Almost three months have passed since starting my challenge of becoming fluent in Finnish. I don’t even know where to begin with this journey, but here goes. It has been very tough at times, and hugely rewarding in others. I won’t go into massive detail about the language itself, but rather I will explain my approach, where I am now with Finnish, the highs and lows, and where I see myself at the end of 6 – 8 months.
What is my current Finnish like and where do I want to get to?
Before I explain my level, I think it is worth updating the challenge, slightly. I do want to become fluent in Finnish, but to become ‘properly’ fluent, I think it will take (me) around 1 to 2 years and up. So, I am changing where I would like to see myself at the end of these 6 to 8 months. In no way am I backing out of the challenge, no no no, wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing (it would be easier tho…). I would say I am just being more realistic. Using the European language chart by CEFR as a guide, instead of reaching fluency, I will work hard to achieve a high B1 and maybe even B2 Independent User (see table below). There will be areas of the language where I am stronger and others where I will be weaker. But that will be my overall goal.
B1: Spoken Interaction: “I can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. I can enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life (e.g. family, hobbies, work, travel and current events).”
I would say, I am currently communicating at a young caveman level. By this I mean I am able to have simple, cave man like conversations with people, in simple language, being able to express simple ideas, in present and past tense. My writing and reading is about the same, maybe a little more advanced, and my listening, is probably at a slightly lower level. I would say my current Finnish language skills using the chart above are probably within the A2 standard.
A2 Spoken Interaction: “I can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself.”
My approach has faltered, changed, picked up speed, slowed to a snail pace, almost stopped, then regained momentum. But, I have been doing some each day. I think the key with something like this, is to just start. There’s a nice quote that from adventurer Alastair Humphreys that truly sums up learning anything.
Just start. Start rubbish, get good!
The hardest bit is starting. It’s true. The thought of learning a whole language is just so insanely mind boggling brain meltingly complex it hurts to even think about it. It is often this that makes you give up before you’ve even started. So, just start. There is no tried and tested, clean route from basic to expert. You just need to get your hands dirty and go. Many times I feel like what I am learning might not be right, or could be done in a more orderly fashion (which it probably could), but it is important to just keep going, doing a little bit everyday. The main thing is to not worry about your progress, but enjoy the journey.
So what I am doing?
I don’t want to go into too much detail here, as this is something that has been written in a much more articulate and professional way by a guy called Gabriel Wyner, in his book Fluent Forever. Which, I would highly recommend if you are wanting to learn a language. The basics of his approach are:
- Learn pronunciation first -“In the course of mastering the sounds of a language, one’s ears become attuned to those sounds, making vocabulary acquisition, listening comprehension and speaking come much quicker.”
- No Translation – “Use pictures when learning new vocabulary and grammar rules. You’ll discover that you can actually remember what you’ve learned”
- Flash Card Programs – Learn the above words using a program called Anki – This is a flashcard based program that uses a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) – This will repeat your cards at lengthening intervals untill the word is in your long term memory.
His book and advice it just amazing. I cannot recommend it enough. It still takes a lot of work, it’s not a simple over night job, languages are complex beasts that take time to fully understand. He lays out a structured approach that will help you to build a foundation of correct pronunciation, a list of 600 common words and then simple sentences, and more complex sentences. After the first step, you are quite amazed that you can actually remember so many new words, and pronounce clearly.
As suggested in his book, I was just learning words and pronunciation for the first month and a half to two months. I learnt the words using the program mentioned above – Anki – and it is simply AMAZING. My memory is terrible for remembering words and small bits of info. But by using this bit of software I now know between 800 to 1000 words, and many sentences.
So, using the method above as my foundation, I am also doing the things below:
- Going through my Anki flashcards once a day
- Adding words and sentences to my Anki deck each day
- Speaking as much as possible (in Finnish)
- Seeing a Finnish teacher once a week
- Speaking online with a Finnish person once or twice a week (I haven’t done this for three weeks though)
- Carry a little note book to write down new words
- Asking people to speak in Finnish if they reply in English
- Listening to Finnish music
- Staying curious and enjoying the learning process
- Taking a day or 2 off per week to let your brain recover
Highs and Lows
Some days I put together sentences that I am really proud with. Such as a recent one. Mina en pitää paivallinen huomenna ilta koska minä laitan Indiani ruoka. This might not be actually be completely correct, but it got my message across – I don’t need dinner tomorrow evening because I will make Indian food. (I get food provided for me here at work, but I have been dying for an Indian for ages). But on other days it feels like I can speak and understand absolutely nothing.
But, several times people have said I have good pronunciation, which made me feel great, and the chef at work said I am learning really fast, and he knows people who have lived here for 20 years who can’t speak a word.
Also, it is good to have a day or 2 off per week, where you rest your brain and speak more in your own language.
So, whats next? The bits below act more as a personal reminder of what I want to achieve over the next few months. I have found with previous challenges, when you write something down, it makes you more likely to do it.
- Speak (even) more Finnish – Speak more, speak more speak more. If I want to speak the language then the best way to learn it, is to, well, speak it. Although, I asked my work colleagues to speak to me in only Finnish a few weeks ago (unless in emergency), it hasn’t always been so simple. It often slips back into English, to explain more complicated things, or to have a more in depth discussion. This isn’t an excuse, but sometimes, it feels like you are missing out on creating a relationship with a person if you can only speak very simple language to one another. But that said, I am trying to learn Finnish, and the way to do that is speak as much as possible, so I will continue to remind colleagues to speak to me in Finnish. Voimekko puhua Suomea kiitos? Can we speak in Finnish please?
- Continue to add words and more complex sentences to Anki
- Learn how to conjugate verbs effectively – Almost there with this one
- Learn and use the 15 noun cases. In Finnish, these noun cases correspond to English prepositions. I.e. you would change the noun to express whether you were on, in, next, etc… to the noun. Follow this link for an explanation.
- Learn when to use the nomitive, genetive and partitive cases
- Read more Finnish Childrens Books
- Watch and listen to Podcasts, TV and Radio – To improve understanding and hearing.
So, that’s it really. Looking back at my progress I am actually quite pleased with where I am now. My Finnish is terribly amateur, there’s no denying that. But, I am able to communicate to a certain level and get many points across, and have some quite long discussions with people. If I look at where I am now, compared to when I started, I have made some good improvements. Here’s to the next few months of learning.