How to learn Finnish – three stories behind the language barrier

Mirkka Helkkula
Mirkka Helkkula
Mirkka Helkkula
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Finnish language skills are often emphasized as a key factor to adapt in Finland’s society as a foreigner. Jana, Juan and Dani share their struggle and success with the language and give tips to those still learning Finnish. They also send greetings to Finns: please be more open and supportive towards persons learning the language – it is neither simple nor impossible.

“Volunteer work is a key for integration”

Dani, 29, Middle East
“Finnish language has a very special pronunciation and sounds, such as y, ö and ä. In the beginning I had to concentrate on saying those very carefully and repeat many times the most complicated words to learn them well. Still sometimes I mix up with some Finnish words, especially if the only difference between two words is just one vocal or consonant.
I have friends who have been here over 8 years, but still they don’t speak Finnish. I think that the basic problem among immigrants, especially those from African and Middle East countries, is that they spend time together talking in their own language. Often the best way to learn is to end up in the situation where you don’t have a choice but to speak local language.
When I came to Finland, I stayed first in Kemi, in the very North of Finland. After a year there I moved to Tampere to study mechanics. Studying taught me so much more than any of those language courses before.
Still the most important language teacher to me has been social dancing and volunteering. I dance couple dances, and from dance schools and events I have got many Finnish friends. I believe that one social hobby is much better than trying to find somebody to talk with in the nightclubs and bars, as many foreigners do.
I have volunteered for example for construction projects in some rural areas, and for the Finnish Red Cross Hunger day fundraising and friendship service taking elderly people out for walks. I have enjoyed those moments, and I believe that those kind of activities are the key for integration.
I would hope that, in general, Finland would allow and arrange more possibilities of experiences and interactions among natives and immigrants. I know people who have big difficulties to choice what to do in their free time. Often they are lonely and do not have much information about activities.”
Dani’s tip for you: I would recommend to listen Finnish music and go to the nearest language cafes. Almost every city has one. In the language café not only you can have conversations with Finnish people, but you can also learn about culture and hear stories about how it is to live in Finland.

“You have to overcome your own barriers”

Jana, 26, Czech Republic
“I have met many people that have expectations that they can learn a language fast. But learning a language well requires time and determination.
I came to Finland four years ago, when I moved in with my Finnish boyfriend. I realized soon that if I wanted to become part of the Finnish society and befriend Finns, I would need to learn their language.
My boyfriend was very helpful and supportive repeating words and talking slowly to me, but of course he was not a professional teacher. In the beginning I had to be a self-learner. I kept a notebook and wrote down every Finnish word I heard. I did online courses, as Supisuomea by Yle, watched learning videos and went through all the study material I got in my hands. Luckily there are many free opportunities nowadays.
For me, as for many other people, the most difficult phase in learning a language is to start speaking it. You have to overcome your own barriers, especially the fear of making mistakes.
After staying three months in Finland I found a language café, which was a meeting point for Finnish language learners in the local library. As a beginner I only knew how to present myself in Finnish, but just listening to others helped me. It was also nice to notice that I was not the only one struggling with the language.
I want to stay in Finland and I would like to build my life, career and family here with my boyfriend. This is why I have also worked hard to write well Finnish. I have studied Finnish even harder after I got into the University of Helsinki to study international politics.
Perhaps the most valuable experience for my language skills has been my experience at the Finnish Centre for Ease to Read, Selkokeskus. It produces easy to understand material in Finnish meant for people with special needs, as immigrants. Their newspaper, Selkosanomat, is still part of my weekly reading routines and I have also written articles for it, for example an interview of Teemu Selänne.
As I am finishing my studies now, I support The Finnish Red Cross’ Finnish language group for immigrant women in East-Helsinki and I am looking for a job where I could take advantage of my Finnish skills. As hard as it is getting a professional job here, I feel that it is not yet my time to give up.
Finnish makes me feel humble as there is still much to learn. So far, all the work I have done has been worth it. I feel that I am now closer to Finns.”

Jana’s tip for you: Start using language early and don’t wait till saving up money for a course. Use your imagination and remember free resources!

"Do not listen too much to experiences of others, yours is unique"

Juan, 35, Ecuador

"I come from culture, where we are very dedicated in spoken communication and speaking skills are even considered more important than writing skills. In my village we have every week meetings where we talk hours.

Coming to Finland five years ago was not easy because in the beginning I was not able to understand anything. I was not even able to go to the market alone. I met other ´latinos´ and they claimed that it is very easy to learn Finnish. But for me it took time, and I felt disappointed as I trusted too much what others said to me.
A key to learning a language is to get involved with local people. Yes, my wife is Finnish, but between me and her it is more natural to speak Spanish – the language we have used since we met the first time.
Because I like sports, immediately after coming to Finland I searched for a volleyball team to play with. I found one team consisting only of Finnish players. It was perfect, except one thing. Nobody talked with me. I was astonished: is this country this prejudiced? Yet I went there every week.
After playing ten months in silence I ended up sending an email to the group leader asking why they do not speak with me. He explained that they did not know how much I understand nor what they should say to me. Afterwards I was invited to a party where it changed and they started to talk with me. Nowadays they are like my family.
Of course I also attended some courses, as basic language courses and an integration course for immigrants. Besides sports, studying in a technical school has improved the most my Finnish skills because there I really have needed to apply my skills and vocabulary.
Learning Finnish is essential in order to live here. It is neither impossible, nor easy. I have seen people that speak several languages, but even after many years in Finland they cannot speak Finnish. The best way to learn a language is to be social with locals and do it in a way you like. Do not listen too much to experiences of others, because everybody´s learning experience is unique.”
Juan’s tip for you: Get involved with the Finnish people, be proactive and do what you love.

Text and photos: Mirkka Helkkula (originally published at