How to learn any (human) language – The story of how I learnt Finnish.

I speak Arabic, English and Finnish fluently. Currently learning Swedish and afterwards aiming to learn Spanish and French.

This is post is about the process I follow when learning a new language. You can find at the bottom of this post my go to tools that help me with this process 👇 – don’t worry its all online and free.

Let’s get something out of the way, a common wrong conception is that there are people who are “good” with languages and those who are “bad“. 🤔

Through personal experiences I believe language learning, like a lot of other things in life, has little to do with the abilities you are born with and more about your mindset and finding the correct method that works for you.

I really think it is more about the method you follow, that you can fully control and less about your biological and neurological abilities that you are born with which obviously you can’t control.

Learning new languages is a learnable skill. 💪

Now that we are on the same page, time to share with you my method and my story.

The method summary

In a nutshell, my personal technique in learning languages:

  1. Create flash cards of the most frequent 200-400 words to build your vocabulary. 💥
  2. Study some grammar for awareness (AFTER you have big enough vocabulary). 🦄
  3. Speak with a native speaker once a week. 🗣
  4. Create more flash cards of frequent words 600-2000 words more. 🔥🔥
  5. Start a regular hobby/activity in the language. 🤺
  6. Read a book you already know in the language you would like to learn 📖

The full story

When I moved to Finland I was motivated to learn Finnish but was intimidated by how everyone said it is an extremely difficult language. It was true that Finnish language doesn’t really work in anyway similar to any other language I knew before. Nevertheless, I still I wanted to give it a try. 🙄

I went to school and attended regular traditional language courses. But they didn’t really work for me. I thought that particular course was not good so maybe I should look for another course and I did. But that also didn’t work. To me, it felt like most of these courses are created by linguists for linguists but really for me. 😁

Then after few more failing attempts, I was introduced to a book by a friend and that changed everything. The book was called Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. 👌

The idea of the book is that instead of teaching you a specific language, it teaches how to approach any language. It also gets into the science behind how our brain and memory work and why it is typically challenging for us to remember foreign words.

So I ended up following the recommended method of the book and created flash cards to build my vocabulary. that leads us to….

The philosophy of flashcards

The powerful idea behind flashcards is that you are able to get lots of information (words) from the short term memory to the long term memory easily. The process is achieved using deliberate practise and repetition.

My personal favourite tool to create flashcards is Anki . There are also many other apps. These flashcard apps are extremely helpful as they serve a very important purpose. They allow us to easily repeat the words with a varying time interval depending on how well we know the word.

So what does that mean you ask? Let’s say now you have created your first cards deck and you are reviewing the first word, typically the software will ask you how well you remembered the answer. Depending on your answer it will decide when to show you the card again. If you couldn’t remember the word at all it will show it to you in few minutes. If you had hard time remembering maybe in few days and if it was an easy one maybe in a week. There are different variables here but the basic idea is that these applications help you do the necessary repetitions to remember the word.

Using flashcards also allows us to take advantage of our visual memory. Turns out that our visual memory is very helpful when it come to memorising things. If you see a picture and associate it with a word, you are more likely to remember what was that word. That is even more effective if the picture is something you personally recognise. For example to learn the word “talo” in Finnish which means “house“, you can create a card that has the picture of your own house on the visible side and the word in the back.

An example of a card in Anki with its answer in the bottom and waiting for my feedback on how easy was it to remember the word in the very bottom:

You can use flashcards to memorise pretty much anything, try it and you will be really impressed.

The three milestones for language learning

So how what should you aim for or what are the typical milestones that you can expect. On a high level there are roughly three major milestones in your journey of learning a new language.

Milestone #1 – You are at the store and you ask somebody where can I find the milk. In this stage you can communicate in a controlled environment where you expect the topic and the answer. 😌

Milestone #2 – You are at the store and somebody comes and asks you where is the milk and you answer. In this stage you can communicate in less controlled environment where you do not necessarily expect the topic but manage to answer. 😎

Milestone #3 – You can sell the milk in the language you are learning. I guess no need to explain that one! 😁

A linguist once told me these three milestones for language learning and I really find it a good way to think about it.

