Finnish is Easy (Intro)

Whenever I tell people that I’ve been learning Finnish, one of the first things out of their mouths is usually some version of how Finnish is such a hard language, and how it’s impressive that I’ve gotten to such and such a level in it. And while I don’t want to understate the amount of effort that goes into learning a language — any language — to a high level, every time I have this conversation I get a little bit more frustrated at the state of language education, and how it managed to turn a beautiful and largely straightforward language such as Finnish into something complicated and scary by describing it in overly technical, obfuscated terms.

Now, if you’ve been studying Finnish for a while already, and have only just now come across these posts, I recommend that you try not to think about the grammatical information that your teacher or other resources — especially textbooks and grammars meant for linguists — may have told you. That information isn’t wrong, but much of it was probably compiled by linguists and other language researchers, who have been trained to focus on the nuts and bolts of how a language works, rather than the aspects that will be most relatable to you as a new learner. Unless you are yourself a linguist or language nerd, learning this technical terminology doesn’t always do you much good when learning to speak a new language, especially one like Finnish that lends itself to that sort of analysis.

This, of course, is not to disparage linguists. I myself am a linguist, and there is a lot to be gained from the technical analysis of languages such as Finnish. However, speaking a language and studying it academically are two totally different disciplines, and practitioners of both would do well to keep this in mind, especially when making forays into the other’s field.

In this sequence of posts, I will try to explain some of the aspects of Finnish most known for being confusing to new learners in a manner that doesn’t depend on technical linguistic knowledge, and which should be relatable to speakers of English. Because I’m writing in English, I’m going to assume that all readers have a strong command of that language; if there is enough interest in the future, I might be convinced to translate this series into another language.

Finally: if you’re ever interested in studying Hungarian, 90% of what I mention here applies there as well, and the other 10% doesn’t matter because Hungarian grammar is even more logical than Finnish. But more on that some other time.

Blogging for Language Practice

I’m going to start trying to post something every day in a language that I speak relatively well, but need to maintain. These posts will be categorized under “Language Practice Blogging”.

Comments on these posts should be in the language of the post. If you yourself are a non-native speaker of one of these languages, please bear in mind that I am also not a native speaker of any of them, and thus my work may contain errors that would not be present in material written by a native.

Down with Emoji

To cut right to the chase: emoji were a bad idea, and the sooner they go away, the better.

I can totally see the appeal of emoji. There’s only so much that plain prose — especially plain prose typed on a tiny cell phone screen — can convey, and it’s nice to be able to easily send a picture now and then. But why not do just that? Is an emoji heart really that different from a stock image meant for a Valentine’s Day card?

And while it’s true that whole pictures take up more space than four-byte Unicode characters, it’s not like we don’t have ways around that. Simple images can be compressed significantly, especially if they were designed with instant messaging in mind — and people already send plenty of images as it is, so a few more bytes here and there likely wouldn’t break anyone’s bank.

All of this, though, pales in comparison to the one huge disadvantage that emoji have: every darn platform implements them differently. What shows up as a gun on one device is a water pistol on another (yes, that’s a real example), or a face with one expression may have a slightly different one elsewhere, etc. And that’s not even getting into the huge issues raised by having a single, global standard for what “qualifies” for emoji status, leading to situations where, say, people end up using images of vegetables to communicate about traditionally sexualized body parts.

At this point, unfortunately, emoji are here to stay, and there’s probably very little we can do about them in the immediate future. But in the long term, I’d recommend that the creators of new communication platforms think long and hard about whether they want to make it easy to send emoji, or whether it might be a better idea to just give users a library of simple stock images to send for the same purposes.

Upgrading to Dedicated Domain Name

A note for anyone who sees this: I recently upgraded this site to use the address, which is currently in the process of being transferred to WordPress. The original address should continue to work, but it would be worthwhile to update any bookmarks or saved links to the new domain name.

Don’t, however, actually do this until after May 15th, which is when I expect the change to actually go into effect; at the moment the new domain name doesn’t point anywhere.

Getting Salty About User Experience

So I recently had to pick out a container of Morton’s iodized salt at an American grocery store (the brand doesn’t seem particularly well represented in Europe, although I can’t say that they aren’t there at all). This was all well and good, until I saw the iodized and uniodized salts next to each other.

The iodized salt looks like this:


Image description: Morton salt cannister, with text “this salt supplies iodide, a necessary nutrient”

Whereas the uniodized salt looks like this:


Image description: Morton salt cannister, with text “this salt does not supply iodide, a necessary nutrient”

See the problem?

The containers are pretty much identical, except for the line of small text near the bottom of the cannister saying whether the salt is iodized or not. Furthermore, the most significant piece of information — the word “supplies” or the phrase “does not supply” — is embedded in the middle of a fairly long sentence, where it’s hard to see without reading at least the first few words of the label. This is likely the reason why my mother ended up with a cannister of uniodized salt in the first place.

