Finnish in Finland : the Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki

Finnish in seven days? Express language projects and learning how to learn

How much of a new foreign language can we learn in just seven days? It’s a tempting question that captures our imagination and challenges our mettle as polyglots. And it’s one I set out to answer with Finnish, as I prepared for a whistle stop three-day visit to lovely Helsinki this week.

For practical purposes, my knowledge of Finnish was almost nothing as I approached the seven-days-and-counting mark to my trip.  But as enthusiastic, language-loving polyglots, we are never really starting from scratch. We have a full tank of pre-knowledge to get us started – not necessarily on those specific languages we set out to study, but more general techniques for learning languages. And, in many ways, taking on time-limited language projects like this is an excellent way to take stock of our wider language learning approaches.

I’ve started, so I’ll… Finnish

One caveat: I did have a little pre-knowledge of Finnish itself, but not much. My exposure to this wonderful language of fifteen grammatical cases (!) has been limited. I have a little more experience of Helsinki itself, and this was my third trip here.

My last Finnish sojourn was a two-week working holiday to Helsinki, covering the Eurovision Song Contest 2007 for the fansite esctoday.com (never one for conformity to the norm). Dazzled by the glitz of the event, I barely made it past the first chapter of Teach Yourself Finnish before the stage lights won my attention. Two weeks and barely a handful of words learnt… I had some catching up to do in order to live down that polyglot fail!

So, beyond hyvää päivää (good day), kiitos (thanks) and a clutch of Eurovision song titles, I could barely remember a thing. I still had that old, battered Teach Yourself book, which I dug out in readiness. How would I fare third time round in Finland?

Time management

First things first: we have to make time for last-minute learning. To this end, I have always been a fan of time management apps and digital techniques for organising our lives. I already use Evernote to plan my productivity week, so it was a simple case of devising a plan and adding it to my weekly list of tactics. Since I already had Teach Yourself Finnish, I decided to use this as my primary course material. I would blitz through a chapter a day in order to reach chapter seven by the day of my flight.

Of course, no recipe is perfect. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that fairly high expectation of myself, I could not quite manage to stick rigidly to the plan. In fact, I only just managed to break into chapter four before I was enjoying my Finnair blueberry juice. But just as important as your plan is the ability to treat it flexibly around life’s ebb and flow. And by tracking your language tasks using tools like Evernote, you can still achieve the satisfaction of seeing progress, even when the everyday gets in the way.

Material world

My book-based course was the bedrock, but not the only route I used to bolstering my Finnish. You see, there is a particularly helpful side-benefit of returning to languages previously attempted and ‘failed’. It opens the way to a realisation of how your learning approaches have become more creative and effective than the bare books many of us inevitably started with.

My own big win is a much more active consumption of new vocabulary compared to my early beginnings as a language learner. Now, as I work through material, I use a number of resources to work on the vocabulary and engage with it. Principally, I grow my own Anki decks of words and phrases to learn and practise from – a technique that really helps give a sense of ownership over the word lists. This one change by itself has made a huge difference in vocab retention compared to my previous, floundering attempts at Finnish.

Multimodal approach

What it boils down to is a much more multimodal approach to learning today. Where once the norm was a book (and accompanying audio tracks, if you forked out the extra cash), there are now multiple, parallel resources across the range of skills. Why settle for one route to knowledge, when we can take advantage of multiple streams at once? Especially when so much is now available online, including from national broadcasters like Finland’s YLE (attempting to read news headlines is a favourite language task of mine).

Crucially, working through information in a number of ways helps beat the context effect – the inflexibility of recall that results from seeing material in the same, single setting without variation. The multimodal approach makes for flexible language knowledge, better primed for the unpredictable. And so I proceeded, not just sticking to Anki, but importing my word lists into Quizlet and Educandy, practising my Finnish vocab in every game setting available to me.

Practising the Finnish language using the activity creator website Educandy.com

Practising Finnish vocabulary exported from Anki using the activity creator website Educandy.com

It also helps if you can creatively dovetail your language project into your day-to-day. I work in language app development, and curate a series of verb reference and drill apps. I used the exposure to this new language to start a brand new Finnish version of the app, learning a lot of new verbs in the process.

Music to my ears

Ultimately, the pinnacle of multimodality for me is the crossover between foreign languages and music. Finland has a particularly rich and varied Eurovision tradition (sadly not reflected in many of its contest results!). Thanks to the excellent resource Diggiloo Thrush, the lyrics of all of these pop gems are available to read and learn online. Music to the ears of a language-loving Eurovision fan.

