Teaching Finnish – A Proposal

This proposal offered here uses a computer. The use of a computer is not an end in itself. Our choices are not limited whether or not to use a computer. This choice is actually the wrong question. The focus is on the teaching method. The proposed method requires computer technology, but it is not for the sake of using a computer but for the sake of solving problems connected with teaching Finnish.

While this proposal refers to teaching Finnish, this same method could be used to teach any language. This proposal is written toward addressing the specific problems of teaching Finnish to immigrants (which includes the author), it could also be used to teach English to Finns here in Finland.

A general description of the method is that it doesn’t use the learner’s own language to teach the new one. It uses pictures and sound. The background of videos would be actual scenes that the student might encounter. Where the lesson involves other people, avatars (animated cartoon-like figures) that the student might choose would be superimposed on the scene. The student would also choose a pleasing voice for each of his avatars: male, female, high pitched, low pitched, etc. (This also reduces production costs because actors wouldn’t have to be hired.) The approach is to put the learner in the position of a new immigrant, for most adult learners will be new immigrants. The technicalities of the new language will not be taught until after the use of it is taught. The method is a rough imitation of the way a young child learns his native language, except that literacy is a part of the language learning experience.

Here’s what the initial lessons would look like in the study of Finnish. They do not start at the airport, because the new immigrant doesn’t spend much time at the airport and doesn’t return there frequently.

In most cultures, a nodding of the head means “yes”, and a shaking of it means “no”. The first video shows a head nodding and smiling. The word kyllä is said. Then a head shakes and frowns. The word ei is said. The words would also be displayed below the video picture. This is repeated several times. If the human teacher of the course knows before hand that the student uses other gestures for these two things, the student will have to be taught these gestures.

The lessons will be situation oriented: at home, driving, riding the different forms of public transportation, shopping, working, with friends, etc. The program will keep track of what the student has learned, how well he has learned it, what situations he has studied, etc. The situations that a student would study and the order that he´d study them would depend on the student´s own life style and priorities. Does he ride a train to get around? He will study that situation early on. Does he never ride a train? There may be no need to study it at all.

Some of the situations will be academic in nature. The assimilation of immigrants into Finnish society requires skills in other subjects such as geography, history and finance (paying bills). Some language skills can be taught while studying these subjects. More could be taught about each subject as the student’s language skills increase.

Some of the same material will be taught in several situations. If the shopping situation is studied first, he would learn expressions related to entering and leaving a store. If the situation about riding a train is studied first, he would learn expressions related to entering and leaving the railway station first. Even after a student has learned words and expressions about entering and leaving a building, he´ll have to review it in order to retain it. How often a lesson is re-presented in different contexts will depend upon how long it takes him to answer questions, which the program will determine, as well as whether he can remember the material.

The initial program screen, after kyllä and ei have been taught, will have a menu of the different situations available — in Finnish. As the student moves his mouse over the menu, a picture illustrating the situation will be displayed. If the mouse moves over the menu item Juna, a picture of a train will appear. Even the menu becomes a teaching tool. The student may select the situation he wishes to study. The program will keep track of where a student is in his studies, so that he may continue where he may have been interrupted. The contents of the study menu and the order of the items may be controlled either by a teacher (in a formal learning situation) or by the student configuring it by clicking on pictures illustrating the situation. Let´s suppose that the student is starting the shopping situation.

The first video shows the street of a Finnish town as seen from the passenger window of a car. The car is moving slowly. The stores shown should be businesses that one is likely to see while driving down a street. As the car comes opposite a store, an arrow (or hand with pointing finger) points to it. Under the picture appears kauppa and a voice says the word.

Then the individual letters appear one at a time and the student hears the name of each letter. (If a language that has several sounds for one letter is being taught, this fact would be highlighted at this point in the lesson.) The student may repeat this as often as he wishes in a given video presentation. As with words and phrases, this spelling feature will not appear once the program determines that the student has mastered it. (In a formal teaching environment, the human teacher would hear a student’s pronunciation of letters and words and tell the program that a given student has mastered it. Where there is no human teacher involved, the student would indicate that he didn’t need that feature any longer.)

The video takes the student to the next building. If it’s a store, the previous scene is repeated. The idea is to associate the image of a store with the word kauppa. When the video scene passes a bank, barber, or other non-store the audio message and text should be ei kauppa. We’ll concentrate only on stores, ignoring the others. After doing this for a while, a “test” will show a store and, the question Mikä? will appear. The student doesn’t know the word mikä. He knows only one word. In the edit box, he would enter kauppa. The response would be a cheer, if correct, or a groan, if incorrect. The wrong answer would cause the correct answer to be presented and the lesson to be repeated. The right answer would continue the lesson to show a non-store business building and the question Mikä? The correct answer would be ei kauppa.

