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Patience, courage, and motivation: Learning Finnish one word at a time

On 9 April, Finns commemorate the accomplishments of Mikael Agricola, widely considered the father of a language that has stumped non-Finns for decades.

A listening test for Finnish class at Jyväskylän Kansanopisto.
Learning Finnish is a challenge many newcomers to Finland will eventually wrestle with. Image: Yle / Ronan Browne

In 2016, nearly 35,000 people came to live in Finland from around the world, according to data from Statistics Finland. Many of them will be looking to learn the Finnish language -- with varying degrees of success.

Finnish has a reputation as a difficult language, but that hasn't stopped a group of émigré students from attempting to learn it.

Every weekday, from 8.30am until 2.15pm, a group of people from very different parts of the world gather in a classroom on the third floor of the Jyväskylä city library with one common goal: to learn the Finnish language.

The classes are organised by the local Adult Education Centre, or kansalaisopisto, and are replicated in cities and towns across Finland. The task facing these students is not an easy one, as has been well-documented, and they are acutely aware of the enormity of the challenge ahead.

‘So far out on its own’

Simone Honegger, a native German speaker from Switzerland, has learned other languages such as French, Italian and English by just listening to the words and their close relationship to German. Finnish, however, “is just so far out on its own,” she says.

“I have to completely change the way I think,” explains Paula Milesi-Junikka, originally from Uruguay. “The structures in Finnish are so different to what I am used to. This postposition that they have in Finnish doesn’t even exist in any of the other languages I know.”

Bruna Arndt, from Brazil, moved to Finland two years ago to live with her Finnish boyfriend, and was determined to master the local language as soon as possible. However, she is often frustrated by the slow progress she seems to be making.

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Bruna Arndt, a student at Jyväskylän Kansanopisto.
Bruna Arndt moved to Finland from Brazil two years ago. Image: Yle / Ronan Browne

“I remember when I learned English it was so much easier, and I was expecting I will have that same progression with Finnish. Instead I often feel that I am stuck and that it is not moving forward as fast as it should.”

Arndt remembers the early stages of learning Finnish as being especially difficult.

“The changes in the words are something that you don’t see coming when you start learning. You think you learn something, but then it’s not like that anymore.”

One small step at a time

Another member of the group, Frank* (not his real name), came to Finland in 2015 from a middle-Eastern country, and was initially daunted by the prospect of learning Finnish as he feared his “memory card was full. There was no more space”. However, he soon realised that learning Finnish was possible with the correct mindset.

“It all depends on the person, how much they want to learn. If you try to learn, then there is nothing difficult. Everything in this world is difficult, if you don’t try.”

With this determination to learn, Frank resolved to make progress one small step at a time.

“If you learn two new words every day, that’s 60 words a month, and in six months you will know 360 words. But you must study every day. If you forget for two or three days, the Finnish language will forget you.”

Positive feedback a motivator

The group’s teacher, Mervi Huisman, has over 15 years experience of teaching Finnish to immigrants and uses different pedagogical methods to develop students’ reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. However, she believes that building students’ confidence in their own abilities is key to learning Finnish.

“It’s important to give feedback to the students, because even the slightest positive or encouraging feedback motivates them to learn more, and also makes them feel that they are improving.”

In order to achieve this, Huisman encourages students to “practice in the classroom and use what they have learned [during the classes] in the outside world.”

Huisman’s teaching methods are very much in line with recent trends in the teaching of Finnish to immigrants. Satu Lahtonen, spokesperson for the ‘s2-opettajat’ group - a pedagogical association for teachers of Finnish as a second language - refers to a recent shift in emphasis in the latest "Finnish National Curriculum for Integration Training for Immigrants". Previously, the emphasis was placed on the correct use of the language, but now the importance of developing a student’s ability to communicate - despite the mistakes they might make - has come to the fore.

“The most talkative ones always learn the best. You must get used to producing the language and little by little it will become fluent and effortless,” explains Lahtonen. “Also, especially in the beginning, your mouth - the muscles and tissues - must get used to the language so that you feel comfortable when producing the possibly strange letters and sounds.”

Finding similarities among differences

Bruna Arndt’s ‘breakthrough’ with Finnish came when she first recognised similarities in the conjugation of verbs in Finnish and in her native language.

“Portuguese has the same structure - more or less - so I was used to it already. It was not a surprise for me.”

Arndt’s fellow classmates also refer to finding a reference point with their own native languages as being a pivotal moment, as it gave each of them a starting point from which to better understand Finnish.

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Patricia Colomer, a Finnish student at Jyväskylän Kansanopisto.
Patricia Colomer has found similarities in pronunciation rules in Finnish and Spanish. Image: Yle / Ronan Browne

Hüseyin Devecioglu, a car mechanic from Turkey, discovered the Finnish and the Turkish alphabets to have much in common. Spaniard Patricia Colomer has found reading Finnish to be relatively easy, as the pronunciation of words and letters is similar to Spanish. Natalia Fomina, from St Petersburg, cites the difficulty of having to remember the many exceptions to the rules in her own native language, Russian, and believes Finnish is easier to learn because it “almost always” follows the rules.

Language key to belonging

Although Huisman recognises the important role the teacher plays in the students’ development, she stresses that the most important factor is the motivation of the students themselves - and feels particularly lucky to be teaching a highly-motivated group at the moment.

For Bruna Arndt, this motivation comes from a need to feel like she belongs in her new home country and culture.

“I want to learn Finnish because I want to feel like I belong here, and I don’t want to feel like an outsider. Language is a very big part of that and being able to speak my mind and communicate and understand; it’s very important to me.”

For Frank, learning Finnish is essential for him to build a future in Finland.

“I want to learn Finnish so I can make my future for my family in this beautiful, paradise country.”

Finland celebrates the life and accomplishments of Mikael Agricola, known as the father of the Finnish language on the anniversary of his death on 9 April.

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