1. Just listen. A key part of learning any language is getting used to how it sounds. What kind of music is Finnish? What syllables stand out to you? What is the melody and the rhythm of the language like? It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand a word of it, just listening to spoken Finnish is extremely beneficial. Our brains are masters of detecting and learning patterns, and your brain will automatically start trying to make sense of any language you expose it to. For most small children learning their first language or languages, this alone will eventually lead to speaking the language perfectly, but we adults need to do a lot more active work. However, we don’t lose that skill entirely when we grow up, and it’s good to take advantage of it!
2. Pay attention to prosodic features. Prosodic features are the musical properties of language, like melody and rhythm. Take any recording of spoken Finnish that you can replay over and over again, and intentionally listen for patterns. Where does the melody rise, and when does it fall? Usually, the key words of any given conversation stand out somehow – usually they’re spoken more loudly and clearly than the rest.
3. Practice pronunciation. I pay a lot of attention to pronuciation in my classes. The main reason for this is that I find that learning how to pronounce different sounds and prosodic patterns is by far the quickest and easiest way to learn how to recognize them when you hear them, which makes it easier to catch those key words and understand what’s going on. Of course pronouncing Finnish well is also helpful in making yourself understood, but there are many, many ways of pronouncing Finnish well. Your accent always reflects where you come from, and that should be celebrated, not erased. As long as you can distinguish between the different sounds and main prosodic features, you’re speaking well enough to be understood. For the purpose of practicing these sounds and patterns, it’s a good idea to mimic and exagerrate what you’re hearing so much that it feels like you’re making fun of the speaker that you’re modeling yourself after.
4. Listen to Finnish music. Music makes learning easier: grammar, vocabulary and idiomatic phrases are often much easier to remember if you’ve leart them from a song. Here’s a fun little website and app called Lyricstraining, where you listen to songs and fill in the missing lyrics.
5. Sing in Finnish. You don’t have to be a good singer to do this, and no one has to hear you do it! Singing will improve your listening comprehension in the same way that more general pronunciation practice will, but it will be much more effient thanks to the music involved!
6. Listen to authentic conversations or to materials that are authentic or sound as authentic as possible. Listening comprehension exercises in textbooks are great practice, but they often lack authenticity. If you live in Finland, listen to the conversations happening all around you. The list is endless: podcasts, the news, sitcoms (like Luottomies on Yle Areena), whatever feels most accessible to you where you are at the moment. Remember tip number 1: you don’t have to understand a single word! Yle Kielikoulu, the Kotisuomessa website and Gimara’s soundcloud are great places to look for authentic and authentic sounding materials to listen to.
7. Learn how spoken Finnish works. If you’ve studied Finnish for a while, you probably already know that Finnish is spoken very differently from how it’s written. This isn’t a question of formal versus informal either: like any language, spoken Finnish has a whole spectrum of registers from very formal to very informal. What we teachers often call “puhekieli” isn’t slang or lazy Finnish, it’s a spoken form of Finnish that is generally understood and spoken all over Finland, but heavily influenced by the local dialect spoken in the Helsinki area. The official term for this form of spoken Finnish is “yleispuhekieli”, sometimes Standard Spoken Finnish in English. Unlike written language, which has clearly defined norms and rules, spoken Finnish has lot of variation, and it’s a good idea to learn about different dialects as well as yleispuhekieli and written Finnish. Not an easy task for the learner, I know! Luckily though, it’s not really that different from written Finnish once you get the basics down, and there are materials to help you with this. This free online course will teach you the basics.
8. Get into those real-life situations! Yes, it’s possible that you won’t understand anything at all at first, but it will get so much easier as you build up more experience. Again, remember tip number one as you go about this! Real life, real time conversations have the great advantage that you can ask for clarification when you need it, and if you have another language in common with the other person, you can begin by replying with other languages as well as Finnish – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. When I’m with my Norwegian friends, I often understand most of what’s going on right until someone asks me a question, of which I usually don’t understand a single word. I used to panic when this happened, but now I ask for the translation and reply in my own mix of scandinavian languages if I have the energy, or in English if I don’t. After that, they pick back up in Norwegian, and I’m learning loads!
9. Participate in conversation groups. If you’re not ready for real life situations (and even if you are) there are lots of fun, free conversation clubs, groups and language cafés that you can participate in. Some of them are already happening face to face all over Finland (and other countries as well!), and I’m pretty sure there will still be lots of online events to attend even after pandemic times. Listening to other learners speak helps you learn really efficiently, and can also feel safer than a conversation with native Finnish speakers. If you're in Finland, your local library probably has an ongoing conversation group for learners. I myself am a member of a non-profit organization called Mothers in Business, who have a lovely Language Café that I plan to attend again once things in my life (the terrible twos! two working parents!) settle down a bit. If you can’t find anything suitable, consider starting your own club, it’s really efficient and great fun.
10. Give yourself time. Every language learner knows that infuriating feeling: you know you’ve learnt a word or phrase before but can’t remember it. It gets even worse if you keep telling yourself that this should be easy. “I’ve been studying for so long, I shouldn’t be having trouble with this.” When you do this, all your energy and concentration is spent on this “shoulding” instead on listening. Again, easier said than done, but: when you stop shoulding all over yourself, and start approaching conversations with an open mind, understanding what’s going on gets so much easier.
If you've been studying Finnish for quite a while now but still struggle to understand what's going on around you, my upcoming course Puhetta! for levels B1 and B2 might be just the thing. Check it out here!
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Ask a Finnish Teacher / Toiminimi Mari Nikonen
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