A Pep Talk for Finnish Learners

If you're feeling overwhelmed and confused about the Finnish language, here's a few words of encouragement.

 

You’ve fallen in love with the language and have plans to visit the country and your friends or a loved one there. You’ve head people say Finnish is the most fascinating and complex language in the world and that mastering it more or less gives you superpowers. You’re determined to impress everyone by speaking Finnish fluently by the end of the year. You feel invincible. You order a textbook online and excitedly start to leaf through it as soon as you get your hands on it. But… what’s with all these grammar pages…? So many rules. And who decided there should be all these cases? Overwhelm. Exhaustion. Not so mythical-hobbity-cute after all. Just plain exhausting. In fact, don’t all Finns speak really good English anyway? Maybe you’ll look into this once you’re less busy, next year…

Does this sound familiar? I don’t blame you! Getting used to Finnish can be a challenge in the beginning. From a teacher’s point of view, it’s definitely a different experience teaching beginners of Finnish than beginners of English. But I want you to know that learning Finnish starts to make more and more sense as you progress. I’ve seen it happen with so many students – the questions and confusion may be part of every lesson, but desperation slowly transforms into

1. knowing what question to ask when they are confused

2. a growing feeling of empowerment when they know that there’s usually a surprisingly logical explanation.

It can be a shock to the system when you discover one thing after another that makes Finnish completely different from English or some other language that you know. It feels like you’re doing a one-woman or a one-man puppet show, pulling all these strings in different directions, trying to give a coherent and comprehensible presentation.

When the puppet show starts, it’s worth bearing in mind that hardly anyone gets it 100% perfect all the time, especially in the beginning. I have met hundreds of Finnish learners and have yet to meet someone who gets everything right in the beginning. For example, saying a sentence like “I like water” in Finnish after you’ve first checked the dictionary entries of the words offers many more opportunities to make a grammatical mistake than the English sentence does because of different dependencies.

‘I’ (‘minä’)

‘like’ (‘pitää’)

‘water’ (‘vesi’)

becomes:

“Minä pidän vedestä.” 

No wonder you're confused!

 
 Finnish cases can be confusing in the beginning.
 
 

I believe that once you fully accept that there’s no point in trying to get it all right straight away, you’re much less likely to lose hope and give up on Finnish.

I also believe that attitude is everything. When I was learning German and working as a waitress in Berlin, I was constantly fretting about the (in my mind) atrocious German language I was producing, and I was making terrible tips (shared with all the staff) because the customers could only see a very dumbed-down and serious version of me. My boss had to talk to me about the bad tips. I then decided I’d stop worrying about sounding silly and laugh at myself instead. I realised that nobody else cared about my mistakes, they just wanted to see me smile and communicate efficiently with them. There was an instant change in how I felt about my German, and it did get more fluent, too. From then on, my tips were consistently good (and I got to keep my job, yay!).

I’m not saying you need to completely ignore the use of appropriate language. It’s just important to recognise that, in spoken language, you’re much better off focusing on getting your message across than worrying about every little grammar rule you’ve learnt. Worry about those when you’re not in the “real world” communicating with someone in Finnish. Think of your grammar lessons as recharging your language batteries and creating and refining the linguistic patterns. I don’t think you should waste your precious Finnish-speaking opportunities because of the fear of making mistakes. Speak as much as you can and tolerate your mistakes.

However, it’s still good to be highly aware of how the language around you is used. Treat every street sign and trip to the supermarket an opportunity to spot the partitive or the KPT rule. Fill up your Anki app with new words on the go, try making a digital scrapbook out of signs, price tags, ingredients on product packaging… You could even have a theme for each week! Spotting verbs this week, partitive nouns the next. Food vocabulary, office supplies… whatever you need in your daily life! Trust me, you’re going to be more and more at ease using the structures and vocabulary in speech if you pay attention to the world around you in this way. You’re going to be more and more at ease speaking in your Finnish lessons, you’ll get more and more out of them, and so the cycle goes on!

In short, if you have a chance to speak Finnish in your daily life, try to keep the pressures of that experience separate from the pressure of getting your head around all the things that are strange to you in the Finnish grammar. But view both of those experiences with curiosity and acceptance - you’ll be just fine!

 

My online course on the Finnish cases is running again in November! You can find out more about it here: