Kosovar Rrahim Islami (left) and Russian Oleg Lampi learning Finnish at an adult education language course in Helsinki.  Finnish, though difficult, is not impossible to master.

LEARNING all the ins and outs of any communication system, being it English or Algol, is a lifelong task. The problem that faces foreigners in Finland is getting a sufficient handle on the local language that we are comfortable with it in our daily lives. Helsinki Times met some experts in the field – a survivor of 40 years in the Finnish workplace, a teacher at an adult training institute and a lecturer in Finnish for Foreigners at Helsinki University.

While most experts seem to agree that Japanese is the hardest language to learn for English language speakers, the jury is still out over the case of Finnish. Barry Farber, the American author of How to Learn any Language, states that Finnish was the hardest of the 25 he credits himself with having tackled. His catchphrase is “I was in my hotel room in Helsinki for five days trying to learn enough to get downstairs.”

First arriving in Finland in the early 1970s, actor and voice-over artist Jonathan Hutchings went in at the deep end. He was staying with his girlfriend’s family when he hit the communication barrier, and realised that he was going to have to learn the language if he wanted to get through to the older generation of Finns.
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“You’d be amazed at the typical reaction to my efforts to learn”, he insists. “What are you wasting your time with that for? Why bother – everyone important speaks English. But I’ve always been a stubborn Welshman, and the more they mocked me, the more I wanted to learn.” Like many immigrants in days gone by, the first step was a course at Helsinki University. “But I soon noticed that what we learned there bore no relation to what I was hearing in the street.”

Getting along

It’s a sentiment that can still be heard today, but not among the classes of the Axxell Monikulttuuurisuuskeskus, where Laura Salokoski works. “We have classes where the only real common language among the students is Finnish, so there is an obvious benefit from working with this feature. The first few weeks are really tough, both for the students and the teacher – I have to monitor every single word I say!”

The approach in these courses is very pragmatic, preparing the students to be able to handle further training, as well as improve basic survival skills: making out applications, writing emails or dealing with angry bus drivers. “It’s a fully functional method, practising the words and language needed in those situations. The word ‘grammar’ doesn’t enter our programme.”

“So I don’t see Finnish as a particularly difficult language to learn. It’s very logical, very consistent, and unlike many others it doesn’t get harder the more you learn - like English or German. But it’s the learning process that is difficult – and people have to be ready to go outside their comfort zone both inside and outside the classrooms,” explains Salokoski.

In fact there seems to be a consensus that there is no getting around homework, although author and lecturer Leila White confesses that there is often little enthusiasm for it. Nowadays her courses are restricted to students registered at the University of Helsinki, whose main incentive is to gain study points rather than fluency.

Help is at hand

For the non-academic learner, the options for courses have metamorphosed since Hutchings’ day, with over 300 courses for learning Finnish advertised at as starting this summer. They are held at 20 different centres around the capital, and vary in level and intensity. There are also several new on-line products to help digital students move along their learning curve. Former resident and blogger Phil Schwarzzman has his Finnish School, and recent Finnish returnee Suvi Clarke has started Both of these are free and, along with doses of News in Simple Finnish (Selkosuomea), and other services available from YLE, will help the process of following in Hutchings’ stubborn footsteps.

Once you have a sufficient handle on Finnish you can start to talk of integration, but that’s another story. In the meantime, remember what Laura Salokoski says: “One of the greatest handicaps in learning Finnish here in Finland is being fluent in English.” So if you have read this far you are, this time, in a disadvantaged minority. Sorry.