“Ask and you shall receive” – On asking the right questions

People would often ask me: “How did you learn Finnish?” and I wouldn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how I did it, it seemed like a random smørrebrød of ways.

Then a couple months ago, Cory, a high school friend of mine, came to visit me in Helsinki. He’s always been excited about languages and he was looking forward to picking up a bit of Finnish during his time here. It didn’t take me long to figure out that our ways of learning were quite similar, namely, he asked a lot of questions!

How do you say this?

How would you say that?

What does this mean?

Can I say this?

And it wasn’t just random questions, they were a progressive kind of question that doesn’t require the person you’re asking to know how to teach you the language. Cory did that for himself; he’d get an answer and figure out why that happened in his head. Or he’d just remember it for now, and trust that it would make sense to him later on.

Cory in Helsinki!

Cory in Helsinki!

Since then, I started noticing the kinds of questions that I ask of Finnish native speakers, or speakers of other languages I’m learning, and I put together a 4-point guide to crafting your questions to receive the kind of answers that will help you most.

  1. A simple first: how would you say…? ie. dog, cat, bus, hi!
  2. Can I say… [insert DIY sentence here]? ie. ‘Makeisia unia!’ (direct translation of ‘sweet dreams’ which makes no sense in Finnish because that word for sweet is only used for sweet food. Instead they say ‘kauniita unia’ aka. ‘beautiful dreams!’ That’s a nice thing to wish someone!)
  3. Ask “Why wouldn’t you say this?” or “How does … sound to a native ear?” Listen for subtle implications. Stay away from ‘why’ questions, such as “Why can’t I say this?” or “Why do you say it like that?” That’s what language teachers, Google and grammar books are for, if you really, really need to know why… and even they might not know exactly.
  4. If at first you fail, try again. Asking the right questions is a skill, so if you don’t get a helpful answer right away, try some other questions. Ultimately it’s about a whole new way of thinking so keep at it!

[Tweet “The answers you get are as good as the questions you ask. @irinapravet http://bit.ly/1rWVEFb”]

The greatest part is that you can ask people about things which interest you! Languages, and Finnish is no exception, are mediums through which you can connect and communicate about pretty much anything so learning about what you’d readily use can be the biggest joy of all!

Have you thought of questions as a tool for learning languages before? Would you add any other kinds of questions to the list? Let me know below!


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Hi! I’m Irina.

I’m a multibelonger to Finland, Canada and Romania, without ONE language or culture to call my own – I have several. My intention is to be present where I am and find inner peace and harmony where ever life takes me. I’m embracing the gems of the ongoing cultural and linguistic transition which is my life and hope to inspire others interested in doing the same. Click here to find out more!