Finnish – isn’t that like one of the hardest languages to learn?

I live abroad, so I hear this a lot. Everyone seems to think that Finnish is one of the hardest languages to learn. Well, I have no idea if this is true, after all, I learned to speak it when I was about 2 years old… But since it comes up so often, it’s something I’ve actually thought about: why does everyone think Finnish is such a hard language to learn? And also, why, when I lived in France, most people thought German is much harder language to learn than French? This was not my image in Finland, where I would say most people would think German is the easier one.

So, what gives Finnish the reputation of being a hard language to learn? I would say the problem is well illustrated in the picture below:

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The picture is from SSSS comic by Minna Sundberg. It’s background for the comic, but based on real information from Ethnologue.

So, if you are, let’s say, a native English speaker, you might notice that while Hindi is quite far from your branch, it’s still in the same tree. While Finnish (and Estonian and Hungarian for that matter) are in a completely separate tree. This is true for other languages which are considered hard, like Japanese or Chinese as well.

What is interesting to me is that many English speakers find French easier than German, even though English is a Germanic language. For example Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has French in the easiest category of languages and German a level higher. What I find even stranger about this is, that German and Dutch are in different categories. Now, I’ve never learned Dutch, but I know several Germans who can understand Dutch somewhat just based on their own language. So, I would’ve assumed their difficulty level would be the same.

But back to French. If I think both languages, French and English that is, I find them more similar to each other than to German. Maybe this is due to a lot of loan words which makes many words really similar, just spelled and pronounced differently. And of course there’s a lot of history between France and England which maybe has had influence on the languages as well. At least they are pretty much comparable in the inconsistancy of their pronounciation. I once had a discussion with a French person who was insisting that you need to pronounce the ‘e’ in ‘clothes’ because one needs to hear the plural. I thought this was funny especially coming from a French person, since often the plural (or gender) is not different when pronounced in French, even though you show it in writing.

In my opinion, there are no universally “hard” languages, there are just languages that are closer and further from your own. I mean, I find Estionian nice and easy. And I think most Finnish people find German easier than French, because German is very close to Swedish, which we have to study at school and also, at least for me, the pronounciation of German is much easier for a Finnish person. I can understand the words I know from pretty much any conversation and, while my own pronounciation is not perfect, people do understand the words I say.

Finnish is not a particularly hard language. It’s just very different of your native language (well, by you I mean someone who speaks indoeuropean language as their native language). And this is true about all languages: there are no easy or hard languages, only languages that are easy or hard for you. Partly this depends on your native language and what languages you know before, but also motivation plays a huge role. If you have enough motivation the work seems fun and you feel like the language is easy for you. And next time you think about Finnish being such a hard language, it might be worth to remember that your language is probably as hard for us than Finnish is for you.

Am I fluent yet???

One thing that always comes up in language learning is being fluent in a language. I thought I knew what that is, but lately I’ve realize that people define it very differently. So the first question we need to ask is:

What exactly is fluency?

I started thinking of this when I saw Benny Lewis’s blog Fluent in 3 Months. Achieving fluency in 3 months in my opinion is not at all possible. But reading the blog, I realized he just has a different definition for what it means to be fluent. And despite the slightly arrogant name, there’s actually a lot of good stuff on that blog, especially if you’ve struggled with language learning. I tend to side more with Olly Richards’ opinion (Olly’s blog: I will teach you a language, check out the podcast also!): He thinks fluency is the point where he can behold and enjoy a conversation with another person and neither has to slow down unnecessarily (see podcast #18 and #19 and 60secondfluencytest.com).

Both of these of course only address the fluency in speech. Which, to be fair, is what most people think of when they think of fluency. I would add also writing and reading into this. In my opinion, I’m fluent when I can fairly confidently have discussions both in speaking AND in writing without a huge effort. This would mean not checking the dictionary all the time or writing for example e-mails without the need to read them for confirmation that it’s understandable. For me fluency doesn’t mean perfect and I don’t think one can really achieve perfection anyway. The native speakers make mistakes too, although maybe not the same ones as the foreigners. Also, fluency would mean that the skill is not just speaking with your friends and your teacher but pretty much anyone who is at least at the same level as you.

Many people also think you only speak a language fluently when you have a native like accent. I’m not sure how possible this is, and I would say it’s not a useful goal. Then again, even in this people differ a lot what they think is good enough. Most people who know you are not native will of course say, you don’t quite sound like one. And you might pass for one in a fleeting conversation, but most likely not if the person you’re talking to gets to know you also when you’re tired… (although after living abroad for awhile, I’m not quite fluent in Finnish in that point either). But in the end, I don’t think it really matters. If you can discuss without effort, and people understand you, you are fluent even with a clearly foreign accent.

Do I need to be fluent?

