Learning it feels quite effortless so far. I guess it’s partly about having forgotten what it is like to start a new language from scratch – things are so simple in the beginning! – but mostly it is about the language being very, very familiar even though completely new to me.
On day 2, I was checking the grammar points – numbers and verb conjugations – of the first chapter in my textbook, and realised I already know them without learning.
Already around day 5, I found myself talking to myself in my head, building sentences from the little I had learnt from that one textbook chapter.
On day 7, a fellow Add1Challenger from Estonia started writing messages with me in Estonian, and I could understand every word (but I do need Google Translate to help me write back).
And on day 27, I had a very simple but rather effortless conversation for 30 minutes with her!
One of my values in life is to explore and experience.
For me, regularly trying out new things makes life worthwhile. It broadens my horizons, helps me better understand the world around me, other people, and myself. It helps me grow as a person.
Recently, I decided to start learning a new language: Estonian.
Why Estonian, and why now? To answer that, let’s play “Never have I ever”.
1. Never have I ever learnt a language from scratch on my own
I have been learning languages on my own for approximately two years. It is starting to feel quite natural. Even now, after having a three-month hibernation, it was quite easy to establish new routines and get back to learning languages.
But so far, all the languages I’ve been learning on my own have been ones that I started out and laid the basis for back in school. With Swedish, I started my self-learning from around strong B2, with French, from almost B1, and even for Russian, I got a rather solid A1 basic level to build on.
I still have a couple of languages sort of in the queue, that I learnt the very basics for in school: German and Japanese. I could have picked up one of them next; last summer, I was already contemplating on starting Japanese again.
But then that “never have I ever…” came to my head and got me thinking: how would I tackle the challenge of starting out from zero?
It’s happened in many areas of my life before: once I start thinking “wonder how I would manage that”, I’m already taking the first steps to trying it out.
2. Never have I ever learnt a language related to my native language
This was perhaps the most important reason for me to make up my mind.
Ever since I started reading language blogs and about the experiences of other language enthusiasts, I’ve run into many stories about how certain aspects of their native language helped them with some other aspects of their target language. The Italian polyglot Luca Lampariello learning Spanish and Portuguese. Different posts about the easiest languages to learn for English speakers. When learning French with Babbel (from English to French), there were tips about true friends and false friends in vocabulary.
Now of course, I already got many “Yay!” moments with noticing similarities between the languages I’ve learnt. One of the reasons I really started to get excited about language learning, was when I noticed how, e.g., knowing Swedish really helped me memorise German vocabulary. In school, I realised I’m kind of good at noticing even the slightest similarities in the logics of the different languages, and found it really interesting.
But I never experienced learning a language similar to my own language. Recently I realised can’t even imagine what it would be like.
Unlike for native speakers of Romance and Germanic languages, there aren’t too many relative languages for me to learn. Somehow I find that even a better reason to learn one that is related to Finnish. I think we Finns are secretly a bit proud about being the language weirdo we are. And I find it would certainly be fun to get to know another language in that secret language club of Fenno-Ugric languages.
3. Never have I ever participated in Add1Challenge!
This doesn’t have that much to do with why I chose Estonian, but more with why I decided to do it know. I’ve been intrigued to try the Add1Challenge ever since I heard about it for the first time.
Briefly, Add1 is a challenge and a community where people learn a language for 90 days and aim to be able to speak for 15 minutes with a native speaker by the end of the challenge.
Add1 is also much about experimenting with new methods and resources to find the ones that work best for you, and becoming a better language learner.
What would better fit this challenge that my Never have I ever -experience of learning Estonian? I had been thinking about starting Estonian for some time now, and when I was reflecting my goals for this year in languages would be, I was tempted again to start a new language. The fact that there was a new Add1Challenge opening up was the last little push I needed to go for it.
Bonus: It is the 100 year anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Estonia.
Last year, Finland celebrated it’s 100 years of independence. For me, that celebration felt very meaningful and important. Now, this year it is Estonia’s turn to celebrate.
Despite the geographic and linguistic closeness of Finland and Estonia, I think most Finns know very little about our neighbour, it’s language and culture. Me included.
It seems appropriate now, in the honour of the 100 years of independence of our little sister, to get to know her a bit better!
