It is possible to live in Finland while only knowing English, and some people do that for many years. This is particularly easy to do in the IT field, where there are many English-speaking companies. I still wouldn’t recommend that at all. Studying Finnish is immensely useful:
- You can actually understand what people are saying when they’re not directly addressing you in English. People do prefer to switch to their native language whenever possible; that’s just a fact of life and you can’t really expect anything else. It’s very frustrating to suddenly not understand what someone is saying for example at a work party because he or she just switched to Finnish.
- While people will talk to you in English at work and usually in all kinds of government and municipal offices and in customer service, generally if you’re in a group of Finnish speaking people who are not obligated to do anything for you, they will speak Finnish and it will be your problem if you don’t understand. Common possible examples are parent meetings at school, tenants meetings in apartment buildings, all kinds of possible adult education classes.
- You will be mostly isolated from the Finnish culture (TV, movies, books). It would be difficult to even know the news (Yle has state-wide news in English, but nowhere as detailed as in Finnish, and good luck finding any local news in English).
- Job market even in IT is obviously friendlier to those who know the local language.
- Passing a Finnish/Swedish exam at an intermediate level (so-called YKI level 3-4 to be precise) is a basic prerequirement for getting Finnish citizenship.
For me there was no question that I would try to learn Finnish. Apart from the practical reasons above, I simply love Finland, love its language and how its sounds, and I’m immensely curious about its history and culture and other things that you can only learn about in Finnish (over this year this feeling got even stronger if anything).
The place where I happen to live, Vaasa and Ostrobothnia region, is somewhat peculiar for its strongly bilingual traditions. Both Finnish and Swedish are widely used here, and in fact many rural areas are virtually monolingual Swedish. It wasn’t my original intention to live in this particular region, but I find it adds to the experience as well. Ideally I would like to know Swedish as well as Finnish; I’m interested in Swedish heritage here and somewhat in Sweden itself too; besides, then I would probably be somewhat able to understand Norwegian as well, and Norway is the third country of the only three I really care about. I’ve actually been mostly working here with people whose native language is Swedish rather than Finnish. Swedish is of course also an easier language, with much simpler grammar and fairly close to English (which I know well) and German (which I don’t really know at all but studied a bit many years ago). Still, I consider Finnish my main priority.
I won’t really tell here anything about the Finnish language itself. There are certainly many places online where you can read about Finnish! I’ll only tell my own experience with learning it.
I started trying to learn Finnish a few months before moving here, around September 2017. I have a Finnish textbook in Russian by Chernyavskaya (considered one of the best ones if not the best that exists in Russian), and it helped me with the very basics of grammar. Some basics of vocabulary I learned from WordDive website, where I had a paid subscription for a while. Neither of this was enough by itself but I did learn to read some simple Finnish, extremely slowly and painfully and often resorting to Google Translate.
I kept exercising after moving to Finland (including trying to read non-adapted texts), but I’m a lazy person and by the time it was spring I pretty much stopped doing anything.
The logical thing would of course be going to some Finnish classes here. I put that off for quite some time. You can’t of course just decide “I’m going to go to a Finnish class tomorrow”, they start only twice in a year. After I missed the spring classes the next opportunity came only in September.
Language classes are usually held in adult education centers, called kansalaisopisto (citizen institute, not to be confused with kansanopisto which is a rather different thing) in Finnish or arbetarinstitut (worker institute, aka arbis) in Swedish. These education centers are actually an extremely awesome thing, they can offer a great variety of classes, not just languages but virtually anything: Vaasa guided tours, furniture restoration, cooking for men, dancing for people over 65, yoga, choir singing, just whatever. Of course non-language classes are generally held in Finnish or Swedish — that’s one more reason to learn the local language.
In Vaasa adult education centers are among the things that Vaasa has a pair of, both in Finnish and in Swedish; these are Vaasa-opisto and Arbis respectively. Nevertheless language classes are mostly held only in Arbis, even Finnish ones.
