A growing number of foreigners want to study the language, but are perplexed by the differences between spoken and formal Finnish.After learning formal Finnish, the spoken language may come as a surprise.

ONE OF the biggest challenges in learning Finnish is that spoken Finnish is almost unrecognisable from the formal Finnish language that is normally taught. Therefore, after getting some kind of grasp of the language during the lessons, the students go out to use what they have learned only to discover that they have been taught a language that no one out there actually speaks. Does this sound familiar?

Finnish is said to be one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. The words can be very long and the pronunciation takes time as every single letter in a word is to be pronounced. Nowadays, people have abandoned the formal Finnish when speaking, to make communication quicker – Finland is, after all, a nation very fond of efficiency. This, however, makes the learning of the language yet more challenging as there are two parallel languages, sometimes almost apparently unrelated to each other.

"Learning Finnish has been a nightmare to me," admits Jimmy Landsberg from Sweden. "It's been nearly ten years since I moved here and I'm still stuck at the beginner's level. It's difficult to find the motivation to study as you get by here so easily with English and even Swedish. I'm better at spoken Finnish as I just copy short phrases of what people tend to say instead of sitting down and studying. When I attended a language course earlier, the focus was mainly on written Finnish and I soon realised it didn't help me much in real life situations as I didn't understand anything of people's replies to my poor attempts at communicating in the local language."

Changing approach

However, simultaneously with the growing interest towards the Finnish language, the teaching methods have altered.

"In the courses of Kielipalvelut, both spoken and written Finnish are taught right from the start," says Seija Kor-
honen, the manager at Kielipalvelut (Language Services) at the University of Helsinki.

"The key to being able to distinguish the two language varieties is to practise each in their usual using context: written Finnish by reading and writing, spoken Finnish by listening and talking. Our aim is to provide students with language skills that enable them to be fully part of the Finnish society."

The approach has received positive feedback.

"Most of our students are educated and able to speak English, and they actually regard the Finns' excellent English skills the biggest problem as the conversation so easily slips into English when they are trying to practise their Finnish."

Despite the lessened need of using Finnish in Finland, the number of people studying Finnish as a foreign language is growing rapidly. On the website Infopankki, there are currently over 100 Finnish courses listed for the season of spring 2014. The growing number of courses reflects the growing numbers of foreigners living in Finland: according to Tilastokeskus (Statistics Finland), in 2013 there were 207,511 foreigners living in Finland, which is over ten thousand more than in 2012.

One of them is Jesica Kaboel from Indonesia who attended a Finnish language course at Työvoimatoimisto (Job Centre) after moving to Finland nine years ago. For her, it was a good experience. She found learning a new language with all its varieties as an interesting opportunity to test one's limits rather than as a deflating struggle.

"I found the course really useful. We were taught spoken and written Finnish in equal measure so I was able to practise my Finnish in different kinds of situations right from the beginning. I would also listen to radio and watch TV in Finnish on a daily basis to speed up and intensify my learning. It seemed to work, as after just 18 months I started actively using the language. But it has got to be said that languages generally come quite easily to me. Some others found the learning a lot harder than I did."

Lehtikuva / Sari Gustafsson