Now, it’s your turn! What is your language learning “Never have I ever…”?? Let me know in the comments!
PS. Here’s a glimpse to how my Estonian sounds on Day 0:
At first glance, when looking back and comparing my language learning years 2016 and 2017, I kind of felt that 2017 became a real pannukakku – a Finnish expression that is used to say that something kind of failed (which is really super weird actually: pannukakku means pancake, and Finns love pancake).
In 2016, I started to learn languages again after several years’ break, developed really active routines and started setting goals and tracking my learning habits.
2017 started out nicely, but then life happened: thesis, a new job, a huge amount Scouts volunteering… And by November, my language routines and habits were almost gone.
This was my picture of how my 2017 in languages was, and at first I thought it’s not worth reviewing in more detail how I did with my goals for 2017. Not when it’s March already.
But then I decided to at least have a look at the post from January 2017 to remind me of what my thoughts had been in the beginning of the year.
And after having a look, I decided to share what I found. So here we go, a (rather long!) review of my 2017. I’ve included quotes from my different Clear the List posts throughout the year to show exactly what a pannukakku of a year it was..
January–April: Where can my get my Russian in four months? “I think I’ll keep my focus on Russian until the end of April. Perhaps even May, we’ll see. I should be able to make quite some progress in that time. I’m excited to see how much!”
March:“I wasn’t preparing enough for the meetings (like looking up vocabulary and sentences and structures that could be useful). I still struggle a lot in the conversations if I’m not prepared.”
April: “Watching the videos my tandem partner had found me to watch for the very first meetings, I was happy to notice I could understand them a lot better than I remember I could back then!”
As in the course of autumn I gradually dropped almost all Russian learning activities, I’d actually already forgotten about how much Russian I learned last year. Now that I look at my Clear the list posts from last spring, I’ve gotten an unbelievable amount of learning activities done each month.
Looking at my Instagram videos from January, the difference to later videos is huge. I spoke very slowly and very simple sentences in the beginning.
And if I look farther back, I can remember the feeling of starting out the tandem meetings (that was in late 2016), and how badly I struggled even with the simplest conversations. And then the feeling, some time in the early summer, when I had a meeting with my tandem partner, we’d go to a cafe at a beach, and sit in the sunny terrace sipping cold lemonade and chatting about my trip to Paris later that summer, about what I wanted to do there, and about what was best about travelling… in Russian, that is.
I’d say I moved at least from level A1 to A2 in half a year. Which, of course, is not very fast progress, but it’s definitely progress!
January–June: French – from understanding to speaking “Last year, I’ve taken a huge leap with my understanding of French, but I still don’t know how well I actually speak… I’ll come up with a way to practice speaking starting in February and gradually add the amount of practice towards the summer.”
February: “My university has an ‘Each One Teach One” Facebook group, where I found (or actually was found by) a French girl who studies in Helsinki and is learning Swedish! We had a coffee and spent an hour speaking French and Swedish. That was awesome.”
April:“I also keep getting amazed by what kind of topics I manage to keep up a conversation about with my French. This month I was explaning about the Finnish Defence Forces and voluntary military service – not exactly my everyday topic in any language.”
Finding a French tandem partner and having was definitely one of last year’s language learning victories. It didn’t even take that long to prove myself that I’m quite able to have a decent conversation in French! I did struggle a lot and often lacked the vocabulary but with a patient and helpful conversation partner, I dared to try and discuss even things I never would have imagined possible with my French level.
May–June: Swedish, how I’ve missed you, don’t go away again “I think I’ll dedicate a month or two for Swedish in May-June. It seems like it’s about time then; it’ll be a year since I left Sweden after my exchange. And for no reason, I just love Swedish. Lovelovelove. I’ll let the midsummer warmth melt the ice. And from then on, I’ll work harder to keep it away!”
June:“I had to finish my thesis, and even though in the end I guess I didn’t work any more hours on it than the months before, just the thought of finishing it was so huge that I had to empty my head of anything else. So decided not to even do Clear the list and language goal setting in June. “
July:“My goal was to just defrost my Swedish, which felt really rusty. That goal isn’t very well defined, but I could say I’ve reached it already. I’d say some defrosting has happened since January, just by reading some books in Swedish. Now, after just a few weeks of more active practice, I feel like I’m almost where I left when my Swedish was at it’s best.
