Learning Finnish

How learning Finnish can be a real challenge!

As a great part of this blog is about my experiences of living in Finland, it would be a total whopper if I didn’t tell you all about my kooky battle with the Finnish language. As if moving into this unfamiliar part of the world wasn’t enough, I had to endure the painful process of getting familiar with the language and even trying to speak it. It is because life here in Finland without knowing the language is more miserable than the process of learning it. Yeah, right! Life can be a total b#@&* and when it gives you the Finnish language, you just learn it.

But is that so easy? ‘No-ei-kyllä’ (Well-no-yes) meaning, definitely no.

It is true that almost everyone in Finland speaks English and you have no difficulty in interacting with people but all the official communications are made in Finnish and if you miss your doctor’s appointment or your job interview just because the google translator messed up its meaning then you have a big problem. The only solution is, learn the damn language.

Finnish is one of the toughest languages in the world to learn and there is no doubt about the high percentage of failure people experience in this endeavor. Ask me how do I know this? Well, we started as a group of 23 enthusiasts (who couldn’t wait to speak like the Finns do) which then drastically reduced to a group of 13 totally disinterested zombie-like creatures. Now, we can’t sleep at night because our brains are stuck badly in the classroom.

But from my personal experience, usually, when you are about to give up, that is when you realize how far you have come. Then you know that you have started understanding people around you to a certain extent. I am in that phase right now and I can speak a little bit of Finnish to my utter surprise. All I need is more confidence to keep the conversation flowing, no matter how stupid I feel. Trust me, trying to make a conversation with the vocabulary of a 2-year-old can prove really stupid!

However, it is not always the grammar and vocabulary that help you to make a conversation but your awareness about things related to life in Finland in general.

So I look for kids to speak with! But they are usually shy and not very fond of conversations, especially with strangers. So the next target is people with dogs and cats. They really like talking about their pets. In a previous post, I have written about my funny encounter with a few of them but now I have learned to approach them the correct way. And I am not afraid of dogs anymore!

Read all about my encounter here- Living in Finland and not knowing how to belong. 

But unless you are a psycho-stalker, it is very difficult to break into the general social settings as you are no longer a student and, even worse, you are now unemployed. No need to mention that the neighbours are scared of getting in the elevator with you, forget a conversation. No, it is not your fault. You just don’t get in the elevator with a neighbour here in Finland.

Really, who needs small talk!

But it would be unfair to generalize. I am currently interning with a Finnish company and everyone at the office is so nice to me that I can happily say that I have never spoken so much Finnish in this 3 year long stay in Finland. This is an amazing feeling 😀 . Also, they do lots of small talk.

So it is kind of a vicious cycle. You don’t have a job because you don’t know the language, and since you don’t know the language you don’t have too many opportunities to interact with the Finns. Also, it is because you don’t have a job, you don’t have a proper social setting to interact with them on a daily basis. Moreover, if you don’t have any Finnish speaking friends how are you supposed to know where to look for advise in the first place! I have a couple of Finnish friends, to be honest, but they prefer speaking in English as they prefer to keep it simple, I guess.

So if you are a Finnish speaking Finn reading this, your friendship is welcome.

I would have liked to read more about the painful experience of learning the language from some expats living here but when I googled, I hardly found any personal account of a dejected foreigner sharing their feelings.

Then I found this blogger’s account. Even though she is a Finn, her account is quite relatable.

Now I know that I am not imagining things. The challenges of learning Finnish are real!

I will only consider myself successful the day I will be able to make some jokes in Finnish. So far, I don’t even get the humour in the ones I read! Perhaps, if I use direct translations of Finnish phrases, I could make some jokes automatically. How about this lame one- ‘Would you like a korvapuusti???

Don’t get mad at me after translating this. Even though the word korvapuusti means ‘slap in the face’ it is actually a very delicious cinnamon bun that looks like an ear. 

But right now, the focus is not to let the stress overpower me. Jokes can wait.

Here’s how I deal with my laborous days of learning Finnish.

1. Have a strong cup of coffee before entering school. This gives me a partly jazzed-up feel and also helps me maintain that faux ‘I-am-interested’ look on my face.

2. Zombie-sit through the first part of the day’s lesson because getting started is the hardest part. In my case, I have to switch my thinking mode from my mother-tongue to English and then to Finnish in order to understand what’s going on.

3. Wait impatiently for ‘Kahvitauko’ meaning a coffee break. More coffee.

4. Pretend to understand the news the teacher makes us watch in class. One familiar word and I get the gist. Really! Just don’t ask me questions!

5. Wait impatiently for ‘lounas’ meaning lunch so that I can practice some more Finnish at the cafeteria. 

6. Discuss with class friends during lunch break in broken Finnish how ‘elämä on epäreilua’ (life is unfair!) considering, now we have to start from zero. 

7. Amidst the post lunch-daze, try to understand the complex differences between partitives, genitives, and plurals. This can really mess you up! But ‘Hei! Tervetuloa Suomeen! (Hello! Welcome to Finland!)

8. Try not to get lost in the maze of missä-mistä-mihin (where in-where from-where to). And don’t even get me started on all the ‘puhekieli sanoja’ (spoken language words/slangs).

9. Look at the clock and trying to think in Finnish how much time is left for the class to get over. As long as my brain can process ‘puoli-kolme’ (Half-three) which actually means Half past 2, I am good.

10. Get home and try to forget everything so that you can give your brain some rest, but every day there is at least one word that is stuck with you. There’s no getting rid of it unless a new word enters.

11. Avoid studying at home which should not be the case but when I study, I can’t sleep at night. Then my dreams are as bizarre as the grammar.

12. Switch on the TV and hate myself even more for not understanding anything because I have the vocabulary of an infant. Then, I call it a day. Else, I might just give up.

But so far I haven’t. Because despite the stress it is not really impossible to learn Finnish. Oh! by the way it is not ‘Finnish language’ but Suomen kieli or simply ‘Suomi’.

What do you think? Is learning a new language is more difficult than we imagine?  Or it depends from language to language?


  • GST Consultants November 23, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Nice post, things explained in details. Thank You.

  • rich42fi November 11, 2017 at 9:03 pm

    Hi I found myself reading your blog. I am from London and came here to Suomi 20 years ago, I am retired now, mainly due to not speaking Finnish !

    I have long connections with India and of course I understand your feelings of isolation and minimal rapport. However, after 18 years of family life here and 2 teenage kids, I realize that the Finns themselves have the those same feelings, tempered to some extent by speaking Finnish. I think the it is the severe climate, together with a standard national education system,plus a highly developed impersonal bureaucracy that renders small talk as a pointless activity and unnecessarily time consuming. It would be interesting to hear about your reason to visit here in Finland.

    • Jutismita November 12, 2017 at 12:26 pm

      Hello! Thanks for reading 🙂 It is nice to know the views of expats like you. I can imagine the struggle but I have come to appreciate the joy of silence myself and understand that it is not always required to talk. But it isn’t helping me in improving my Finnish skills. Nevertheless, Finland is an interesting country to live and the Finnish language is equally interesting. I moved here with my husband who is working with a Finnish company and right now I am attending Finnish language school. Hopefully,I will succeed, one day! 🙂


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