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Researcher: Learning Finnish not as difficult as perceived, but students need support

The 'myth' that Finnish is an exceptionally difficult language to learn may be discouraging for new students.

Irtokirjaimista muodostuu sana muutos.
It is important to start using the language as soon as the learning begins. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

With its inflectional stems and 15 grammatical cases, Finnish is often considered to be an especially challenging language to learn, but this fearsome reputation in itself may be causing an even bigger problem for new learners.

"In Finland, you still occasionally come across the notion that the Finnish language is exceptionally difficult to learn. This notion in itself is problematic: if the acquisition of fluent language skills is considered unlikely or even impossible, learners may be discouraged," according to Katharina Ruuska, a Finnish language researcher at the University of Jyväskylä.

Research does not support the view that one language can be significantly easier or more difficult to learn than any other, Ruuska added.

Instead, a lot depends on how much the student gets to use the language, and how much learning support they receive.

According to Ruuska, some people can reach a relatively high level of Finnish language competence within just a few months, while for others it can take a lot longer to even get to an intermediate level.

She says that more advanced learners may have previous experience in language learning and thus more resources and learning strategies at their disposal.

"Of course, the learner’s own language background is also a factor: for example, Estonian speakers, as speakers of a closely related language, have an advantage over others," Ruuska said.

Overcoming the 'idea of difference'

Learning Finnish can be demanding if the goals or schedules are unrealistic, according to Hanna Jokela, a lecturer in Finnish Language and Culture at the University of Turku. For example, language acquisition can be hampered just as much by the language course moving too slowly as it can be when moving too quickly.

Jokela adds that the pronunciation of certain Finnish words poses the biggest challenge for some students, while for others it is difficult to adapt to the grammar of the language.

From the beginning of their studies, some students feel overwhelmed that Finnish vocabulary and sentence structure is very different from their own mother tongue or other languages they have learned, which can prove to be a learning deterrent.

"When they get over this idea of difference, the learning will start to move forward," Jokela advised.

Researcher: Create a positive learning environment

In her recent dissertation research, Ruuska found that the atmosphere around a language strongly influences learners ’experiences.

"It is important that other people have a positive and constructive attitude towards learners. The worst is if the learner tries to communicate in Finnish and others immediately change the language to English. This sends the message that anything less than complete fluency in the Finnish language is not acceptable," Ruuska explained.

Jokela agrees that such situations are problematic. Even if Finns are usually trying to be helpful and polite when switching to English, such behaviour may be a disservice: the learner's language skills do not develop, nor does their linguistic self-esteem.

On the flip side, there are also big differences in how eager, or "brave", new learners are to use the language. For example, some students want to know the language very well before they feel they are confident enough to start speaking to others in 'real life', while others are ready to try despite having a quite limited vocabulary.

This is largely a question of character, Ruuska believes.

"In my experience, both methods can lead to successful language learning. Bolder speakers may develop more by speaking, while people who want to learn a language more thoroughly right away are usually very motivated learners," she added.

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