps me:

  1. Memorize the structure of a yes/no question - olla + ko
  2. Remember an extra word - mahdollinen (possible) and the case I use it in
  3. Learn how to say pay by (something) - maksaa + korti(lla)
  4. Know how to ask this question when I go shopping.

If you're finished your Duolingo course and are now looking for an app to help you with more advanced collocations, check out Speakly - you can buy Premium or simply invite a bunch of friends, which can get you up to one year of free Premium.

Do I need a bag? Do I have cash? Is it about a loyalty card? How do I say "I don't understand"?

Find a native speaker to talk to

Talking to native speakers is a quick way to improve your skills and find new friends. Speaking with Finns is bound to improve your speaking, listening, and pronunciation.

If you don't know any Finns, you could try sneaking up to and kidnapping one for yourself at the university during breaks, joining a hobby club, or hitting a Cafe Lingua meeting. Follow ESN, OYY and your faculty social media pages for fresh news and information about ongoing events.

Practice daily

Daily practice is important to build a habit and keep your skills moving forward, whether you immerse yourself into the language or do exercises. It can be tempting to study for several hours one day and then relax for the rest of the week. But similar to physical exercises, language learning is only beneficial when you do it regularly.

Regardless of which techniques and resources you use, it is still important to remember that the language will not learn itself for you.

Microlearning is a growing trend in language learning. If you choose this method, you can dedicate 10 minutes of your time in the morning and the evening for a learning session, whether it is a couple of activities on the app, a YouTube video, journaling or anything else you like.

Remember, language acquisition is not about precision. Rather than trying to learn the grammar rules by heart, try to enjoy the language simply. Read, listen, watch videos, talk to other students and people around you, ask questions, and have fun.

You will, of course, find yourself going back to grammar explanations and grammar tables when you are stuck or curious. But mostly, it will be your interest in the language, your motivation and engagement that will teach you best.

About the author

Daria Zaikovskaia from Saint Petersburg, Russia, is a master's degree student in Learning, Education and Technology. She is passionate about coffee, video games and her studies. She has a collection of colourful sweaters and a drawer full of glittery makeup to brighten the day.