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 (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

Practising Finnish vocabulary exported from Anki using the activity creator website

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? 

Meta-learning - know your brain (Image from

Meta-learning: relearn how to learn with a new language mini-project

Dia duit! That’s Irish for hello – which, despite a million other things, I chose to start dabbling in this week. Unlike other come-and-go language projects of mine, it’s not a former language I’m returning to. In fact, I knew zero Irish before this week (save the welcoming céad míle fáilte of numerous 1990s Eurovision Song Contests!).

It’s not for want of something to do. I already have plenty of core language learning goals for 2019 to keep me occupied. Improving my Icelandic, Norwegian and Polish are already taking a chunk of my time.

So why the extra load?

Well, apart from the kid-in-a-candy-store nature of being a linguaphile, taking a language detour in totally unknown pastures now and again has great utility. Namely, it is a brilliant way to audit and augment your meta-learning skills: learning how you learn.

Stuck in our ways

Human beings like treading comfortable tracks. Because of that, it is all too easy to get stuck in our ways.

Of course, the familiar often works very well for us. Our regular approaches, methods and routine usually serve us grandly in our language learning goals. But knowing how to learn is a skill, just like any other. We can improve it, or we can neglect it and let it get rusty. And getting into that autopilot groove might actually prevent us from ever getting better at how we learn.

Taking a learning diversion can be a fun way to get unstuck and freshen up your daily language grind. The golden rule here is the more unfamiliar, the better. The idea is to audit how you learn; material unrelated to anything you already know will isolate the learning process from background knowledge that may act as a crutch and mask poor learning habits.

In my case, Irish is a real departure from the norm. My background is coloured by Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages, and so a Celtic language is something I can approach with completely fresh eyes, and few chances to rely too comfortably on pre-knowledge.

Unfamiliar material activates your aptitude for exploring your meta-learning skills.

Now, unfamiliar need not mean outside your own sphere of interest. Learning something you have no interest in is never a good idea. Why did I pick Irish? Simple: it’s a beautiful country next to my own, inexpensive to travel to, and I wanted to get to know it a lot better. In the words of Rita Mae Brown:

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.

Meta-learning lessons

One thing you find when you start on these kinds of language mini-project, is just how far your meta-learning skills have come. Regarding my own experience, you could say that I learnt my first foreign languages ‘the hard way’. That meant hours of book-based grammar study and reading in German and Spanish during the 1990s. That clearly worked well enough, as I did well in the subjects at school, and went on to get a degree and forge a career in languages.

That said, I had no access to wonderful tools like Anki, Duolingo, Learning With Texts and Wiktionary back then, or even on-demand access to foreign language media. Some of these things have become language learning staples to me, in many cases only very recently. I have gradually built them into my study routines for maintaining my main languages.

But how would they perform unleashed onto completely new territory?

The great news is that foreign language mini-projects are an excellent way to test the efficiency of all of your favourite methods.

Blended approach

A key discovery for me is the realisation that no single method works efficiently in isolation. A blended approach, using multiple formats, platforms and schedules maximises how well I learn. What’s more, joining up your learning resources manually is a good way to make learning more active, rather than simple passive reception.

You can turn a more passive resource into an active learning process by reworking its material into another format. For example, with Irish, I chose to use Duolingo as my primary lesson source. After each section, I look up new terms on Wiktionary, then add them to a deck of flashcards in Anki. I get more from this learning by doing than I would from using purely premade material.

Beyond that, there are so many things you can do to make lesson material your own. Look up sentences that contain the new words on Tatoeba, for example. Or listen to native speakers pronounce the words or phrases in different way on Forvo. As you experiment, explore and supplement, you expand your expertise in finding and adapting learning resources to get the most out of them. Meta-learning is understanding how to make new knowledge your own.

A dose of realism

Here’s the rub: chances are, that if you have a rose-tinted view of a particular platform, you might end up with a more realistic evaluation of it.

So it is for me with Duolingo. A fantastic free resource, without a doubt, and I was hugely excited to use it to learn a brand new language, rather than support one I was already learning. But how useful is it as your only resource?

I quickly discovered that without pre-knowledge, some Duolingo courses may need a little supplementing. Duolingo Irish, though a great introduction, is not quite enough as a standalone option for me. A particular issue is a lack of native speaker support for all phrases. In Irish, this is crucial given the very particular spelling system that needs to be learnt.

Also, I found myself craving more information about each word: the gender, the plural form and so on. I realised that my learning style requires more interrogation of new terms than the Duolingo course is happy to provide at first. No black-box thinking for me – I have to take those words apart and see every nut and bolt with my own eyes!

Plugging the gaps

Still, add a bit of support with Wiktionary and Forvo, and the creases are ironed out. I’m benefitting from the superb lesson structure and progression in Duolingo, and filling in the gaps my brain needs filled as I need to.

Without this insight, I’d be going around thinking of a single platform as a one-stop shop. Now that I can spot and patch the elements that need fleshing out, I’m both a better learner, and a better source of advice for friends and family who want to learn languages without the same frustrations.

And Duolingo is even more effective now I know how I work best with it.

Language learning report card

My mini-adventures in Irish have shown me where I am as a language learner. They also confirm that I already have a healthy understanding of how I learn effectively: I instinctively bend materials into a shape that fits my learning process best. That’s a decent report card and a confidence-building boost for any linguist (and we are all prone to occasional self-questioning!).

More than that, though: Irish has given me a chance to assess and experiment with those techniques in a way that does not interfere directly with my core language learning routine. Casual study of something completely different is ideal no-risk ground to do a skills audit without fear of knocking regular study off balance. It’s not that the new language doesn’t matter – it’s just that we are not invested in it enough (yet) to worry about making mistakes in our first steps.

Weird and wonderful world

Beyond that, using a brand new language as a meta-learning exercise can open your eyes to diversity. We so easily come to think of certain patterns or forms in language as normal or given if we never push our limits beyond the known. Exposing yourself to what, at first, seems weird and wonderful, can only promote flexible thinking.

So it is with Irish, a verb-subject-object language, so unlike many other Indo-European subject-verb-object languages commonly studied. I now know that this is far from unusual, sharing the trait with almost a tenth of world languages.

With wonderful projects like #LangJam promoting micro-study of languages, there is no better time to relearn how you learn. So much self-knowledge can come from those few extra minutes in your day. Give something new a try. It’s worth it for the better meta!