Want to learn Finnish? Even if you don’t, listen to these expert learners

19 min readMay 10, 2022
Kavita Pillay at her home near Helsinki (Photo: Sauli Pillay)

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Kavita Pillay: The first time I recall hearing Finnish spoken was in 2002, when I went to see this film.

Clip in Finnish from “Man Without A Past.”

Kavita Pillay: Man Without a Past is a quirky Finnish film, to say the least. I’m not proud to admit this, but I left the theater thinking, those Norwegians are kind of weird. I learned my lesson a few years later, when I met this guy. A lanky dude from Finland named Sauli.

Sound of a man speaking Finnish.

Kavita Pillay: Listener, I married him. And I knew I was really into Sauli when I thought, I want to learn this not-very-useful language that’s famously hard for an English speaker! And which is only spoken in one tiny, cold country! Since that time, Sauli has made a few appearances on this show, sharing his thoughts for stories that focus on his fatherland and mother tongue.

Sauli Pillay (speaking in a previous Subtitle episode): Finlandia is a sort of unofficial national anthem of Finland

Kavita Pillay: But for this episode the tables have turned. He has a few questions for me.

Sauli Pillay: How about we just take some time every week and learn a little Finnish. I’ll help you. Shall we do it?

Kavita Pillay: My intentions were good when Sauli and I met; I meant it when I said I wanted to learn Finnish, but there was always an excuse: a lack of incentive to learn it while we were living in the US. Work. Life. You’ve heard it all. I thought I’d get a start once we became parents; no surprise, our daughter outpaced me when she was still a toddler. She’s six now, and she speaks Finnish like this:

Sound of Kavita’s daughter speaking Finnish.

Kavita Pillay: It helps that we moved to Finland last year. And for my part, I was sure that this would be it! I would start learning Finnish, right away! Here I am the day after we arrived in Finland.

Sound of Kavita looking up Finnish language courses.

Kavita Pillay: Once again, my intentions were so good. But I’d find a beginner’s class that worked for my schedule only to see that it was full. Or I’d sign up for a class and it would get canceled for low enrollment. Night classes weren’t an option because I often had evening meetings with US colleagues. Then there was getting through my first Finnish winter, plus Covid closures. All this on top of the fact that Finnish is just tough for an English speaker to learn. And generally speaking, Finns speak great English, especially here in Helsinki.

In fact the week after we arrived, the Mayor of Helsinki made international news for suggesting that Helsinki could declare itself an English language city.

Clip from The World public radio show: “The mayor wants foreigners to relocate to the city for the sake of the economy. So he’s got an idea: make English an official language there.”

Kavita Pillay: You can easily get by in the Finnish capital without learning Finnish. Some people move here and never really learn it. But here I am, co-hosting a show about languages! And the people who speak them! It’s embarrassing that I haven’t really tried to learn the language of the country where I’ve chosen to live. So this episode is my personal confession. It’s a promise to do better, and a chance to hear from others who have climbed this linguistic mountain.

Kavita Pillay: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, I’m Kavita Pillay, and this is Subtitle: stories of languages and the people who speak them. Or who don’t speak them — yet!

Patrick Cox: Kavi, hello?! Are you there?

Kavita Pillay: Hey Patrick! Hold on one second, I’m listening to Michelle Obama speak Finnish.

Sound of TV show, “Waffles and Mochi.”

Patrick Cox: Uhh, she’s a woman of many talents, but I did not know that she speaks Finnish?

Kavita Pillay: Well, Finnish words are coming out of her mouth, but that’s because she’s been dubbed. This is Waffles and Mochi, it’s this American children’s show about cooking and food and Michelle Obama is in it and it’s been dubbed into Finnish so that kids here can watch it. And I just find it highly amusing to watch Michelle Obama dubbed in Finnish! By the way, they’re talking about salt, suola!

Patrick Cox: So how much of this can you understand?

Kavita Pillay: A little, I mean, it’s a children’s show, so the vocabulary is pretty easy, and I watch it with the English subtitles on, which helps. But I’m mostly watching it because it’s about all I can handle after a full day of work, and I can watch it with my daughter, we both enjoy it, and I’ve been told by people who know about these things that it’s important to find ways to enjoy learning the language.