Now lets go through the different things you can do to be able to sell that milk! 😅

Step 1 – Flash cards for the most frequent 200-400 words. 💥

A smart way to build your vocabulary is to start with the most frequent words in the language. This way you will get the highest return on investment (your time). 💰

Where to get the images from you ask? Google images is an amazing tool for that. 💯

An important aspect is pronunciation. Aim to learn every word’s pronunciation correct the first time. It takes double the effort to correct a wrong pronunciation later on (trust me on that one). So for that we will add the pronunciation of the each word on the back of the card (together with the word). Forvoo is a great tool to find pronunciation for pretty much any word.

Pro tip: Try to always search for the word in its native form instead of its translation, for example writing “talo” instead of “house”. This will give you a better impression of what a Finnish “talo” looks like and therefore better cultural exposure.

Pro tip 2: I noticed that already existing card decks didn’t work for me as well since they do not have the same personal connection I would have with card decks I created myself. So I would recommend creating the card decks yourself. It can be a bit time consuming but I promise you its worth it, I dedicated 2-3 times a week (half an hour each time) for creating new cards.

Pro tip 3: If the language you are learning has genders for the words, include the gender in the card. For example in french you would create a card with the word “la mer” instead of “mer“

Step 2 – Study some grammar for awareness 😇

The idea here is not to memorise every possible form of different words. At least for me with Finnish that was a little bit challenging since there is around 30 forms of every single word.

Instead what you could do is to create awareness in your mind for all the different forms. Later on while you are practising, you will start to recognise these forms and remember what they mean.

Depending on what type of learner you are here are some suggestions:

  • You could go to a short language course, most of these courses focus on grammar.
  • Buy a grammar book and read it.

Step 3 – Create more flash cards 600-2000 words/phrases. 🔥🔥

Go to step 1 and repeat the same process but with more words and now try to add more phrases. To be considered fluent in a language you actually do not need that much words when you think about it. For instance..

To be considered fluent in Spanish you need around 2000 words.

If we do the math here, let’s say you study 10 words a day that would take you around 200 days to be fluent. 👑

Step 4 – Speak with a native speaker once a week 🗣

Language learning has to be fun otherwise you will lose the motivation to continue. 😏

In this stage, you will have a more controlled environment and the right expectation that you are not fluent in the language (yet). However, you will get exposure to speak and be social in the language you would like to learn.

I recommend scheduling this weekly at least once. Do not try schedule it on a week by week basis but instead schedule a reoccurring time. This way you guarantee that you will be practising regularly.

Step 5 – Start a regular hobby/activity in the language 🤺

Find a hobby or an activity that you like that is in the language you would like to learn. This is going to be less controlled environment but you will learn ALOT.

For me, I had this funny problem…. It was quite challenging to practise Finnish even though I lived in Finland. Since most Finns speak English very well, a typical interaction would be that I try to communicate in Finnish and the local recognise that I am struggling and immediately switch to English.

A way around this was for me to find a hobby that I found fun and conducted in Finnish. So I started practising Martial Arts (Bjj). It was important for me that it is not a team sport so I do not have the pressure of failing the team if I don’t understand something. As a bonus if I don’t understand something, I would get beaten up so I end up learning the harder way. 🤕

Step 6 – Read a book that you already know in the language📖

The idea is that you already know the story of the book and its content. This way you will be able to learn more vocabulary and it will be fun. This step will introduce you to more written words which will be very helpful for you to read more advanced texts in the language.

High level principles

  • Immerse yourself in the language. 🌊
  • Deliberate practise, do it every day. 💪
  • Think about your motivation, why would you like to learn that language. 🤔
  • Language learning is a learnable skill and not a natural talent. 🏅

The order of these steps aren’t in any way strict of course and you can start multiple steps in parallel, what is important is to follow the mentioned high level principles.

Resources List