Playing these tunes at my piano, attempting to sing along with the lyrics, was more than just a vocab exercise. Warbling along to your favourite foreign language songs is more about practising sounds out loud, having fun with the way they emerge from your own mouth.

That said, interrogating song lyrics with a dictionary is a lexical adventure all on its own. Is there a stand-out, ear worm lyric in one of your favourites? For me, one particularly catchy lyrical moment crops up in Ami Aspelund’s Fantasiaa of 1983. That punchy, initial Kuka hän on? (Who is s/he?) sticks in the mind. Thanks to her, I will never forget that kuka means ‘who’!

Obviously, there is no need to be a Eurovision fan for this (despite my protestations). Spotify offers a wealth of world music, and a quick lyrics search on Google will throw up the words to almost anything, anywhere.

Spotting the shortfalls

As well as all the upsides, Express language learning can quickly reveal the shortcomings of platforms and techniques. Learning under time pressure can shed light on the limitations of our tools (and brains). And this is no bad thing: by knowing where these potholes are, we can plan to circumnavigate them in our future projects.

For one thing, I realised that Teach Yourself books (as well as other traditional book-based courses) often off with less than immediately handy vocab for a short trip. That can seem a bit topsy-turvy. For example,I ended up learning how to introduce myself before asking for a coffee, which I had to look up when I was already in Helsinki.

The antidote? Next time, I might include phrasebooks as source material, and work on purposefully learning ‘holiday situation’ vocabulary alongside thematic course book chapters. Polyglot celeb Benny Lewis has been advocating this approach for years, and it seems like a good beginner’s strategy.

Anki workarounds

Additionally, it became clear that Anki, on its default setting, feeds through new vocabulary far too slowly for quick projects. I had reached chapter three of my course book and already added nearly 300 words. But at the ten-per-day trickle, I was never going to have practised them all by the time my  flight came around.

You can adjust this, but it is probably not advisable – our brains can only retain so much new material, and it can be counterproductive to push them beyond what their most efficient comfort zones.

So what to do instead? One solution I came up with was not to add every single lexeme, but to focus on adding the words I would find most useful on my trip. From the section on nationality I decided to keep englantilainen (English person) and ditch venäläinen (Russian person), ranskalainen (French person) and so on. A sharp focus is the order of the day with ‘in seven days’ projects.

With Anki, you must also prioritise actively the order you tackle your decks in. If your express language is part of a subdeck, it will share its new card quota with its sibling decks. Clear your other decks first, and Anki will not offer any of your new language up for learning for the rest of the day. So, for a week, Finnish had to be my first port of call when opening Anki.

Multiple language decks in Anki

Multiple language decks in Anki. Sibling decks share their new card quota, so your most pressing projects (like my express Finnish) should be tackled first.

Sometimes, adaptation might not be possible. Namely, the language might simply be absent on your favourite platforms. There is little to do about that, except look elsewhere – or wait and hope. I especially regretted the lack of a Finnish course on my current favourite platform, Duolingo. But Finnish is in the pipeline for the future, which will come in handy if (when!) I return to the language.

Boots on the ground

Remember, the start of your trip is not the end. However much you learn before the trip, the learning continues in a much more exciting, active vein on location. Suddenly, vocabulary is learnt in context, and with immediate relevance. Once in Finland, I started soaking up new words like olut (beer), maito (milk) and suola (salt). Naturally, these have gone straight into my Anki decks. Those words are now mine!

Increase that sense of ownership by recording all those new items in the full colour of multimedia. Images, videos, audio clips of friendly locals speaking (if you dare) are all par for the course. I now have a whole bank of food packaging photos after just a couple of days!

“Kiitos” (thanks) on a grocery bag from a Helsinki supermarket. Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

Kiitos! Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

And of course, being on the move abroad, there is always something else to learn just around the corner. The incorrigible linguist that I am, another nearby language is already in my sights; I might have to sneak a little Estonian in there too, for a quick hop across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn.

Finnish in seven days? What about Estonian in seven hours? 

Sunset in Israel, winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest

Next stop: Hebrew? Thanks again, Eurovision!