At this point, the student knows kauppa. The video part might be repeated, but this time, the word might be ruokakauppa. The video should be showing a grocery store one is likely to see in Finland. Another store could be visually identified as a hardware store. It’s rautakauppa. The verification of learning could be handled as outlined above. The idea is to teach new things based upon what is already known.

A video scans some stores and stops outside a ruokakauppa. An avatar in the video addresses the student and says, Menen ruokakauppaan, then turns and walks into the store. The avatar might come back out and gesture that the student accompany him. This time, the avatar says Mennään ruokakauppaan. The avatar and camera taking the video both go into the store. Each time, the sentence is displayed as text as it is pronounced.

Once in the store, containers showing products with their names can be displayed. The idea here is to give the student the idea that he can learn the names of foods by looking at grocery labels. The lesson can go a bit further by first showing a bag of porkkanoita, then having one of them removed and featured as porkkana. These food items might be associated with a word that is repeated, but not (at this time) taught. Ostetaan porkkanoita is said as carrots are put into our shopping cart. There might be a link to a dictionary that shows the words that are used in the lessons (as opposed to one that just show the basic form of words, so that a student could find out what ostetaan means without having to first learn the basic form ostaa).

Another situation has the video going down a dirt road in the country. A sign identifying the road is shown. The tie is focused upon, pronounced and spelled. The video may use superimposed sketches where a bunch of houses are “built” on this road, but the name remains the same, tie. A city street with businesses on it (from our “store” video) may show a sign with katu on it. The idea is not to try to define exactly what differentiates a tie from a katu, but to show that both are used. The lesson does demonstrate that a tie may have been a country road at one time, if it is not now. The author of this proposal is an immigrant who’s been in Finland for a year and a half. I understand that there are roads that are something other than tie and katu, but I’ve not seen any, so I recommend against teaching them until perhaps much later.

One of the things I’ve seen as part of the names of stores is talo. A good lesson would be to show many different kinds of talot: rivitalo, omakotitalo, kerrostalo, and kaupungintalo to name some. In Riihimäki, we have kaupat named Kukkatalo and Tarjoustalo. First teach all these places as talo, then teach how the whole name differentiates them. But keep building from the known to the unknown.

When the number of letters whose sounds have not been learned (because words haven’t been introduced to teach them), become few, a vocabulary lesson using those letters might be presented. The program will enable the student to repeat anything he wishes to. There may be things that the student does (e.g. too many wrong answers or too long to respond) that sends an alert to the teacher (if any) that the student may be having difficulty.

This lesson plan should begin with the things that the student encounters nearly every day. The progression should go from the common to the not-so-common. The early lessons should include things like the words used by an Otto cash machine or an automated gas dispensing machine. Identifying currency and coins, counting money and making change will be taught in a purchasing situation.

This proposal embodies the vision of the author that it be web based. A primary consideration in the software´s design is that it be intuitive to use, because the lessons won´t have directions in a language the student already knows. Web pages could be written in a number of languages to orient the student toward the software’s use and to configure it. This page would, by design, be as short as possible to facilitate the translation of it into as many languages as possible.

The software will be used either with or without a teacher, for it will be available to anyone with Internet access.

A formal teaching situation will have a human teacher who has a specified list of students. The software would report progress (or the lack thereof) to the teacher who would offer intervention if the student is having difficulties or if the student is not studying. As long as the student is doing well, the teacher need give only minimal attention to the student. The teacher is, therefore, free to give time to the struggling student. The computer will facilitate identification of who these students might be. The principle here is to allow the computer to do what it can do to teach the student and to provide for the human teacher do what the machine cannot do.

One of the questions that will arise is how to pay for the development of this software. One source is sponsorship from businesses that will be featured in the situations. The immigrant students are potential if not actual, customers! I can well imagine that the management of K stores would not care to see software like this that featured only S markets. It will be more work to create the situations than it will be to write the software. Current students of multimedia production and linguistics can be used to produce the material used to teach Finnish. Some situations will be very specialized. An immigrant will be going to work in a given profession. A company that needs people in that profession might offer sponsorship of a situation that teaches words and phrases used only by that profession.

The word is out that there are too few Finnish teachers for the number of immigrants that need to be assimilated into Finnish society. This approach would increase the effectiveness of the current number of Finnish teachers by having the computer do what it is able to do and allowing the human teacher to focus on what the computer cannot do. This approach would also facilitate the teaching of certain words that the linguistics professional might not know, such as those in use by certain professions.


  • […] Here is a proposal for teaching Finnish (and other languages) that makes use of my professional background. If the idea inspires you to want to produce Finnish lessons based on it, I’d like to learn about it and have a part in the development because I want to contribute to Finnish society and I need to learn Finnish. Published in: Things Finnish | on September 12th, 2007 | […]

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