Living in a country, where you don’t speak the language. At first!

Hey, it’s Barbora again. A second-year master’s student in International Strategy and Sustainability. This one’s for all of those who fear the Finnish language (I used to be one of you). Or those who feel the uncertainty of moving to a country, where you don’t speak the language. Or anyone who’s thinking of giving up on learning Finnish (can’t blame you really).

When I moved to Finland, I didn’t know what to expect in many different areas of daily life. Language being one of them. And like most people moving to a country where you don’t speak the language that is mostly used, I was freaking out a bit. Sure, the fact that Finns are known to be great English speakers was slightly reassuring, but still. I’ve heard horror stories from people trying to learn Finnish, with most of them ending in the same way – “I’ve tried for about 10 years and then I just gave up”. What a motivation.

My only advantage probably was my (for a foreigner definitely unusual and excessive) knowledge and liking of Finnish music – mind you, obviously not the one performed in English. And so I was coming to Finland equipped with words such as vapina (tremor), varikko (depot) and tarunhohtoinen (fabulous/legendary). Okay okay, I just picked these here on purpose and the translations are only somehow right, but once again, I’m sure you get my point. With such an “extensive” vocabulary, I’d probably be quite comfortable at a concert of some Finnish artists, but the outlook wasn’t too good for just asking directions to the nearest store.  

Anyways, my point is – it was really scary, coming here. My friends were trying to comfort me by pointing out that literally everyone in Finland speaks English. However – I actually perceived that as a problem and a barrier to my Finnish learning. It’s just way too easy to NOT speak Finnish in Finland. You just don’t need to, in most parts of your everyday life (but sure it’s useful for a lot of things – may I refer you to my other blogpost about finding a job in Finland here).

With my first day in Finland began my difficult and ongoing journey to learning Finnish. I’d say it’s been actually going better than expected. I started taking Finnish courses straight away – not just at school, but additional ones too. It’s been just over a year now and I managed to get through the first three Suomen Mestari books (basically a bible of Finnish language learning), just starting the fourth one now. Officially, my level is something around B1.1., which I’d probably find quite disappointing after all the effort that I’ve put in – if it were any other language but Finnish. Finnish is…special. Interpret that in any way you want.

So, how did I get to where I am? I’m sure there’s many ways to learn Finnish, but here’s what I did! First of all, what are you going to need?

  1. A lot of positivity and willpower. I’m not even kidding. Learning a language can be quite stressful and frustrating. Yeah, learning A LANGUAGE, any language. Now think about the fact that the language is Finnish. Much worse. 
  2. Time. If you’re not willing to invest a couple hours a week, then there’s just no way you can expect progress soon. Just like with any other language really.
  3. Motivation/purpose. Why do you want to learn Finnish? If you don’t have a clear answer to this question, why even bother. I am learning because I want to live in Finland and feel more integrated in the society. And I also want to be able to talk to my boyfriend’s mom, who does a great job understanding English, but doesn’t speak it too much.

And now, how to learn and what resources to use?

  1. Courses/classes. It’s just better to learn with other people, isn’t it. The stress of thinking that you’ll be the worst in class just keeps you motivated! No really, just get a teacher. They’re great at explaining ridiculous grammar things.
  2. Read. News. Books. Anything. May I recommend YLE’s news in easy Finnish (uutiset selkosuomeksi) and books for kids (easier versions of Moomin books worked quite well for me).
  3. Listen (to music, to the radio, to people’s conversations….). A great way of learning to understand spoken Finnish!
  4. Make yourself talk. At the store, at the post office, at the restaurant…anywhere. People will probably try to switch to English if they see you struggling, but you can just keep trying in Finnish and most will understand and appreciate your efforts! I still remember this one nice lady at a café where I came to get coffee during my first month in Finland and I ordered in broken Finnish. She was kind, talked slowly and gave tips on what are some things baristas can ask you and what are things one can respond. I came out of the café with a great cup of coffee and newly found confidence. Never ordered coffee in English since.
  5. I’m sure there’s more, but you’ll figure that out yourself!

Two last pieces of advice I’ll leave you with – don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t give up. Learning a language CAN be fun, but just like a lot of other things, it is what you make it. So – make learning fun for yourself and I’m sure you’ll be a Finnish expert in no time. And hopefully I’ll be too.

Onnea matkaan. 

In the meantime if you have any questions please drop me a message at