As a Eurovision-obsessed kid, I’d often let the contest dictate what language I’d learn next. Whether it was the languages of my favourite countries (Norway, Iceland, Poland) or the language of the winning country I’d travel to the following year (Estonia, Sweden), I’ve come into contact with dozens of different languages thanks to the contest.

Last night, Israel won in spectacular, clucking fashion, with the supremely fun “TOY“. So… next stop, Hebrew?

Well, I’ve been there before. It’s a nice full-circle moment for me with languages, as a lover of old Israeli entries. From my early teens, I was motivated to dive into Hebrew through foot-tapping Eurovision songs.

From that on-and-off dabbling with the language, I eventually managed to reach a slightly shaky A2 in it, although many years later! There is a lot to be said in favour of slow, gradual, no-pressure learning. And now, what better reason to pick it back up than a potential trip to the 2019 contest?

Where it all began

The whole saga takes me right back to where my interest in Modern Hebrew began – the very first Eurovision Song Contest I purposefully watched, back in 1993. Sometimes, you love songs less for their quality, and more for how they connect to your life. And as a 15-year-old language geek, I was fascinated by the awkward, quirky but loveable entry from Israel, “Shiru” (‘sing!’).

I was so full of questions. Who is the lady on her own? Why doesn’t she join the rest of the group like the piano lady? And why are they dressed like they’re going to a fairytale wedding? To tell you the truth, I still don’t know the answers.

After that contest, I raided our little local library in Stourbridge for any books on the language. The choice was a bit limited – much more on Biblical Hebrew than Modern, for example – but with the few resources I could dig out, I picked up the right-to-left script quickly enough. I was always a fan of code, and at that age, the Hebrew alphabet was like some mystical cipher.

I also happened across a real gem of a tome that I grappled with for years – a dusty, old and very analytical volume on Hebrew verb paradigms. A lofty academic text, that was really beyond my understanding at the time. But it was like dark magic to me – a secret rule book that would open doors to great understanding if I spent time with it.

Of course, that was my first introduction to a non-Indo-European language. No wonder it was so fascinating – it was utterly different to the French and German I was learning at school. Verbs behave completely differently in Semitic languages, and the quirks had me hooked.

All that – from a chance encounter with a Eurovision song!

Yes, the contest can be whacky and just plain odd at times. But it has led me into so many language adventures – I’m quite happy to let that continue!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018

Living the language learning dream

I’ve written recently about learning a language through your interests. By binding your life’s passions with your learning goals, something special ignites. Living the dream as a language learner is all about throwing everything into it, about living life to the max, but through the language. And this weekend, I got the chance to do just that in Oslo.

I’ve always loved music, big arena events and the excitement of live TV. Add languages to that, and it’s no surprise that Eurovision has been a fascination of mine from an early age. Some countries are closer than other when it comes to sharing this love. Fortunately, for me, one of them is Norway – pretty handy for a Norwegian learner! So, what better reason to come to Norway than a couple of tickets for Norway’s Eurovision preselection show, Melodi Grand Prix?

Slice of life

It’s no longer just about the songs, of course – nine out of ten of the entries this year were in English, not Norwegian. But being part of such a big event of national interest drags you straight into the centre of the Norwegian microcosm. You see a real slice of life, being a popular family event; surrounded by cheering, proud citizens of all ages and backgrounds gives you a lovely feel of what it’s like to be a part of Norway.

More importantly, there’s the chance to chat. There’s something about a concert that breaks down barriers, and it was easy to swap opinions and discuss favourites with people sitting nearby. In fact, it was pretty unavoidable, once your cover is blown as an utlending (foreigner)… Everybody wants to know what you think of their national songs!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018 - a major part of living my Norwegian learning dream!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018

Dip in, dip out

Unless you are moving to a country to live, it is hard to embed yourself fully in social and cultural life. But this kind of intense dip-in, dip-out relationship can be a real shot in the arm for language learners. With Norway, of course, high costs dictate that visits (for now) are generally short weekend trips like this. But it’s enough to feel part of something, to keep passion alight, and to make friends that will slowly fasten you to your target language lands.

Choose your dream – and live it

This is what living my language learning dream looks like. Now, seek out what you love about your chosen cultures, and throw yourself headfirst into it. You will construct deep and rewarding connections that will last well beyond you have reached proficiency in a language.

The weekend inspired me to reflect on my experiences as a shy learner of Norwegian. Hear my thoughts below!

Eurovision 2017 Logo

Add some Eurovision sparkle to your language learning!