However, now I find I’ve got mersmak – an excellent Swedish expression which means that after tasting some, you want more. I don’t want to leave it here, I want to take my Swedish to a new level…”
August:“…my goal was to aim for immersion, and read, write, speak or listen a little bit every day except weekends–. I basically had one week when I can say I did this. The other weeks I did a fair amount of listening, read a little, and that’s it.”
September:“I had a chat on Skype with my new tandem partner several times a week – just for ten to twenty minutes, but still, I already feel a lot more confident about speaking.”
Of my languages, Swedish is the one where I’ve most felt like I failed with my goals last year. May and June ended up being the most stressful time regarding finishing my thesis, so my Swedish summer didn’t really get going like I planned. In July, August and September, I tried to go for immersion at home (the kind that Katie Harris has so inspiringly written about!) but ended up having less and less time for language learning as the months passed, and losing my routines altogether.
However, if I look at my goal from January, it was to defrost my Swedish and get back to the level where I was after upper secondary school. And already in July I’ve written that I actually did do that! Then I ended up moving my goals forward. And the new goal just wasn’t really well in line with other stuff in life. And I hadn’t even really properly considered what reaching that goal would require. But setting that goal and trying it out actually showed me what it would take to “take my Swedish to a new level”. I’m now more aware of where I am and what are the areas I need to develop.
You wouldn’t call that a failure, would you?
Other Goals – These Didn’t Happen
July–September: New (old) language! “If I’m happy enough with my progress, perhaps I can give myself the permission to dig out another language I used to study ages ago. Japanese, or German? We’ll see!”
October–December: Fight the freeze “…right now I think I could try out some sort of a review cycle, changing which language I have my main focus on, brushing up my existing language skills (of course learning some new stuff too). How often should I give more practice to a language to prevent it from freezing? Or how much time is little enough continuously, to keep up a language or even make some slow progress? I’ll see if I can start finding the answers.”
As I’ve described, I ended up focusing on Swedish longer than I’d planned. The time wasn’t right for a new language. And then I ended up in my language learning hibernation and didn’t really put any effort at all into developing my revision routines.
So how was my 2017 in languages?
Well, if you’ve read this far, you probably noticed: It wasn’t that bad. And it was definitely worth reviewing.
I was reminded about how many little victories there actually were last year. I improved in all of the three languages I was learning, or at least brought them back to more active memory. And there was a lot of speaking in all three of them, perhaps more than ever before. That’s no small thing. In 2016 I struggled a lot with speaking any of them.
And another lesson I learned: Clear the List is so worth the time and the effort. Not just the goal setting part, but the monthly review as well. By looking back at the entire year, I was able to get the big picture of how much progress I’d made, which can be life-saving for motivation. I was also able to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. This will help me improve as a language learner.
To be honest, I started writing this as a “goals for 2018” post at first, but then got carried away looking back and had to change the title. But I think I needed this. I hope it will help me set better goals this year!
I feel the need every year, it hits me around November. And I think year after year, it gets stronger. I want to drop all my projects and things that usually bring me joy – and just sleep. Last couple of years, it has been a bit easier to cope with it though, for one simple reason: I’ve given in to the need.
No, of course I didn’t really crawl under my blankets after eating my stomach full of pine needles like the Moomins, and then sleep until the first warming rays of late February sun.
I just took it a bit more easy; accepted the fact that I did not have the energy for everything I would have liked to do.
As I had to have energy for my job, some time with my family and friends and a fairly time-consuming volunteering position, I decided it was better to quietly give in to a language learning hibernation, than keep pushing it and go straight into a language learning burn-out.
It was kind of a deep hibernation – like a little hedgehog that wakes up every once in a while to keep alive, I would occasionally read something or listen to something in one of my languages, but I didn’t make an effort to set goals, really keep up proper habits, track my activities or really give it much thought at all. But now the sun rays have started to creep through into my nest and I feel like I might start to revive.
I think it wasn’t just the increasing light, though, that woke me up. It was also the Russian language. I found the habit of audiobooks again, and then some Russian music, and one day I was walking home and listening to a particularly beautiful song that was new to me… And I was struck by the feeling, that I need to learn more of this language, I want to speak it again.