Henna Makkonen-Craig: I would say that exposing yourself to language in every way that you enjoy and you’ll find motivating, that’s probably the most important thing.

Patrick Cox: Ah, so who’s this?

Kavita Pillay: This is Henna Makkonen-Craig. She’s one of three people who I went to for advice about my own quest to learn Finnish. And on the personal side, Henna knows what it’s like to learn a new language.

Henna Makkonen-Craig: I did English at school, Swedish and some German as well, but later on I learned a little bit of Russian. Also Estonian. I tried Spanish. I started a Japanese course, but didn’t really have time for it. Portuguese just by my own. Currently. I’m interested in learning some Greek and Ukrainian.

Patrick Cox: Wow, so many!

Kavita Pillay: Yes, and on the professional side, Henna is a Senior Language Specialist at Kotimaisten Kielten Keskus, which translates as the Institute for the Languages of Finland. It’s called Kotus for short.

Patrick Cox: So is that like the Académie française in France? Like, a body that tries to regulate the language, make sure new words aren’t all just borrowed from English and other languages?

Kavita Pillay: Not with such a heavy hand. Finns and Kotus are more open to loan words from English. But if a new word is entering the dictionary, Kotus helps ensure that it follows the grammar and spelling of the Finnish language. And the origins of Finnish date back millenia.

Henna Makkonen-Craig: In a way, we look in the past, and we look for the future.

Kavita Pillay: So that also includes everything from preserving samples of 20th century Finnish dialects to producing bilingual dictionaries for new immigrants in languages like Somali and Kurdish, to promoting democracy itself! Okay, that’s my overblown American way of putting it. But here in Finland, one way of promoting democracy is by making sure that public documents are written in a way that everyone can understand them, in clear Finnish. Like tax forms. Finnish tax forms are very clear. And my little American mind has been blown by that!

Henna Makkonen-Craig: And this is of course, it’s extremely vital for our small society; we rely upon each other so that the society works.

Kavita Pillay: For me, this gets at one of the more emotionally based reasons that I’d like to learn Finnish. It is this small society, there’s a lot to admire about this place, and learning the language feels like something I can do to show my gratitude for the privilege of living in a well functioning democracy where things work, and people are happier than anyplace else.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, I’ve heard all those stories about the happy Finns. But also there’s the stories more recently about how Finland shares a 800-mile border with Russia. Which right now has got to be nerve-wracking.

Kavita Pillay: I think my friend Betany puts it best. She’s the second person I went to for advice, and I paid her a visit at her apartment in the Ullanlinna neighborhood of Helsinki.

The back of the Russian Embassy in Helsinki is a nondescript cement block (Photo: Joe Coffland)

Betany Coffland: To my right, I am currently looking out above the back of the Russian Embassy. That’s what’s outside our window. One of our views.

Kavita Pillay: Betany Coffland and I are both Americans. We’re around the same age. We both moved to Helsinki within a few weeks of one another, and we both had the same trepidation about moving here.

Betany Coffland: My one hesitation about moving to Finland was sharing a border with Russia. I’m quite surprised that the situation has changed as quickly as it has and that my fear was founded. Currently I would say we do feel safe. I do feel safe. Part of really what’s helping in this time right now is having this routine of learning Finnish. It just means that I’m holding on to something.

Kavita Pillay: Unlike me, Betany started learning Finnish full force via online classes, and she started a year before she arrived in Finland.

Betany Coffland: (singing) Katsoa, katson, puhua, puhun, soittaa, soitan, syödä, syön, juoda, juon.

I just went through basically infinitive of each verb and then the first person how to conjugate it. So when I’m having trouble, how do you conjugate verb type one? Oh, go back to the song and then it’ll tell you, you just pair it up with that. It’s one method of learning it.

Kavita Pillay: Betany and her husband were living in California but had long dreamed of living in Europe. And lucky for her, she was able to apply for residency.

Betany Coffland: I have Finnish ancestry. My great grandparents came over to America — went over to America — in 1905, 1906. And that is my connection. I was able to get a four year residency visa based on my ancestry connection.

Kavita Pillay: Patrick, guess how many times Betany had been to Finland before she moved here?

Patrick Cox: I don’t know, I guess, like, a bunch of times.

Kavita Pillay: Zero times! She and her husband decided to move here, sight unseen. They enrolled in a Finnish immersion course, and the day after they arrived, they had their first class!

