Myth 3: Kids Can Learn New Languages Well – Adults Can’t

Learning Finnish well is a long journey – so the quicker you cut the excuses and get down to it, the better. Your brain still has that miraculous capacity to absorb a whole new language, even if the way that adults learn language is somewhat different to children.
Photo: Kalle Kataila. All rights reserved.

‘Oh, alright alright’, you say, ‘so maybe Finnish isn’t THAT hard, and maybe all those Finnish workmates of mine AREN’T just English natives clothed in slightly-less-expressive Finnish bodies – and who have this funny secret language they like speaking with one another.’

‘But, well, you know, maybe I’m just a bit too old for the classroom bench. I mean, my kids are sucking up Finnish like fizzy pop – but for me, the words just don’t seem to stick.’

It can indeed feel daunting to learn a whole new language at the grand old age of twenty, thirty, or forty plus. Thankfully, though, your brain is in fact up to the task, and the weight of decades of scientific research is on your side. You will most likely always have a foreign accent, as adult learners are not so able as children to absorb the new sounds of foreign languages. But so what? Wear your accent with pride, as part of your multilingual identity!

It is also true that adults generally learn languages in different ways than children, taking a more analytical and systematic approach. You will therefore probably benefit from some kind of regular language lessons where you get to explore how the language fits together. Many Finnish companies in fact offer international employees free Finnish lessons at their workplace during work time. Don’t miss that great offer if it’s there for the taking! And if it isn’t, ask for it.

Just as important as those regular lessons, though, is NOT leaving Finnish just to those regular lessons. You see, in addition to any brain advantages they may have, there are two big reasons why your kids are sucking up Finnish like a sponge. Firstly, they are swimming around in it every day at school or daycare. Secondly, they most likely HAVE TO use Finnish, because they can’t just switch to English and be easily understood by everyone around them.

‘Well, good for them,’ you may reply, ‘but I’ve got my work to do, and I have to use English to get that done’. Yes, that’s true – except there are probably plenty of situations here and there where you could be using the Finnish you already know, like when greeting colleagues in the morning or when chatting together before a work meeting starts. But perhaps it would feel a little… well… awkward?

And there is the crunch: to learn a language well, you need to be willing to use it in real life, make mistakes, and then learn from them – just like the funny language mistakes that kids make. And when you learn that word or phrase you need right there, when trying to explain something to a workmate or buy something in a shop, you are more likely to remember it, because you really need it for doing something important right then.

Adults can learn new languages, and many adults have learnt Finnish to a very high level – even while working full-time in English-based jobs. The sooner you start, the sooner you will get to reap the benefits of even rudimentary Finnish skills.

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