Course applications are made online, and in fact you can browse around and see which courses are offered in Vaasa here. You can pay immediately online or get an invoice afterwards. Suomi 1 course costs 80€, which is in my opinion an extremely reasonable price for 60 hours of study (obviously these things are heavily subsidized by municipalities). There are further discounts for students and unemployed. You will have to buy your own textbooks though, that can costs further 30-40€ or so. (Individual lessons by Arbis teachers, for comparison, cost 60€/hour.)
I tried applying both for Finnish and Swedish courses initially (Suomi 1 and Svenska 1). Finnish classes are/were on 16:45-18:15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Swedish were at the same time on Mondays and Wednesdays. I had to get used to starting work a lot earlier; I used to usually come to work at 10:30 or 11, and with the new schedule I had to do it at 8:30 or so. Arbis is conveniently located in just a few minutes walk from my work, so getting there hasn’t been a problem.
I was quite apprehensive about how the classes would go, but in the end I actually rather liked Suomi 1. We have had a great teacher, Marika Boström, and it helped a lot that I had already tried to study some Finnish myself by that time. I think we had the right balance of learning grammar, learning vocabulary, doing exercises, listening and speaking to each other in pairs. The teacher explained things to us in English, which of course kind of assumes everyone already knows English, but I think that works much better than “speaking only Finnish from day one” policy. It’s rather interesting to realize that I’m learning a foreign language, using another foreign language.
At the same time it has been very obvious that these classes alone are not enough. Even if you are putting in proper effort there, and do homework consistently (we usually don’t really have much of it), that really only just scratches the surface. Towards the end we’ve really been spending most of the classes just repeating what we had already learned instead of learning new things as we’re supposed to.
The class is meant for 25 people, although some people dropped out over time. It’s been fairly diverse, with people of various nationalities there; Europeans, Asians, Africans, okay, I don’t think there were any North or South Americans. Mostly these are adults, quite a few had lived in Finland for quite some time (some of them actually learned Swedish first). Apart from me there are I think two or three Russians and at least one Ukrainian.
Apart from the regular classes we had a special one, held on Saturday some time in October, “Suomen kieltä kaupungilla” (Finnish language in the city). We were split in groups of four, and had to go out into the city and interview just some random people. Pretty trivial stuff like how do you go to work, do you like ice cream, where do you go on vacation. Afterwards we had to go back to the class and write down what we learned from people. This of course seemed like a hugely scary thing, especially since by that time we had studied Finnish for less than 1.5 months and really didn’t know much of it. In the end it went surprisingly well though. I went with three other guys, Omar, Faseeh and Foday. I was pretty amazed by how nice and helpful literally everyone we talked to was; a few said that they were Swedish speakers but otherwise everyone answered our questions and was very friendly. I haven’t really ever spoke much to random Finns and for some reason I thought people would be much grumpier.
The textbook that we’ve been using is Suomen mestari 1, which I think at the moment is more or less the classic choice for studying Finnish from scratch using only Finnish. I got mine from the Suomalainen book store (it cost 32€ with their free customer card). The Suomi 1 class entirely covers this textbook. Honestly I would say it doesn’t yet cover enough material to be able to use enough language for any practical purposes. For example, it doesn’t even begin to touch the past tense, or really any other verb forms other than the basic present tense. Of course Finnish has notably compicated grammar and vocabulary (the latter is very different from just about any other common language, since Finnish is an Uralic rather than an Indo-European language, and thus has completely different origin from almost any other European language), so this makes sense. Suomen mestari 1 corresponds to A1 language proficiency level (that is, the really extremely basic one), and you won’t get to B-levels until Suomen mestari 4.
By now the Suomi 1 class is nearly over (it started in early September and is due to end on 13.12), we have only a few classes left. I think we’re supposed to get some sort of certificate but I doubt it would actually be useful for anything. I will certainly be continung to Suomi 2 (early January to mid April). There is also a Suomi 3, and Suomi 4-5; the latter is significantly shorter and seems to be more about individual work.