Betany Coffland: We’re in this major culture shock and we’re still just jet-lagged, actually. But we knew that from nine to noon, we were going to Finnish class four days a week, and it was really great to have that something again, it was a routine. It was something to hold on to in the middle of chaos.

Kavita Pillay: And she’s stuck to it. Class after class, in person and online, in groups and one-on-one, with books and apps and video chat. Betany takes a class six to seven days a week.

Patrick Cox: Wow, that is hardcore!

Betany Coffland: It’s not easy work. It’s a practice. It’s routine. The improvement is very slow. Also there’s something reassuring in coming back to it again and again and then seeing progress really in months and years. It’s what it takes. So it’s it’s just it’s building a practice and an art. It’s an art, learning a language, it really is.

(Singing) Kaksi oikealle, ja kaksi vasemmalle.

Patrick Cox: She has a really lovely voice.

Kavita Pillay: Oh yes, she does! Betany is a Juilliard-trained mezzo-soprano and a professional opera singer!

Betany Coffland (Photo: Vero Kherian)

Patrick Cox: No wonder!

Betany sings opera arias in various languages.

Patrick Cox: I think I heard French and definitely some English in there, what else was there?

Kavita Pillay: Yup. There was a bit of Betany singing in Russian and Italian, but she’s also sung in Hebrew, Czech, and Spanish.

Betany Coffland: I can sing in a lot of different languages. Of course, I translate and understand what it is I’m singing because it’s my job to be able to convey what it is I’m saying and how I’m feeling this character.

Patrick Cox: It sounds pretty glamorous

Kavita Pillay: It is glamorous! And I wondered: how does the glamor of life as a professional opera singer compare to the rigor of learning Finnish? Betany says they’re not so different.

Betany Coffland: The mundaneness of having to learn those sounds and literally how to teach the technique of my tongue to make a French e and to be able to sing (Betany sings a French ‘E’), and hold that and be able to emote at the same time and pay attention to stage directions and pay attention to, Oh, I’m supposed to face this way to the audience. Oh, that’s right, and I’m supposed to be singing about, I’m mad at somebody right now at the same time. It’s all this, these pieces that come together. And so I feel like there is a lot of that beginning hard work and putting in the time again and again and again and redo, redo, redo, practice, practice, practice. They’re very similar to me. And apparently, I like the work

Kavita Pillay: So Patrick, here’s something that’s true of many languages, but one of the challenges of learning Finnish is that you have to learn two versions of the language at once. There’s puhekieli, which means ‘spoken Finnish’. Then there’s kirjakieli, or ‘book Finnish’.

Betany Coffland: The day I found out that they don’t speak this way, instead, they use puhekieli, I cried. Many tears. You know, I thought, Well, why? Why am I even doing this? Why are they teaching it this way to us? I think I was about six months in when I had really understood that, and it’s already intimidating. And then to have that, you mean I have to learn a second language, a second difficult language on top of this? Yeah, that was difficult. If it wasn’t difficult, I would probably be bored and move on to something that did challenge me. But I also cried a lot in my career of singing, and yet I’ve stuck with it and continued to do it there. Maybe the fact that it even takes me to those emotions that it it it’s interesting where it’s like, Oh wow, this gets a rise out of me. Let’s explore this. Why? Why? Why is that creating this emotion in me?

Kavita Pillay: Betany is my first real friend here, and her incredibly disciplined approach to learning this language that neither of us may ever become fluent in, that’s just one of the ways she’s an inspiration to me. I’m also inspired by how much fun she’s having with it.

Betany Coffland: Being a professional singer, there’s a lot of pressure to be perfect in performance. And learning a new thing, it’s you can’t be perfect — like, that pressure’s gone. So for me, in my mind, it’s just like it’s fun and I’m quite shocked at how much fun I’m actually having.

Kavita Pillay: So I wanted to know what advice she’d give someone like me. She says, just get started.

Betany Coffland: For me, what has worked has been the accountability. I had a lesson once a week, and she helped with the organization: “Okay, this is how we’re going to start learning it, with a level that you need.” And then I began to add more hours. My advice for you would be find a teacher and just start once a week. I think it will make you crave more.

Patrick Cox: Ah, yes, find a teacher. That’s easier said than done. Did she have recommendations on how you would find a one-on-one teacher?