The Eurovision Song Contest may be over for 2017 (congratulations, first-time winner Portugal!), but it can still be a sparkling, magical resource for teaching and learning modern foreign languages.

Eurovision and languages have gone hand-in-hand for me since my early days of crazy fandom. Aged 15, I became intrigued by this exotic musical competition full of unusual-sounding tongues. It fuelled my nascent passion for languages, and it’s a dual obsession that continues to this day. Eurovision is why I can say ‘love’ in 20+ languages. It’s why I know all the country names so well in French. And even with the explosion of English-language songs since 1999, it can be a wonderful learning resource for ‘normal’ folk, too! 

Here, I’ve collected a few ideas for getting started with Eurovision as a language-learning resource. Admittedly, the links here will be old-hat to dyed-in-the-wool fans like me. But if you’re just a marginally less insane lover / learner / teacher of languages, you might find something useful in here for your own learning.

Eurovision can be fun, serious, silly, touching – but most of all, memorable. And it’s that memorability that gives the material salience and staying power when you’re learning a language!

Videos and lyrics

As talking points for a lesson, Eurovision clips are perfect. They’re short – the three-minute rule makes sure of that – and they are wonderful time capsules of fashion, too, giving you loads of material for discussion. Do you like the stage / set? What do you think of the clothes? Would that song be a hit today? You can go on and on.

The official YouTube channel of the Eurovision Song Contest is the first stop for video clips of songs from past contests. If you can’t find the exact entries you want there, a quick search on YouTube along the lines of “Eurovision YEAR COUNTRY” (like “Eurovision 2017 France”) will always throw up some good results.

Waxing lyrical

For a bit of text support, there is a fantastic lyrics site with every Eurovision entry to date on it: The Diggiloo Thrush (you may have to stop tittering at the name before you look it up).

I’ve used Eurovision lyrics to mine for fresh vocab. For instance, I’ll take a song I like in a language I’m learning, look up the text, and note any new words in my vocab bank (I use Anki currently for this). If I really love a song, I’ll also try to learn it, so I can sing it in the privacy of my own shower. T.M.I., I know, but whatever it takes to learn!

Eurovision gapfills

If you’re teaching others, you can use lyrics to make interactive activities for your students, too. Copy and paste your chosen song text into a document / Textivate game or similar, removing some of the words to make a gapfill. Play the song to the students and get them to fill in the gaps as they hear them. It’s a brilliant way to focus the ears on the sounds of the target language.

There are lots of ways to approach this with different objectives. For instance, you could remove all the non-content words, like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘then’ and so on. That hones the attention on all those little connective words that we need to make our language flow. Alternatively, take out the content words (you’ll find ‘love’ quite a lot in Eurovision songs!) to practise concrete, topical vocab.

Language awareness

A game I liked to play with my own language classes, back in the day, was ‘guess the language’. I’d prepare clips of Eurovision songs in a range of languages including the one(s) the class was learning. Of course, you can throw in some sneaky difficult ones. Dutch is great, if they’re learning German, or Italian if they’re learning Spanish, to throw them off the scent.

It’s an engaging and competitive way to get students thinking about how languages are related to one another, and where the language they’re learning fits in to the bigger picture. It’s ‘meta-knowledge’ in the sense that it’s about what they’re learning more generally – language – than knowledge of the language itself. But it’s an excellent way to show the target language within its global context.

Eurovision: national reactions

National press can go crazy over Eurovision, generating a raft of headlines and articles for consumption. Right after a contest, you can easily find web articles from countries that did either well or badly, by simply going to the homepage of the national broadcaster. This article from Norwegian broadcaster NRK, for example, describes the high mood of the team after scoring a top ten placing in Kyiv this year.

Why are these articles useful? Well, they’re usually quite simple to read. They’re about a well-known, universal field – music and entertainment – so they won’t contain too many complex notions like other news articles might. Also, they’re full of those vocab items like dates, numbers and such like, which are simple, but a pain to learn. Excellent practice!

Where to find broadcaster links? Well, Wikipedia provides a very handy list of EBU member stations at this link. Also handy for looking up programming in your target language, even when Eurovision isn’t on!

Eurovision is a marvellous, fun, colourful, diverse and happy medium for language learning. What’s more, all of the material is freely available online for you to get creative with. With over 60 years of history, there’s a treasure of resources to play with, so get out there and bring some Eurovision magic into your language learning!