Section 3. Advantages of learning Finnish
Inkeri Lehtimaja, PhD, university lecturer of Finnish
Key question: Why is it useful to study Finnish?
Finnish universities offer study programmes in English, and English is widely used in both university life and Finnish society. Since learning a new language is time-consuming, requires work, and sometimes places you in awkward situations, the question arises: if it is not necessary to learn some Finnish in order to live in Finland and study at a Finnish university, why bother?
Local language skills expand your possibilities...
Many international students and scholars discover with time that managing in English is only part of the picture. Finnish (as well as Swedish) remains the official language not only of the country but also of the university and the native language of the majority of the population. Knowing the local language helps you understand events around you and allows you to participate in study- and work-related activities as well as social life to a greater extent than is possible in English alone.
There is a persistent myth (also cherished by Finns themselves) that Finnish is a particularly difficult language. A common misconception is also that you must become extremely proficient in a language before being able to use it. Taken together, these ideas seem to discourage people from even attempting to begin to learn Finnish. In reality, it is perfectly possible to learn Finnish, and there are many advantages to knowing the local language even at different stages of the learning path.
...at the beginners’ level
After a beginners’ course (or equivalent independent studies), you will know some essential expressions and vocabulary. For instance, you can read different signs and labels around you. Simply being able to buy your coffee or greet the university staff in Finnish means that your being ‘an outsider’ is not highlighted in every minor encounter; this makes you feel more at home. Since the language reflects the culture and society, knowing a little about the language also deepens your cultural understanding and thus helps you gain more from your experience in Finland.
In addition to this, learning the basics shows that you are interested in Finnish culture and committed to participating in the community. This is something your Finnish friends and colleagues – or even future employers – will appreciate. All in all, even rudimentary knowledge of Finnish brings you one step closer to the inner circles of the society, away from the sphere of a casual visitor.
...at the intermediate level
Getting to the intermediate level broadens your possibilities for study, work, and social life. You can already use some Finnish in a study or work context; for instance, you can understand the main points of a text or presentation in Finnish. This is often extremely useful, even though you still require help with the details. In social situations, the language need not always be changed to English just because of you, which makes coffee room situations less awkward.
With intermediate language skills you can already participate in different leisure activities, which are usually offered primarily in Finnish, and this is a great way of getting friends (which, of course, helps develop your language skills even further). In addition to this, you will start to be able to follow events in society, since most of the media (particularly local news) are in Finnish.
...at the advanced level
When you reach the advanced level, the advantages of speaking Finnish are undeniable. According to a recent survey, the majority of foreigners living in Finland estimated that the language barrier had hampered their efforts to integrate into society, and, correspondingly, those who had learned the language thought that it had been a decisive factor in their integration.
It is a fact that advanced language skills open wider job opportunities. Being proficient in Finnish, you will also feel like an equal participant in all different life situations, such as parents’ evenings at your children’s school or the meetings of your housing cooperative. If you wish, after having lived in Finland for 4–5 years, you can even apply for the Finnish citizenship (the language requirement is B1 CEFR level).
Language study tips for arriving students
What would be my tips for students who are planning to come to Finland? First, I would recommend that you begin your language studies right away, even if you are not planning to stay in Finland. Many international students consider they have benefited considerably from already taking an online Finnish course before their arrival. Knowing some Finnish makes even a short stay more fruitful. In addition, your plans might change. International students often come to Finland with the idea of only staying for some months or, at the most, a few years. Then life happens – you become used to your Finnish life, you find an interesting work opportunity, or you meet someone and fall in love. One day you notice that it seems that you are staying here after all, at least for the time being. At this stage, you will be extremely happy if you already have acquired at least some Finnish skills, since it feels rather frustrating to start from scratch when you have already been living in the country for several years. Many students say that the threshold for starting language studies rises with time, so take advantage of the curiosity and energy that you have at the beginning of your stay!
My second tip would be that in addition to language courses offered by the university, make use of the Finnish-speaking environment. Observe language use and try to be active yourself in using what you have learned – even the little bits of language you pick up at the very beginning. If you wait for the day that you have learned the language before starting to use it, that day will never come!
My third tip is be persistent! Finns will always try to speak English with you, because they think that it is polite and efficient. Unfortunately, this will not help you learn. If someone changes into English when you have spoken Finnish, tell them explicitly that you want to practise your Finnish. After a few minutes, if the conversation is too laborious, you can switch to English, but at least you have already had some practice. Moreover, make learning the language a social activity: ask for help and support from your friends and colleagues – usually they are extremely happy to help (but shy to take the initiative).
In conclusion, speaking or understanding Finnish is not absolutely necessary, but one should understand that if one does not know the local language, sometimes some information is lost, some opportunities are missed, and some social situations are not so smooth. Knowing at least some of the language will open many doors and help you enjoy your Finnish experience more!
Survival Finnish online course: Course: Introductory Finnish - Self-study (aalto.fi)
Aalto University language guidelines: Aalto University language guidelines | Aalto University
Studying Finnish at Aalto: Studying Finnish | Aalto University
Kansainvälisten osaajien suomi: https://www.kvosaajiensuomi.com/news/press-release3
Last modified: Tuesday, 12 September 2023, 11:01 AM