There are a number of very simple changes that Morton could make to their salt labels to make it clearer whether the salt supplies iodide or not. One would be to change the color of the text, or of a border around it (perhaps to green for iodized salt — generally the healthier option — and red for uniodized); another would be to put a check mark next to the label on iodized salt and an X on uniodized salt. A third might be to change the background color of the cannister (or the color of the white end pieces) to something very different for uniodized salt.

Ideally, a combination of the strategies I suggest, plus any others that the marketing and/or branding folks at Morton Salt come up with, would be used, since each strategy comes with its own set of drawbacks (color-coding breaks down for colorblind people, check marks and X’s are still easy to confuse when moving quickly, etc.). I would probably go with something like the following (I unfortunately lack the photo-editing skills to attach the label mock-ups to a picture of a Morton salt cannister):


Image description: green text with checkmark and border, saying “contains iodide, a vital nutrient”, followed by red text with letter X and border, saying “lacks iodide, a vital nutrient”

It would probably also be fine to use only the “lacks iodide” version, on the variety sold without iodide, and let the iodized salt be the default.



My family still buys Morton salt, and I would still buy Morton salt if I lived in a place where it were sold. This isn’t meant as an indictment of the company, or of their product; only a breakdown of what I feel is a bad UX practice.

Language Learning Tip: Learning is Your Own Job

No matter how good your teacher is, learning a new language is something you will ultimately have to do for yourself. Nobody can simply log into your brain and install new words and grammar, and even if you diligently complete all of the assignments in a language class — even if you get a good grade — it’s still entirely possible to finish without actually improving your ability to speak that language by more than an infinitesimal fraction.

Thus, you ultimately have to be your own teacher. Pay attention to what does and doesn’t work for making new information stick, and which words you contantly have to look up over and over again. Also notice which topics you can already speak relatively fluidly about, versus those where you still have to pause and hunt for terminology or consciously construct sentences, and then concentrate your practice on the areas that you have trouble with. Simply following a teacher’s instructions as to how to practice your language is better than nothing, but more often than not, you will end up wasting a lot of effort on strategies that don’t work for you.

It’s also worth remembering that the grade or other evaluation you receive from a class may not be indicative of your actual ability. This can swing both ways, and you should be on the lookout for both possibilities (either the grade being significantly better than what your ability would warrant, or vice versa). I personally will often get good grades in upper-level language classes while still having very poor listening comprehension (especially when recordings or any sort of noise are involved), since most exams are written and even explicitly oral exams are generally given by careful speakers in idealized sonic conditions.

Even if you have had great experiences with language classes so far, it can never hurt to invest some time in studying the language on your own outside of class. You might discover something that works even better than what you’ve been doing in class, or at the very least simply get ahead.

Hungary (part 3)

I’ve now been here two and a half weeks, and I feel like I’ve started to adjust to my surroundings to a greater extent. Some of this is just increased language ability — using only Hungarian with just about everybody except for my beginning-level suitemates will do that — but I also suspect that I’ve gotten used to some of the more frustrating parts of living here, such as the taste of the water. It probably also helps that, when an extra room opened up in another suite, my roommate decided to move into it, giving me a room to myself for the rest of the program.

Also, if anyone reading this has heard my complaints about some of the infrastructure problems at the Univesity of Pécs last year, I should point out that many of them have been (mostly) solved. My dinner has only been forgotten once so far (which I will accept as a simple mistake), there have always been forks and knives with the food, and the dorm staff in general seem nicer. I wouldn’t say that everything is perfect yet, but they’ve certainly learned from the problems we had last year (and possibly other years before), and are striving to make the summer university an enjoyable and educational experience.

I have a bunch of homework to do tonight, and I really should try and sleep as well (it’s been hard the last few nights due to heat and lack of exercise), but I intend to try and explore the city a bit more tomorrow afternoon. There’s a lot to see here, and while the official excursions are fun, they only cover so much — and I will probably get more out of walking around at my own pace without having to stick with a group.

Language Learning Tip

This will be the beginning of a series, with no definite endpoint, in which I will share things that have helped me learn languages in the past. I can’t promise that everything suggested here will work for everyone — I am a very visual learner, and also a rather strange individual in a number of ways — but hopefully someone will find something useful. At any rate…

One very important part of language learning is making sure you get the material you need to learn — be it vocabulary, morphology, or anything other relevant aspect — in the format that your brain can most easily process, internalize, and recall. For me, this means that I prefer to see new words and expressions written down, since I’m much more likely to remember them that way. If learning the language in a classroom setting, it is extremely helpful if the teacher writes new material down on the board — or just provides it on a handout — so that I can get it in a visual medium without having to be stress out about remembering and trying to write down words that were said once or twice, but that I never actually saw.