So here I am, slightly late for the usual new year’s resolutions, but all the more ready to start planning another year in languages! More about that in a Clear the List post for March!
I’ve shared you earlier my story with English, Swedish and French. As Russian is my main learning language right now, I thought I could reflect a bit about why I started to learn it and how has it been for me so far.
For some reason, as long as I’ve known I want to learn a lot of languages, Russian has been on my list. I’m not entirely sure how it found it’s way there. I recognize, in general, at least 5 different reasons to want to learn a language: exposure, need, practicality, social or cultural interest (I could write another blog post about my thoughts on this!).
To some extent, it’s probably the exposure: the more I listen to a language, the more intrigued I get. In Finland, there are 70 000 people whose first language is Russian, and in 2015 we had 53 000 Russian tourists visiting overnight. So it is likely to hear a bit of Russian in Finland.
In elementary school, I had some friends on my class whose mother tongue was Russian, and sometimes I’d secretly listen to them speaking on the phone with their parents and be intrigued about how the same person sounds so different when speaking another language. I can’t really remember what Russian sounded to me like back then.
In high school a classmate of mine, a girl originally from Russia, taught me some Russian. I learned the letters, and some numbers and colours and simple phrases. I guess after that I had the feeling I always get after learning a bit of a language: I wanted to learn more.
Partly, I guess, it’s also practical: I found it possibly useful for future career opportunities. Many Finnish companies do business with Russia, and Russian isn’t a language everybody learns, so it can help you stand out as a job applicant.
I definitely have a cultural interest for Russian. There are many similarities – generous hospitality, a certain kind of stubborn pride, and, I guess, liking vodka. But the differences often feel more distinct. Russian people are said to be more temperamental, living in the moment and open in their expression of feelings. Russian has an imperial history. When I think of Russian cuisine, I think of pickled cucumber and honey (I’m not sure if Russian people actually eat this or if it’s a Finnish misconception), which somehow sums up how I feel about the whole culture: surprising, perhaps even somewhat strange at first glance, but in fact extremely likeable and brilliantly original.
But there is, I think, a sixth reason to feel drawn to a language. It’s the mysterious appeal you sometimes feel about a language, alluring interest. I think it may be born from a combination of all the other reasons I mentioned, but you may feel it without really being able to recognize any logical reasons behind it.
There are two foreign languages that have this special appeal for me: Swedish and Russian. I could call it infatuation, because it feel a bit the same as thinking about that someone special you like! Haha. I’m just mysteriously drawn to these two languages, they are beautiful and intriguing to me. They are the two neighboring languages to Finnish, yet not related to it at all and not really closely to each other either. Two very different cultures surrounding us, having their own influence on the Finnish culture, and still feel like different worlds.
I can’t explain it any better. Have you ever had that kind of feeling about another language?
A patchy history of Russian courses
I finally got the chance to actually study Russian in university. There were a lot of languages to choose from, but for some reason I jumped straight on a Russian course without a second thought.
However, university studies were much more demanding than upper secondary school, where I had thrived learning four languages at the same time. I really didn’t usually do my Russian homework and because of that, the classes weren’t too useful, either. Every semester I couldn’t even fit the courses in my schedule. I also had a year off from university at one point.
So my Russian studies were really scattered: Course 1A in spring 2011, 1B in fall 2012, 2A and 2B in fall 2014(!) and 3A and 3B in fall 2015. Everytime I just stubbornly moved on to the next level even though I felt like I’d forgotten half of the previous courses (and maybe never learned the other half because I hadn’t really been concentrating on the courses).
So Russian was, after French, the language I most felt like I should have already learned more than I had. That’s why I’ve picked it up now again as my second project after having decided to really start learning languages again last year.
What’s difficult and what’s easy
I’d say Russian has been the most difficult for me to learn of all the languages I’ve studied.
Usually I learn really well by listening and back in school I could, for example, memorise entire course book chapters of French or Swedish just by listening to the recordings. Of course, I only recently started to feel like I can understand French speech at normal speed – the course book chapter recordings were simple and slow. But with Russian, even the simplest chapters just sounded like “lksdjladghksdlsdfhgsuadslkj” in the beginning, even after I had read and translated the text and learned the vocabulary. It took me ages to get the hang of how to listen to the language. There’s something entirely different about the rhythm, structure and sounds of it.