Kavita Pillay: She’s got a list of teachers on a language learning website for me to try, so I’m going to start there. And there are other groups of people coming here from many parts of the world.

Another woman’s linguistic adventures in Finland. That’s after the break.

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Kavita Pillay: Patrick, are you familiar with this thing that people in certain northern countries do where they suck air in while they speak?

Patrick Cox: Yeah, kind of. Although because I don’t do I’m not that familiar with it. But I do know that in Scotland they do it. What do they call it? The Gaelic gasp?

Kavita Pillay: Gasp is a good way to describe it. A lot of Finns do it, so I’ve been asking Finnish speakers about it.

Sara Al Husaini: Ah! (laugh) This is so hard to explain but for a long time, I didn’t even realize that we did this.

Kavita Pillay:This is Sara. She studies philology at the University of Helsinki.

Patrick Cox: Philology. That’s like studying how languages have evolved over time, right?

Kavita Pillay: Yes, and I wondered whether there was any meaning to this Finnish way of saying, “yes, yes”, but going (sucking in air) “jo, jo, jo”

Sara Al Husaini: Kind of like, “jo jo jo jo,” we can just repeat ourselves.

Kavita Pillay: It’s such a habit, and Sara’s been speaking this language basically since she could speak, so she does it without thinking about it.

Sara Al Husaini: We’re just agreeing so fast that we’re just like taking a breath while we’re agreeing. So, yeah.

Patrick Cox: It’s a fun reminder that speaking a language is about more than just words.

Kavita Pillay: Right, there are these seemingly small things that you can’t necessarily explain that reflect how attuned you are not just to the language but to what it means to be a Finnish speaker and to be Finnish. And when Sara talks about being a Finnish speaker, she says, “We do this, we’re taking a breath while inhaling.” But when she talks about being Finnish, that’s where it gets more complex.

Sara Al Husaini: I see myself as Finnish, but I know that others won’t necessarily see me as Finnish and people will remind me that I’m not Finnish. And sometimes people say to me, “You’re you’re like Finnish citizen, but you’re not Finnish.” And they would go on this like explanation why I am not. So I feel like sometimes out of easyness, I don’t want to say I’m Finnish because of the fact that it opens room for people to come and deny my Finnishness.

Patrick Cox: Why would her Finnishness be in question?

Kavita Pillay: Sara wasn’t born in Finland, she came here as a refugee. And she was Finland’s 2021 female refugee of the year. She’s grown up here, she’s fluent in Finnish, she feels Finnish, but some Finns aren’t willing to accept her Finnishness.

Sara Al Husaini: There’s actually forums about me if I’m Finnish or not, and then there’s like people commenting, and that, but she’s not Finnish though. And you know, my Finnishness is in question.

Sara speaking Finnish.

Kavita Pillay: Here’s Sara on Finnish public television. She’s saying she’s grateful for the opportunity, and that she feels a bit of pressure to represent a vulnerable community well. Sara’s full name is Sara Al Husaini and her family is from Iraq.

Sara Al Husaini

Sara Al Husaini: My father was quite vocal about being against the regime at the time. They didn’t take that well. He was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, and then he was released. After he was released, he just continued on.

Patrick Cox: Meaning that he just continued criticizing the regime — Saddam Hussein’s regime — despite the fact that he’d been thrown into Abu Ghraib prison. And that didn’t stop him?

Kavita Pillay: No, and it got pretty bad for their whole family.

Sara Al Husaini: He was expressing his discontent with the regime very vocally in a very poetic sense, which could grab attention, and that was the thing that they feared. And then it reached a level where they, our lives were at stake.

Kavita Pillay: Sara and her family arrived in Finland when she was just a month old. And as Sara and her siblings got older, one of the many challenges of being refugees here was one that many children of refugees and of immigrants can relate to. They became interpreters between their parents and the Finnish-speaking adults in their lives.

Sara Al Husaini: It’s very hard to use every term or like translate every term into Arabic because you’re still learning Arabic, and you’re still learning Finnish. So it was kind of like a moment where you kind of have to realize you have to grow up in that moment. I’m glad that there’s more discussion about using kids as translators because they shouldn’t be taking that role. Children are children, and refugee and immigrant children should be viewed as children and not and not used as translators.