In the same vein, I tend to find textbooks and learning materials that expect the student to fill in the definitions for new vocabulary based on classroom discussion rather frustrating. Most of the time, I don’t manage to write down even half of the definitions that were provided, and I end up having to use a dictionary to find them later — why couldn’t the book have just provided a mini-dictionary right there, with the information that I needed to learn the new vocabulary? While there’s definitely something to be said for having to remember and reproduce a new phrase or its definition, there are much better ways of exercising this skill that don’t risk leaving some students in the dark without ever having even seen the material they were supposed to learn (a favorite of mine is simply devoting some classroom time to defining words as a game — but that’s a topic for another post).

If you’re unsure what the most effective way to format new material for your own mind is, it’s worth trying a bunch of different language learning methodologies and keeping track of which ones work and which ones don’t. If, for instance, you’re having trouble recalling vocabulary after staring at each word and picturing the thing is refers to next to it (something that works well for me with words that have relatively concrete meanings), try saying the word and its definition aloud, or making flashcards, or anything else you, your teacher, or your friends can come up with. Eventually, something will work, and then you can switch to that.

In general, if you’re in a class and you feel that some aspect of how the class is being taught is making it harder for you to learn, you should feel free to ask the teacher to try and accommodate you (by, say, writing words on the board). It won’t always be possible, especially if there are a number of students with different learning styles in the same class, but it never hurts to ask. Also, regardless of whether your learning in a classroom setting or solo, make sure that when you’re studying on your own (and you should be doing this even if you’re in a class), you’re putting the material you’re trying to learn into the format that best suits you.

Hungary, part 2

At this point, I’ve been in Pécs for about a week and a half. Unfortunately, for four of those days I was sick enough that I didn’t feel up to doing anything besides going to class and sleeping (and I had to skip a couple of classes), so I haven’t gotten out nearly as much as I had after a similar amount of time last year. Fortuntely, this time around I have a bit more time, so it’s not the end of the world.

At any rate, although I do enjoy the lessons here, sometimes they are a little bit frustrating. The group I’m in is probably a little bit too advanced for me, but that itself is just a challenge, not a problem. The real issue is that, as a very visual learner when it comes to new vocabulary and expressions, I’m receiving most of the new material in a format that I’m not as well equipped to process — it’s hard enough when the teacher gives us a word or phrase verbally without writing it down, but when the only person to actually say the new phrase is a student on the other side of the room with a fairly quiet voice and a strong accent, I more often than not simply don’t hear it. And I’m only comfortable saying “what?” so many times during a class session, not to mention that if I take the time to write one phrase down, I will miss whatever gets said next.

This, of course, isn’t to say that I’m never guilty of mumbling in class myself, although I’m been trying very strongly to kick the habit after noticing how hard it can be for me when other students do it. Part of the problem, though, is just the fact that non-native students of a foreign language are going to have accents different from that of a native speaker, and there’s really no way around that. However, it would certainly help if our textbook actually gave definitions/explanations of new expressions (they’re generally listed, but you aren’t told which expression corresponds to which definition, since you’re supposed to try and figure that out as an exercize — which is all well and good, except that your choices are only ever verified verbally in class).

Besides all of that, though, I am learning a lot more of the language than I knew previously, so that’s good. Also, at this level, I generally only speak to my classmates in Hungarian, so we get a bit of practice outside of class as well (although roommates are not assigned according to language level, so I often have to speak English with my roommates). Now if it would just cool down a bit, that would be awesome!

Hungary, part 1

For the next four weeks, starting today (Monday), I’m going to be studying Hungarian at the University of Pécs, on a scholarship provided by the Tempus Foundation ( This is not my first time with this program — I attended last year as well, on the same sort of scholarship, and thus most of what we’re doing this year is fairly familiar: I know most of the teachers, many students have been coming for more than one year, and I can get from the dormitories to the building where we have our classes without getting lost.

There isn’t all that much to say about how the program is going at this point, since we’ve only had one day of classes (and not even a full day at that), but they seem to have fixed some of the more annoying issues from last year — for instance, we no longer have to walk far, far away from the university to eat lunch (last year lunch was served in a restaurant that was maybe a 10-minute walk from the main class building), and they’ve made it easier to choose between vegetarian and meat lunch options on a day-by-day basis, rather than having to simply elect one for the duration of the program.

I was originally placed into a class that in my opinion was far too easy, but switching to a higher-level class for a few sessions to try it out was extremely easy. Although I feel a little bit behind in the higher-level class, I will probably end up staying there if they let me, since I tend to do best at language learning when I can just jump off the deep end and start talking to people who know the language better than I do.

I unfortunately can’t promise that I’ll write about this program with any regularity, but I will try. Some future posts may be written in Hungarian, but I will include an English translation at the bottom.