Real reason many don’t Learn Finnish (& not what you think)

2014-06-08 15.12.08


Awhile back, I was talking with one of my students from the Finnish Language Group Program about how English in Finland gets to be so comfortable, that it’s easy to get stuck just speaking English.

“Speaking English can feel less scary in the moment, but what about all the stuff that’s harder when you don’t speak English? I’m not sure comfortable or easy are the right words,” I said.

From my own experience learning Finnish, I have to say, I don’t remember English speaking as being truly comfortable, nor easy.

When I first moved to Tampere 5 years ago, some friends-of-friends would avoid me at social gatherings only to later admit they were scared of speaking English.

Overall, I felt uncomfortable at the idea of everyone speaking English just for my sake. Also annoyed when they didn’t. It was a confusing time.

A few months ago, I had to call the tax office and was feeling particularly vulnerable, so I made the call in English. Whoever picked up, heard me speak English and then promptly hung up on me.  Now I make my calls in Finnish (and still panic before each call).

There is a lot of noise that foreigners hear when they come to Finland:

  • You don’t need to learn Finnish, everyone speaks such good English.
  • You might as well learn Swedish for your citizenship test.
  • Blah blah blah, Finnish hard, blah blah blah

Just so we’re clear, I strongly believe that the above, summarized by these words of advice “Don’t bother with Finnish, you can get by in English” are toxic.

Think I’m exaggerating? Think again.

It’s easy to get distracted and stay completely in denial about the need for Finnish, until years go by and you notice that nothing has changed. The Finnish language didn’t get transposed to your brain, how could it have?

So today, I’d like for you to make your own decision with the facts at hand.

Here’s my best, educated guess at (just a fraction of) the price of not learning Finnish over time:

  • You will never feel like you really fit in to this small, homogeneous country.
  • You won’t really ever wrap your head about Finnish eccentricities; they don’t translate well.
  • You may not get to enjoy all that this little country has to offer.
  • You may come to resent Finnish people for not understanding them.
  • You may have a gnawing feeling that your options are limited, because not everything is available in English.
  • You’ll likely feel frustrated and angry at yourself for never trying or succeeding to learn Finnish.
  • The more time you spend here, the less you’ll feel you belong to your home country, but you’ll never quite feel Finnish either. You may not be entirely sure who you are anymore.
  • The more time you spend here, the more the idea of learning Finnish will weight heavy on your shoulders.
  • If your spouse is Finnish, you’ll probably depend on them for everything from banking, to insurance, to taxes, to legal work, etc. (The English translations, if available, are usually incomplete from my experience.)
  • You’ll keep having these situations where people all around you are speaking Finnish (Why shouldn’t they? This is why they fought for independence.) and you’re staring at the ceiling, trying not to look like you’re as annoyed, but you are.
  • If you have kids or marry into a Finnish family, there will be situations where you won’t understand what’s going on.


And now answer me this question: is not learning Finnish a choice you’re going to regret in 10 years?

[bctt tweet=”Is not learning Finnish a choice you’re going to regret in 10 years?”]

There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t feel challenged and pushed out of my comfort zone in some way. But at the same time, I notice that I’m getting by. Opening your eyes is cause for celebration; it’s a really big and really important first step.

Because living in denial isn’t a long-term solution.

So why aren’t we all jumping on the bandwagon and learning Finnish? The truth?

I think it’s because people are terrified.

We’ve been told that we’re set to fail, that it’ll take years to get to basic conversation, that there’s no point anyway. I’ve heard this from my own teachers, I’ve heard this from friends who are struggling.

I don’t only hear it, I feel it in the general attitude of people.

So the bottom line: thousands of people don’t, give up or stall on learning Finnish because they are afraid.

And the worst part is, there is an entire alternate culture that supports this fear. We’re literally walking new paths in the forest to avoid the ones all the Finns are walking. You can find sports groups, hang outs and pub quiz nights in English. These are great the have (I still speak a lot of English) but they also enable us to avoid Finnish altogether.

When we do this, we never give ourselves the chance to prove to ourselves that we can learn and grow.

Nor do we feel any better about our abilities, our confidence or our opportunities at the end of the day. And that for me is the biggest tragedy here – but we have a chance to change this.

So today, I want us all to acknowledge the real issue here: we are all afraid.

No, deciding to learn Finnish isn’t a magic pill. Yes, it takes time and the process isn’t so straightforward. This is the reason I chose to start my business and blog, and do my part in making Finnish – the language & the process of acquiring it – more accessible.

Some days I oscillate between wanting to cry and feeling awesome. I can understand why so few are willing to take on this challenge. But at the same time, I don’t think I’m special.

I don’t think the people who aren’t speaking Finnish are any less capable. Overall, I have never, ever regretted my decision to learn Finnish, and to keep at it, and I know the results are due to the effort I put in.

So by all means, do or don’t learn Finnish. But make your decision with all the facts, weighing all the risks.

Make that decision born out of conviction that it’s the right choice for you, not because of fear.

Decisions born out of fear keep us small, and never give us the chance to achieve what we’re capable of. And I know we are all capable of so much more.

So if this message vibes with you, please help spread the word by sharing it on Facebook or Twitter. I won’t leave the story here, so if make sure to leave your email below for more posts on the topic!


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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!