You might have seen this title and thought… Swedish? In Finland?? That’s right: while it might not be as common as learning in Sweden, it is totally doable to learn Swedish in Finland. You might be in Finland already and decide that you just don’t like, or need, Finnish as much as Swedish. Or you might be interested in the Swedish language but more interested in Finland as a country. Whatever your reason, this is how to learn Swedish in Finland.
My name is Mihir and I’m originally from Pune/India, although I spent a large portion of my childhood in Australia. For this reason I sometimes have a hard time deciding which is my mother tongue. I grew up speaking Marathi, one of hundreds of languages spoken in India. Most of its native speakers live in the state of Maharashtra and in Goa. Over all Marathi is considered to be the 19th most spoken language in the world.
Because I spent my formative childhood years in Australia, though, I often consider English my mother tongue. I learned how to read and write in English and my entire education took place in English, even back home in India. When I joined school in India, I struggled to learn how to read and write in the Devanagari script.
So is my mother tongue Marathi or English? Maybe it’s a mixture of both.
I moved to Finland in my early twenties in order to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Turku. I didn’t know it back then, but I ended up staying in Finland for almost 9 years. If I had known that right from the beginning, I would have made more of an effort in learning the language. I didn’t know any Finnish or Swedish before I arrived. My Finnish is still miserable, enough to survive but not enough to make conversation. My Swedish on the other hand is now at an upper intermediate level.
How and Where to Stay in Finland
Finland, like any Schengen country, required a visa for me to stay in. Unlike some more privileged passport holders I could not stay visa-free for any period of time. I applied to the Finnish embassy and finally received my student visa only a few days before my departure.
Finland is not a particularly popular destination for backpackers or people interested in a “work-away”. It is very hard to find work and settle down here. Unless you have a secured study place or firm work contract, you will most likely not receive a visa and even EU citizens would have troubles explaining why the Finnish authorities should let them stay.
I think for learning either Finnish or Swedish it is probably best to stay in the capital, Helsinki. There is simply a larger offer of language courses available in the region. However, for learning Swedish it might also be good to consider the majority Swedish speaking areas of Finland, such as Åland.
Languages in Finland
English in Finland
By my personal estimate, about 95% of people in Finland speak English fluently. In fact, Finland ranks number 4 in the top English-speaking countries in the world. I have almost never been in a situation where the other person didn’t speak English. And if they were unsure, they would easily refer me to a colleague who would help me. It’s common for Finns to say that they don’t speak English very well. But then as soon as they start speaking, they turn out to be nearly fluent. Oh well, what can I say.
Swedish in Finland
Swedish is spoken by about 9.2 million people worldwide and is the official language of Sweden. What many people don’t know is that it’s also an official language in Finland, together with Finnish. As Finland was colonized by Sweden in the late 13th century, Swedish was the sole administrative language until 1902 (even under Russian rule). However, Swedish lost its importance with Finnish independence in 1917 after which Finnish became the primary language.
Today, only about 5% of Finns are native Swedish speakers. Since it is still an official language, however, Swedish is taught as a second language in all schools. As attitudes have changed throughout the years, Finns are now very reluctant to learn Swedish and only about 45% of Finns can actually keep up a conversation in Swedish.
Numbers look better in the regions of Ostrobothnia, Southwest Finland and Nyland. Even better yet, on the autonomous island of Åland, where Swedish is the mother tongue to 95% of the population.
Finland Swedish is one of the 6 main dialect groups of the Swedish language, in addition to the Norrland dialects, the Svealand dialects, the Gotland dialects, the Götaland dialects, and the South Swedish dialects.
Finland Swedish is a little different from the other Swedish dialects as it was somewhat isolated in its 700 year development. Many words which are now considered archaic in Sweden, are still commonly used in Finland. Finland Swedish also incorporates several loan words from the Finnish language which are foreign to mainland Sweden. Through Finnish there are also some minor Russian influences to be noted.
Finland Swedish: butka
Origin: from Finnish putka
Finland Swedish: byka
English: wash clothes
Origin: from archaic Swedish byk (pyykki in Finnish)
Finland Swedish: småkusin
English: second cousin
Origin: from Finnish pikkuserkku (semantic loan word)
In terms of pronunciation Finland Swedish shares many phonetic characteristics with Finnish. The spoken word is very close to the written word. My favorite example is probably the pronunciation of the SJ-sound. In Finland Swedish it is pronounced as “sh” as in the English word “shoe”. In Swedish this sound is closer to a whistle than a “normal” sound. Actually this makes Finland Swedish significantly easier to learn.
Finnish in Finland
The main language people speak here is obviously Finnish. Whenever I used to ask about language courses, I only got referrals to Finnish language courses. Fortunately Finland is truly bilingual as all street signs, menus, labels, etc. are also in Swedish. Plus, you have the right to be served in Swedish at any governmental institute. That’s how I somehow managed to avoid Finnish throughout most of my stay.
Other Languages in Finland
If I had had more time, I would have looked into some of the other languages spoken in Finland. In the eastern parts it is very common to learn or speak Russian or Karelian. In Finnish Lapland, Sami is an official language. Finnish sign language and variants of Romani are also present in the linguistic profile of the country.
People and culture
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A rare shot from our current home town, Turku. Isn't this just what you'd expect Finland to look like? 🙂 ❄ . . . . . #visitturku #finland #kissmyturku #love_turku #housefront #architectureporn #traveladdict #travelandlife #instatravel #exploretheworld #exploretocreate #archilovers #archidaily #instapassport #mytravelgram #openmyworld #passionpassport #snowscape #wintermood #winterwonderland #turku
Actually I would say that most people are very encouraging in Finland if you are trying to learn Finnish. If you are trying to learn Swedish, not so much. After all, most Finns moan about having to study Swedish in school. Maybe it would have helped had I lived in Åland, but alas, I didn’t. I had to learn it the hard way without anybody’s help.
In general, it is not easy to pick up the language here. Finns are known to be very stoic people who don’t talk much.. to anybody. So if you’re on the bus, there is no conversation to overhear. There is nobody chatting you up in the supermarket. There is just not a whole lot of talking going on in general. And what makes it even worse is that everybody speaks English and they are very keen on practicing their English. That way, if you are struggling to say something in Swedish (or Finnish) they will simply switch to English. Sure, it’s kind of them, but it prevents you from getting any practice.
How to learn Swedish in Finland
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Learning Swedish in Finland can be difficult, but it is possible. After all I’m living proof for it. But how did I do it? By committing many and many more hours to self study. I downloaded nearly every available Swedish language course book I could find on the Internet, and went through the material page by page, working with a Swedish dictionary by my side. Some online courses that teach Swedish online include SwedishPod101.com, Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone and Babbel. You can find out more about online courses here.
I also tried using apps such as Duolingo, but as I was under a bit of time pressure, I needed a more drastic approach. In addition to my self-study sessions I joined an evening class at an adult education center which was very cheap and took place once a week. Here I mostly improved on my speaking skills. Find a language school in Finland here.
Honestly, I think I would have probably been better off trying to learn the language through immersion in Sweden. There is very little information on how to learn Swedish in Finland as an adult. In addition to the adult education centers, you can consider intensive courses at the universities (almost all of them offer some). The only online material I found on a Finnish website was Kotisuomessa. I think it gives a nice overview for beginners.
Mihir is one half of the travelling duo at nomadepicureans.com. Mihir and Jacky are expat and travel bloggers based in Copenhagen/Denmark. Their passions are history, culture, and cuisines. They enjoy travelling off the beaten track and cultural immersion.
Have you been to Finland and tried learning Swedish or Finnish? Tell me about your experience in the comments!~