Overall I can say the Finnish classes have improved my Finnish a lot, which is interesting since there wasn’t actually much new for me to learn (these A1-level basics I mostly already covered on my own), but still I’ve been consistently feeling they somehow improve my overall knowledge. Perhaps it’s just the regular practice that helps.
At the moment, a year after moving to Finland, my state of events with Finnish is like that:
- I can read written texts (including news, non-fiction and mostly fiction books) rather well. I still usually need to look up on the order of 1-5 words from each paragraph, but with a dictionary and when I’m not lazy I can eventually understand pretty much everything (there would be maybe on the order of, I don’t know, three places per page that still remain unclear). Without a dictionary I still can understand texts reasonably well. Reading requires a lot of concentration; I certainly can’t read Finnish anywhere as casually as Russian or English.
- I have a lot more difficulty reading spoken language, the kind you may see on some web boards for example. Finnish is one of the languages where the literary written language (kirjakieli, book language) and the casual spoken language (puhekieli, spoken language) differ a lot. Textbooks and classes generally teach kirjakieli and usually at best only give some lip service to puhekieli.
- I can somewhat understand spoken kirjakieli, on TV for example, but not very well. The slower and clearer it is being pronounced, the better of course. While I understand the majority of individual words, I don’t really have any remaining “processing power” in the brain to mentally link those up into phrases and understand what’s actually being said.
- I’m of course much poorer still at understanding spoken puhekieli, that is how people actually normally speak.
- I can somewhat write Finnish, but I have very little practice in that and it takes me ages. (I wish we had more writing exercises in classes; we had to write short homework essays twice and that was really fun.)
- I’m extremely bad at speaking, I have pretty much no real practice with it (while we’re always speaking a lot at the Finnish classes, this is pretty much all just saying highly specific things in some exercise, rather than actually speaking freely), and of course I feel extremely shy about even trying.
In general I feel if I absolutely had to speak with someone who only knows Finnish, I could make myself understood given enough time. I haven’t really had such an experience though.
I don’t really have much of an opportunity to practice Finnish outside classes, apart from reading/watching things. Having basically everyone around you able to speak reasonably good English makes things greatly easier in general, but also makes practicing Finnish harder; after all people (even friends) don’t really want to be a Finnish teacher for you for free, they just want to talk to you and would rather just use English as that would obviously make the job easier. At work I hear Swedish (and English obviously) a lot more often than Finnish; while there are also Finnish speaking people too, I usually can only hear something by accident from another room, and some days I may well not hear a single Finnish word.
Still this certainly doesn’t feel like a hopeless battle. I think I’ve done very good progress in this year. Most importantly I got to the point where I can at least usefully read Finnish; I can now for example take books in Finnish at the library. I really hope that in a year more I will become reasonably adequate at understanding spoken Finnish. I’m thinking it would be good then to go to some non-Finnish classes for learning something else fun, I read such an advice once and it does feel like a good idea for a situation useful for practicing Finnish better.
As for Swedish, I attended about half of the Swedish (Svenska 1) classes, then dropped it. Honestly I think Finnish was being taught better; I felt we were moving extremely slowly with Swedish and learning far too little of the theory. Four classes in a week also was really getting rather exhausting. I still do want to learn Swedish someday. Swedish really feels much easier, and even those 1.5 months of classes and some really half-hearted attempts to learn some Swedish I had before (with WordDive and grammar references) already helped a lot. For example, at one point this year I bought a few guide books in Swedish about some places in the mountains of Sweden, and found out I was able to use them to plan a small trip surprisingly easy.
Perhaps for someone learning only Swedish (or at least learning Swedish before Finnish) could be a useful choice, if they happen live in Vaasa or another area with significant Swedish-speaking population. Legally Swedish is completely equal to Finnish in Finland; you’re entitled to getting government/municipality services in either language, education in either language, and either of the languages is sufficient for the exam necessary for getting Finnish citizenship. But as I said, personally I’m just a lot more into Finnish; also so far I’m not really certain that Vaasa is the place where I will settle down permanently in Finland, and there are no other major cities where Swedish is used as widely.