Reading Russian is also kind of difficult for me. No, I actually had no trouble learning the alphabet, when it comes to recognizing the individual letters, but somehow I still read very slowly. Normally I’d say you read by just looking at a word or even the entire sentence, but I still read Russian kind of letter by letter. It’s all about lack of practice, of course.
Another problem with reading is, I can’t tell where the stress on longer words is. If there’s a new word I read and haven’t heard, it’s very difficult to imagine what the word is supposed to sound like, because the placement of the stress makes a huge difference. I’m not entirely sure if there are any rules for this or if you learn to place the stress only word by word.
The cases are so confusing. Yes, Finnish is notorious for them. I don’t know if being naturally familiar with the concept makes it easier or not. I suppose I learn the declension rules easily enough, they are logical enough. The biggest problem is when to use which case! That’s where having cases in my own language is mostly just a stumbling block. The genitive in Russian is used to state ownership, just like in Finnish, but it’s also used with amounts such as a lot or a little, which, in Finnish, is expressed with partitive, also the case used for partial objects, which are, then again expressed in accusative in Russian. Confused yet? I am. Argh!
What’s easy: Verb tenses! But wait –
That reminds me of yet another difficult thing: verb aspects. They only came in on my last two courses of Russian and I certainly haven’t gotten my head around them yet.
And all the little movement verbs with their prefixes:
входить / войти – to go in, to enter выходить / выйти – to go out, to leave, to exit всходить / взoйти – to go up, to ascend доходить / дойти – to get to, to get as far as, to reach заходить / зайти – to drop in, to stop by обходить / обойти – to walk around, to bypass отходить / отойти – to walk away переходить / перейти – to go across, to turn подходить / подойти – to approach приходить / прийти – to arrive, to come проходить / пройти – to go by, to go past сходить / сойти – to go down, decend уходить / уйти – to go from, to leave, depart
Gahh… Send help.
So, not so many things I’d find easy in Russian, but I guess I enjoy the challenge! And all the more rewarding it will be when I make progress.
I’m still kind of searching my favourite methods to learn Russian. Any ideas are welcomed!
And I’d be happy to hear about your experiences. Have you learned Russian? Why did you choose to learn it? What do you find difficult or easy? Or did you relate to any of these thoughts with another language you’re learning?
I’ve found a nice and efficient combo of learning methods which work for me. For a couple of months now, I’ve been learning with
An online/mobile app course from Babbel
I think I’ll blog in a bit more detail about each method soon!
This time, however, I wanted to share some thoughts about how I find learning French – which aspects of it are easy, which are difficult.
I can’t actually come up with too many easy things. As a whole, French just is not a piece of cake. More like a piece of baguette, with a tough crust you need to get through before it gets easier to chew. (Such a clever analogy, I know.)
A pretty nice share of the vocabulary is easy to memorize due to similarity to English. It also makes guessing the meaning of many words possible, and I find I can read even rather complicated texts, although my oral skills are not very advanced.
The most difficult aspects are related to verbs, I think.
Irregular verbs are a pain in the back, as in any language. I’m so happy my French teacher made us memorize a whole lot of them early on. That’s one of the few things I think have stuck in my head pretty well from those lessons (in addition to useful sentences like “Je détéste les olives.”).
And when to use imperfect and passé composé? Imperfect is for describing a state, or continuous or incomplete action in the past, and passé composé is for already completed or single events, right?
That’s strange to me – in Finnish, the imperfect describes something that happened not too long ago and is somehow new information, whereas the perfect describes something that happened maybe longer ago, but is somehow related to something that is currently happening…
Err, wait. Now that I tried explaining the Finnish tenses, I started to feel that maybe the French way actually makes more sense. Well, I never said Finnish was easy, did I?? Maybe this is not one of the difficult things in French, after all, at least now that I know how it works. But I remember it used to be confusing!
Finally, I have to admit I have no idea what the subjunctive is used for, I just vaguely remember from my French lessons back in school, that there is such a thing, and that it is weird. Brr.
In addition to verbs being tricky in many ways, I feel that the French way to build sentences takes some effort to grasp. It’s hard to explain, but I take an example from a book, originally in English:
“The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear if anyone found out about the Potters.”