I grew up hearing Arabic. And then when I went outside, I heard Finnish. And you know, at school we spoke Finnish and later on, like actually quite early on, we used to watch a lot of TV, and English entered our household and we were watching like old cartoons and movies and and you know, most of it was American TV shows and such. So through that, we kind of ended up learning English quite fast, actually.

I want to help people. I want to utilize my language skills, I want to help people. I’m actually starting a new job soon. This job is about helping immigrant women and people who come from different backgrounds, navigate Finland and like, maybe apply for schools and and apply for language courses. So I feel like this is my, or I feel very comfortable with this and this line of work because I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Like, it comes naturally for me.

Kavita Pillay: Sara and I are of different generations. We have very different life experiences. We arrived in this country in very different ways. But I sensed that she would understand this one hesitation I have about trying to learn Finnish, which I haven’t shared with a ton of people, but I’ve thought about it a lot.

Kavita Pillay: I feel this as a visibly brown person in Finland. I sometimes do this mental calculation where I think Do I just want to speak English and sound like a competent foreigner, a competent outsider? Or do I want to stumble in Finnish and be like a vulnerable brown immigrant. Like, what do I have energy for today? And quite often I don’t have the energy to be a vulnerable brown immigrant. And I also feel like because…

Sara Al Husaini: It’s exhausting.

Kavita Pillay: It’s exhausting!

Kavita Pillay: I just want to be clear that I have a lot of privileges here. I have an American passport, I’m married to a Finnish citizen, and I absolutely came here of my own choice. But I know that learning this language is going to require me to get vulnerable, and uncomfortable, and make lots of mistakes, in public, with strangers. And Sara gets it.

Sara Al Husaini: You’re, like, trying to prove yourself all the time that yes, I am capable. Yes, I am good enough. Yes, I am here. Watch me. Pick me. Choose me. Please give me the same opportunity you would give someone else. So then you reach the point where you’re like, Do I have the energy to do this? There comes times when you’re like, you need to kind of calculate, can I, do I feel like putting myself through this? If you are brown or Black and you’re struggling to communicate in the new language that you’re desperately trying to pick up, then then people might just think that you don’t know and they don’t see the complexity behind you as a person.

Kavita Pillay: I love that Sara is a student of philology and the history of language, because she’s also ready to break the rules and free herself of this pressure to be perfect when it comes to language. Like when somebody finger-wags at her for a spelling mistake on social media? She’s not here for it.

Sara Al Husaini: I feel like especially with refugees and immigrants, you’re expected to be perfect. And that correlates in the way we use language, we expect immigrants to write perfectly. When I’m writing on social media and someone writes me, “You wrote or spelled this wrong?” Yeah. Well, what are you going to do? Grade me badly? Like, what are you going to do? So I try to break that because I feel like it’s there’s so many social constructions already, so if I can bend and break something differently in language than I will try my best to do so.

Patrick Cox: So Kavi, after hearing from Sara, and from Betany, are you more or less determined to learn Finnish?

Kavita Pillay: I don’t know if I’m more determined, but I think I feel more free. You know, in very different ways, these are two women who have felt intense pressure to be perfect, and they’ve both done amazing work in the public eye — the very critical public eye. And what I hear them saying — to themselves, and to me, and to everyone — is that you can free yourself from that pressure.

I do think I have to try and learn this language for myself. But I also want my daughter to see that you can take on a big, hard challenge in the middle of your life’s journey, and you can do it with joy. And I’m grateful that there are others here like Betany and Sara to pave the way, for me and for my daughter. We stand on their shoulders.

Kavita and her daughter reading a Finnish children’s book.

Patrick Cox: That’s it for this time. Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our newsletter and social media.

Thanks to Leena Evesti at the University of Helsinki and Marjukka Koskenkorva at the Finnish Refugee Council. Also to Alyson Reed and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America.

Subtitle is a proud member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. Another Hub & Spoke show is Soonish, from technology journalist Wade Roush. His miniseries, “The Persistent Innovators,” gets under the hood of big companies like Apple, Disney, LEGO, and Novartis that have managed to keep churning out hit products, long past the age when most companies stop innovating.

Thanks for listening — and thanks to everyone who’s rated and reviewed Subtitle. If you haven’t done so yet, please leave us a review wherever you listen. Thanks! We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod