I had just bought the most beautiful engagement ring in Redding, California. I was back in my hometown in northern Sweden. I knew without a doubt that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this lovely young lady.

The only thing was, she grew up speaking a completely different language than me: Finnish.

The major challenge facing me

Finnish is a language infamous for having one of the most complicated grammar systems in the world. To give you a taste:

  • 15 grammatical cases
  • Words becoming unrecognizable through the changing of different letters when words are conjugated
  • Very little shared vocabulary with other languages
  • Words that are so long that it makes people without dyslexia feel like they have it

None of that mattered though. I was determined to learn it.

The Finnish language was going to be part of my life for the rest of my life. I wanted to be able to speak with my future wife’s family members in their language, not English (for some of her family members, Finnish was the only option).

My crazy idea

Then I got a bit of a crazy idea:

“What if I could learn Finnish without studying any grammar?”

Would that even be possible?

It honestly wasn’t a super thought-out decision. It was more of a fun and light-hearted challenge for myself: “Let’s see how far I can get without opening up a grammar book!”

The approach I settled on

With that as a foundation, I just got started. Taking a different approach than the majority of Finnish learners, who learn the grammar rules first. That just seemed so backwards to me. It felt like getting answers to questions I hadn’t even asked yet.

This approach of not studying grammar worked so well that I just stuck to it. Now, more than 5 years later, I still haven’t opened up a grammar book (well… actually, I did, once. But I quickly closed it.)

What started as a fun challenge has now become part of our language learning philosophy at Lingtuitive (the language website and blog that I’m the founder of).

That doesn’t mean you can’t study grammar if you want to. You might be someone who just loves knowing the intricacies of how a language functions on an intellectual level. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, what the school-approach to language learning has taught us is that you have to study grammar to learn a language.

For those of you who are like me, and not big on the studying part of language learning, there’s another option. A highly effective one. It involves getting an intuitive sense of a language and its sentence structures.

My results

Exactly a year after I had bought the ring (the exact same date as a matter of fact) I was holding a 5-minute speech, entirely in Finnish, at our wedding in honor of my beautiful bride.

That was more than 4 years ago. Today I consider myself quite fluent in Finnish (I say “quite” because I’m still learning and improving, even though I can function well in any situation using the language).

So, how do you learn a language without studying grammar?

How do you learn to use a language like Finnish, and be grammatically correct, without actually studying grammar?

Here are 6 tips tips that I think you might find helpful:

Learn everything in context

When learning a language with complicated grammar like Finnish, it’s important to learn everything in context. Using vocabulary apps that focus on isolated words do very little to help—the words in Finnish change in countless ways depending on how they interact with each other in a sentence.

That’s why I put an emphasis on learning whole sentences right from the beginning. By doing this, I right away learned to process the language as whole chunks of several words. After all, people don’t speak in isolated words, but in sentences and phrases. That’s why I like resources like Glossika, where you internalize the language structures by drilling practical sentences.

Make listening the #1 priority

The #1 skill to focus on when learning a language is, without a doubt, listening (unless you’re only interested in reading and writing the language). Because outside of developing comprehension, listening skills spill over to several other areas, such as good pronunciation and speaking fluency.

At some point, you do need to practice speaking to get good at it… but, in my experience, 95% of speaking ability comes from listening.

With Finnish, it becomes especially important to listen a lot since the spoken language (“puhekieli” - “speech language”) is very different from the written one (“kirjakieli” - “book language”). Words are shortened and even conjugated differently in its spoken version (natives even consistently break grammar rules to the point where certain mistakes have just become accepted parts of the language).

When you make listening a priority you start programming yourself to process the language the same way native speakers do. This will make you hear the language like they do. Which will make you sound more and more like them.

Reading is the “secret sauce”

While listening has a very abstract quality to it, reading is very concrete.

Reading books helps you naturally absorb the grammar of the language because you’re learning everything in context. You can also take your time with what you’re reading (unlike when you’re listening), so you can re-read sentences as many times as you need. This helps you spot different patterns in the language.

What makes reading such a powerful language learning tool is that you’re being exposed to a wider range of vocabulary than what is typically used in spoken language. The more words you know the more it frees up your brain capacity to notice other things... Such as case endings and grammatical structures! By being exposed to these structures in high volume through reading, they start to feel more and more “normal” to you.

Reading has been a huge part of my Finnish learning since early on. It’s been the “secret sauce” to my learning success, if you will. I’ve read all sorts of fun, interesting and educational books in as diverse of genres as personal development, fantasy, crime novels, autobiographies, and even books on how to organize your home.

It makes you forget you’re even learning a language when you’re just immersing yourself in what you love! Pick a book that piques your interest and start acquiring new words and grammar naturally.

Input is enough

When learning a language through input, you might find yourself asking if input alone is really enough. Well, when it comes to speaking well, at some point you do need to speak! But as far as learning grammar goes, you’ll be amazed at how naturally you will be able to pick it up simply by getting enough input. As long as you pay attention and notice how things are conjugated.

We’ve been so conditioned to think that it’s the study part that’s important when learning a language. However, study will only take you so far. Simply getting tons of input (listening and reading) will enable your brain to intuitively work out a lot of the grammar, all by itself.

Have you ever asked a native speaker a question about a particular grammar rule? Or asked: “why do you say it like that?” only to get the answer: “I don’t know, it just feels right”. They are not even aware of the rules and why it’s correct! They just have an intuitive sense of it.

This inner sense of “what is correct” in the language comes from hearing it the right way so many times. With enough input, you’ll develop this same intuition that natives have.

Pay more attention to what the other person is saying

When having conversations with native speakers, it’s easy to be more focused on what you’re trying to say. This is understandable. It takes a lot of mental strain and focus to try to speak a language you’re not yet comfortable with.

However, it’s 90% through what the other person is saying that you’re going to improve your language skills. When you’re having a conversation with someone, make it a habit to try to pay attention to what the other person is saying. And more importantly, how they are saying it.

By doing this, you’ll slowly grow to have a sense of how to speak the language naturally (you’re getting this information directly from a native speaker, after all). This lets you hear the “correct” grammar in action, through the way natives say things and the expressions they use.

Grammar is also not just about conjugating words correctly, but about using a word order that sounds natural. Paying attention to how natives speak will program this word order into your mind (which will eventually make it come out in your own speaking), along with other important qualities that will make you sound even more native, such as intonation, rhythm, which syllables to emphasize, etc.

As a bonus, you’ll become a better listener in general (which is a valuable life skill to have in and of itself).

Don’t worry about making mistakes

When learning a language with complicated grammar like Finnish, natives are very aware that it’s a challenging language for foreigners to learn (to the point where they don’t expect foreigners to even be able to learn it. If you do, you’ll be one of the few ones, and they will be very impressed!)

People will still understand you (the majority of the time), even if you say things wrong or use the wrong case ending. They will just appreciate the effort that you’re taking to learn their language. Besides… when you make a mistake that will make someone not understand you, it usually turns into a valuable learning opportunity!

If you take this more “intuitive” approach to learning, what you’ll reap is an intuitive command of the language. You’ll be able to use the grammar correctly without even knowing why. It just feels right! This doesn’t happen overnight, of course, but it gets progressively better and better if you stick to it.

If you’d like to know more about what resources to use for this type of approach to learning Finnish, then check out my blog post: 7 Best Apps and Courses for Learning Finnish [without having to study grammar] (spoiler: Glossika is one of them).

Christian can be reached via his personal language blog Lingtuitive

Studying Finnish?

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  2. Listening Comprehension Problems: Why You (Still) Can't Understand Your Target Language
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