And the French translation goes:
“Les Dursley avaient tout ce qu’ils voulaient. La seule chose indésirable qu’ils possédaient, c’était un secret dont ils craignaient plus que tout qu’on le découvre un jour. Si jamais quiconque venait à entendre parler des Potter, ils étaient convaincus qu’ils ne s’en remettraient pas.”
“The Dursleys had everything they wanted. The only unwanted thing they had, it was a secret of which they were afraid more than anything that would be found out one day. If ever anyone would hear about the Potters, they were certain they could not bear it.”
(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)
Of course, it’s a book, and spoken language is different, but I think that particular something is there in spoken language, too.
Somehow the sentences seem more complicated, there’s always an additional curlicue.
I actually kind of like that. It’s like making every sentence a carefully, lovingly wrapped and decorated gift.
I guess that is something you can pick up through just hearing and reading a lot of French. After all, anything can become easy, with enough practice.
I started learning French in upper secondary, at the age of 16. I was so happy to finally be able to start an additional language at school (I tried to pick German in high school but there were not enough people interested to form a class).
The picture I had of France back then consisted pretty much of the Eiffel tower, baguette, the French revolution and the three musketeers.
I had also heard, that many French people don’t like to speak English. A friend of mine had already studied a bit of French and she’s told me that French people don’t want to understand bad French either (I think her expertise was based on an experience where she’d been in Paris and tried to ask in French where the loo was, and got spoken to like she was dim-witted). So when learning French, you’d better learn it well. I didn’t worry about this too much – I did well in the exams and got nice grades. Clearly I was learning well enough?!
The first time I had to test my skills was in 2010, the summer after graduation from upper secondary, when I went backpacking around Europe with a friend. We stayed in Paris for several days and also visited Brussels, and I’m sure we tried to speak a bit of French every now and then. Oddly enough, I don’t remember too many situations… Maybe my brain tries to save me from remembering the painful moments of realizing that three years of work have been fruitless, when it came to real life situations.
I think there was a moment when I tried to buy stamps and the lady in the post office switched to English when I didn’t know the word for stamp. And maybe a guy on a night train who spoke French and whom I was unable to understand unless he almost spelled each word for me.
I decided that French is difficult; maybe the language of amour just didn’t love anyone non-French that much. I wrote “good written and oral skills” on my CV anyway, and didn’t think about it much for a couple of years.
Three years later I was hiking in Belgium with my boyfriend. We were doing this scouting challenge called Explorer Belt, where the idea is to hike 200 km through a foreign country with no phone or GPS, and not much money, and you rely on the help of local people and try to learn as much as you can about the culture.
I noticed that if I started by asking a French-speaking person if they spoke English, the answer was no, and I didn’t get much help. But if I started with French, people would try to help. They would also soon switch to English, realizing, I guess, that they could better help me that way, my French being what it was. Anyway, at least trying seemed to make people friendlier and more helpful.
That time, I had a lot of lovely experiences trying to speak French. There was an old lady, who let us have a glass of water and sit in her garden for a while. A guy who owned a bakery told us about his work and showed us how he makes buns. An old couple let us stay in their home and explained us about Belgian cuisine.
Magical moments, when you see a glimpse of someone else’s life. I wasn’t able to speak much, but I managed to explain the purpose of our trip and ask for the way, for a place to stay and for some stories, and I understood mostly what people said, and that already felt like a lot. I thought, ‘ok, I’m far from fluent, hardly even conversational, but I can get along if I need to’.
But the frost keeps building (as Alex Rawlings writes) and a year ago I was totally unable to keep up a conversation with a Brazilian guy at my summer job, who’d studied in France and spoke French fluently.
Last spring, I did an exchange semester in Sweden, and met so many great people from all around the world. The time there woke up my language passion again, stronger than ever before. I felt the urge to start studying German, Chinese, Dutch and Czech right away. Maybe someday I will, but there’s something to do before that. I feel like I’ve done learning French completely wrong for all this time. It somehow feels like a friendship gone bad that I’d like to fix things with. Maybe French would love me after all. (Hence the Carla Bruni song.)
That’s why I’ve been trying to focus on French for now!