Learning Finnish

In response to one of my #MicroblogMonday posts a few weeks ago: Foreign, Language, Melissa from Stirrup Queens asked some good questions, that I thought could make into a fun post. Or at least interesting. Or something.

I moved to Finland just over 15 years ago, but I had “taken a holiday” here the year before, which is the catalyst of my interest in Finland and learning Finnish.
In the beginning, I bought a book or two to start learning the Finnish language. Mr Siili sent me a dictionary and created some “homework” for me that he either emailed or posted to me. He also wrote some silly stories in Finnish, sentences for me to translate in Finnish and English and made me a crossword puzzle or two, which I still have tucked away to this day.
dict1 dict2 dict3
This thing went EVERYWHERE with me during the first few years in Finland.
Once Finland was on my mind, I took my books everywhere with me (in my hometown) learning what I could. This led me to bump into other people in my hometown who had ties with Finland. One girl’s family was from Finland and they visited in the summers. Another guy studied Finnish in Washington state and then did an exchange in Finland. He was nice enough to give me copies of all the books he had. I still have them on my shelves.
Once I moved to Finland, Mr Siili would help me with learning Finnish more, but that didn’t last long as our learning and teaching styles clashed. He wanted to correct my every error and I just wanted to be understood. It is a bit better these days, but elephants Mr Siili’s have a long memory. Unfortunately, this led to Mr Siili and I only speaking English at home, even to this day.

After living in Finland for a couple of months, I got a job at an English speaking daycare: the adults spoke English and the kids didn’t, for the most part. I quickly learned some basics: colors, animals, numbers, thank you, stop, don’t and any other basic phrases you need with kids. I also learned some simple phrases. During this time I also started a basic language course through one of the community colleges. It was a structured way of learning and I am sure I learned something from there. The second year of living in Finland, I worked a different English daycare and continued to learn more Finnish.

By this point, I know I had a decent vocabulary. Especially if it consisted of the above mentioned categories and food. Oh, food was and is important to me. I love cooking and baking, but packages and products were so different here! I remember one time wanting got make a special dish for Mr Siili, but I just couldn’t find all the items I needed. Either because they were packaged differently and I couldn’t find them or because they just didn’t have them (yet) in Finland. That specific trip to the shop had me in tears.

On another occasion, I remember helping another American girl who had just moved to Finland to start working at the same place as me. I thought I was so great in my Finnish skills that I offered to “translate” for her so she could order some make-up the Body Shop. I took the product up to the ladies at the counter and told them that “she (co-worker) wanted to order this, but in a darker color.” (Hän halua tila tämä…) The lady behind the counter just looked at me very strangely. I kept trying and trying and I think I finally got my point across, but sheesh it was hard. Hours later it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been telling the lady that my co-worker wanted to “space” the product, not order (tilata)!! And now, all these years later, I know how very basic my Finnish was and how I could have worded the sentence even better to sound more like a Finn. (Hän haluasi tehdä tilaus… She would like to make an order…)

The following year (start of my 3rd year in Finland) I was accepted to a polytechnic school. (You can receive a Bachelors degree from here.) Part of my course studies included Finnish. However, in this class, we had students who had almost no Finnish knowledge and then those of us who had a decent amount. At times it was difficult to feel like I was learning anything, but at others I did learn some of what I already knew even better by trying to explain it to the others. Part of our degree included some training/working at a real company. I found a place (NC) that had nothing to do with my schooling, but was willing to let me write my thesis for them (It totally sucked by the way.) and pay me to work for them at the same time. I worked at NC until the end of 2006 (7 years in Finland for me).

Towards the end of working at NC, I decided that I wanted to step up my game and actively work on my Finnish skills again. It had gotten to the point that I could get by in stores, ask for what I needed/wanted, explain basic aches and pains to the nurse/doctor and so on. But when I would be out in public or around a group of people that started speaking Finnish to each other, I would tune out. I went to my own little world and just didn’t pay attention. At first, it was difficult to keep my focus on following a conversation and trying to understand what people were actually saying. I remember many days after a work meeting or coming home from work in the evenings and just being exhausted. It’s hard work actively learning something!

The year 2007 ended up being a year of focusing on Finnish language studies for me. I jumped into the middle of one advanced Finnish language course. It was a very traditional school-learning course. We sat in desks, did lots of writing work, a decent amount of speaking and a month long work experience “job”. I interviewed for 3 different places in which to do my work experience: a well known local do-nut shop, a cafe and a tech/computer place. I chose the last place, in hopes that it would lead to a real job, in an area that interested me and sort of could go with the degree I had earned. The job ended up being quite boring and I mostly just sat at a computer screen translating stuff from Finnish into English as best I could. I didn’t really interact with many people and they didn’t interact with me, which was a pity. Being middle of the summer and lots of people on holiday didn’t help much either.

After that course, I signed up for another couple of courses and tested to see where I placed. I managed to get into a course that focused on work life and other such “adult” things for foreigners living in Finland. But about a week after starting that course, I was accepted to one more language course: Onnenkieli (happy language, Önne is also the name of the owner and founder). I’d heard about this course and it sounds exactly like what I wanted! Plus, it was difficult to get into and I wasn’t really liking the course I was in, yes even after just one week.

Onnenkieli uses suggestopedic principles and methods for learning. That is, we did lots of play acting, dialogues, singing, hand movements (to help remember the different parts of speech), flash cards, relaxation/meditation while the teacher read us dialogs, discussed news & events, local holidays, customs, etc. We also did written work, but it was what we did at home. In class, it was all about group participation and interacting with others. I found this course to be more helpful for me and also tons of fun. The people in the course were great and there is one lady I still keep in touch with (in fact, I helped her figure out what she needed to do to get IVF and her baby boy). This course too required a month long work training, speaking as much Finnish as I could, which I did at my current company.
While I learned Finnish from many different places and in many different ways. It was the last course that finally got this message through to me: talk, talk, talk! No matter how many mistakes you make, keep talking. The most important thing is that you go for it. People are generally understanding, forgive the mistakes you make in their language because you are using their language, especially Finns.

Fifteen plus years later, I still make mistakes. Lots of mistakes in spoken language (that’s a whole other language unto itself here in Finland) and in writing. But I do speak.


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