This has been at least my goal in most languages. Although I’m totally not fluent in all the languages I speak or am learning. But this is not necessarily the goal for everyone. If you just want to get by on your holiday, I would concentrate on speaking and being understandable and understanding simple sentences and things like directions and menus. On the other hand, if your goal in Russian is to read Russian classics in the original, that would require more study, but you can totally concentrate on the reading and understanding the language and not worry so much about speaking.

So, for me, that would be a yes. But maybe not in all the languages I’m studying. In any case, I think it’s a very personal goal and even small amount of knowledge in another language can make you happy. And if you’re traveling and can greet people in the local language, the local people tend to be more enthusiastic in trying to find a way to understand and communicate with you, so this might be all you need. I guess my point is, don’t set too high goals in the beginning. You can always change your mind.

How to get there?

If you decide that fluent is what you want to be, the first thing you need to decide is, what that means for you. If you go with my definition, that means studying. But of course there are many ways to get there. I think the main point is, though, to use the language as much as you can. Although, it might make sense to have a bit more concrete goals than being fluent. It’s a good overall goal, but I like to have smaller goals I can achieve in few weeks or months, otherwise it’s hard to keep up the motivation.

If you want to improve your speaking, start speaking as soon as you can. If you don’t know anyone then there are websites online that can help you with finding a language partner or a tutor. My favorite site for this is italki (if you use this link to sign up and end up booking a lesson, once you’re done with the lesson we both get $10 credits for free!). All teachers and tutors have a video of themselves, so you can judge a bit if it’s a person you could work with. And if you are looking at one of the more popular languages, you have a bit of choice. There is also a forum for language exchange, but I haven’t tried that, because with my busy schedule, I prefer to pay someone and get the language practice I need, instead of spending time on the language I already know.

If you want your writing to be more fluent, then just write as much as you can. I like writing a bit of diary every day (unless I’m too lazy). I don’t even ask anyone to correct it, it’s more getting used to the idea of writing in the language. Also, I find I remember words better when I write them by hand, so I don’t use my computer for it. This also applies for any vocabulary I need to learn: I ALWAYS write the words down in my notebook and half the work is done!

In conclusion

These are just a few things one can do, I will write more elaborate posts in the future. But in the end, my advice is simple: use the language as actively and as much as possible. In the end, fluency is probably not the most useful goal, since it’s so abstract. But even if that is your ultimate goal, it’s good to have smaller goals you can reach in the near future. And in any case, that doesn’t need to be your goal at all. Even getting by with few sentences on a holiday is a goal worth pursuing!

Introduction

– or a very long post about me and language learning

 

Who am I?

I’m originally from Finland, I have lived in several countries and I love learning languages. I speak several languages and I’ve studied even more. I had a bit of a break on goal oriented language learning due to my PhD (Permanent head Damage), but while getting back to it I realized how many new things are around nowadays in the internet.

I’ve always loved languages. And so did my mum and my grandmother, from whom I probably got the example. Also, there was always encouragement if I wanted to learn another language. In the 80s when I was a kid, there wasn’t as many possibilities. I studied Swedish at school and as soon as I could I got a Norwegian pen pal and we wrote to each other in Swedish. I learned English before I had it in school by watching BBC’s Muzzy in Gondoland series that was on tv and my mum bought me and my sister the exercise book for it too and then I just watched Disney movies over and over again in English without subtitles.

Most of my language learning I’ve done in school though. In Finland you need to study Swedish and another foreign language, which for most people is English. In addition I studied French and Russian in school and later in university I had Spanish, German, and Japanese.

Why a language blog and what’s that name?

Even if there are many blogs about this subject already, I feel like each of them has a very personal approach and in the end it’s perfect when you find something that works just for you. Also, I like the idea of recording things for myself and if that helps someone else, then that’s awesome!

So, naming a blog is always tricky. I tend to be very critical of what I like and it takes forever for me to settle on one. But there’s a language learning story behind this one. In high school in our French classes one year were all about other countries than France where people speak French. So, a lot of African countries. And the funniest words just stick in your head. Like Baobab (which apparently is the same in English). So, forever I connect Baobab to our French classes. And also: I obviously learned something in my French class.

My approach to languages

The so-called “traditional class room learning” has worked for me well in school and in university. But this requires that the pace is good for you and that the level of the other students is somewhat similar to yours. If your level is too high or too low, you will just get frustrated with it. Also, I have realized that language teaching in Finnish schools is pretty good compared to many other countries.

But, because I have studied so many languages, I tend to be quite quick at picking them up. While there are still classes that would be good for me (like at the university), these are not always accessible if you don’t study in that university or they are not at a convenient time for someone who also needs to work. So, lately I’ve turned into more and more independent study and also using online tutors and teachers, which seems to be a good choice for me.

But whatever you do, the main thing is to try. You will make a lot of mistakes in the beginning when you start speaking or writing, but the more you do it the better you get. My philosophy about language learning (or pretty much anything really) is really nicely summed up in this Garfunkel & Oates song below (by the way, check them out on YouTube, they’re amazing!).