Studying Abroad in Finland? Here are Recommendations from an American

Photo credit Vivan K

A note from Greenheart Travel: Eva Levin is a high school student from Maine who studied in Finland during the Spring 2021 semester. 

Eight Things You Should Know: A Guide of Information and Recommendations for American Students Travelling to Finland 

By Eva Levin

If you’re an American student who plans on travelling to someplace in Finland, whether it be for a short or a long amount of time, you’re definitely in for some experiences with unexpected differences to life in the U.S.. (Or to your past experiences travelling the world.) These aren’t necessarily bad things, so long as you keep an open mind to the lifestyles and practices of those around you and prepare yourself for a few funny or awkward moments of cultural misunderstanding, you’re going to have a great time learning about Finland and it’s wonderful, unique culture. Below is a list I’ve made of a few key differences between American and Finnish culture, along with a few recommendations or just things to think about. Bear with me, as the list is a bit scattered between the three categories, but you’ll see once you’ve taken your time abroad that organizing all your interesting and funny memories might be a bit chaotic too. 

Eva in Finland. Courtesy of Eva Levin.

Recognizing your own familiar pop culture thousands of miles from home

Though there are many distinct films, songs, and shows that come from Finland that are popular amongst Finnish youth, nowadays, it’s very common for Finnish kids and teenagers to take an interest in American pop culture. This includes, but is not limited to, American movies, shows, and music. When I got to Finland, I immediately saw posters and advertisements for either American movies and shows, or their covers with a Finnish translation. (Note that it wasn’t just American pop culture, but also British, Australian, and some from higher populated Western European countries such as France or Germany.) As most Finnish films or songs don’t reach an international crowd, a lot of the pop culture that they enjoy comes from America or England. When I first realized this, I felt a bit of disappointment at first, as I feared it meant I wouldn’t get to absorb true Finnish culture as much as I’d hoped, however, if you ask around and talk to friends or your host family, you’ll be able to find some really great Finnish movies, shows, and music. It just depends on where you look. It was also a very strange feeling to be able to relate to people who live in a different country than me about the same films and songs that I grew up with. It was a really nice feeling a lot of the time, because it led to experiences like teaching my friends the meanings of English lyrics to songs, or talking about the slight differences in the plots of American films vs. their Finnish translations that were released in Finland.

Removing your shoes before you enter the house, and changing them at school

I’m aware from prior international experience that the practice of removing your shoes at the door before entering a house is definitely not something unique to Finnish culture. In fact, many countries around the world (for various reasons) do this before they go inside. However, I’ve found that in the U.S., it’s a lot more common, especially when you’re a guest at somebody’s house, to leave your shoes on when you go inside, and simply wipe your feet at the door so as to not get dirt on the floors. Of course, this somewhat strict rule in Finnish households may seem natural to some Americans, as I do know people in the U.S. who follow this practice almost religiously. Regardless, I believe that to some students who are used to being in too much of a hurry to take their shoes off and put them back on when running in and out of a house, this may seem strange at first. You likely won’t find yourself in trouble for forgetting to take your shoes off, however many times you will be reminded by those around you. No worries though, they recognize that where you’re from things like that might be different, it’ll just be a funny change you might have to get used to.

The English language… everywhere

Even when it’s a conversation between two Finnish people, you could hear English being spoken. Now, I’m sure if you’re interested in travelling to Finland, you might know that nordic countries generally speak very good English these days. All students are required to learn it from a young age (the age differs but it’s generally 3rd-5th grade), and so, naturally, many of them are able to speak it very well by the time they’re in high school. I’m going to go ahead and make the assumption that if you’re interested in being an exchange student you must have at least a little interest in different languages, and maybe you even know a few yourself. If this is the case, then you know how exciting it is to use a second or third language, and you probably enjoy using it whenever you get the chance to speak with a native speaker. For Finns, it’s the same way. Especially the teenagers, who, as I previously stated, have been exposed to a lot of media published in the English language. I rarely got the chance to pick up on English conversations between just Finns with no background or relation to a conversation with myself, however, if I spoke in conversation (in English) to certain friends, some of them would continue the conversation in English even after I’ve walked away. Many jokes, references, and quotes beyond the realm of Finnish origin are often made or quoted in English (sometimes even if the person saying it doesn’t know what all the words mean!). You’ll find that, as an American, Finnish students will be eager to speak to you in English about a whole ocean of topics, but a lot of people I met were better at speaking the language and forming their own sentences than understanding the language (especially when it’s being spoken quickly). Because of this, if you’re interested in helping out a friend in Finland with their English, or just having a conversation in your native language, try to speak slowly, so that the conversation flows better, and there are less questioning faces and confused responses. 

A less than satisfactory amount of Finnish language resources, even in Finland

Though I enjoyed speaking in English with my Finnish friends and helping them to grow their vocabulary, I myself was (and still am) very fascinated by the Finnish language, and I really wanted to learn it before, during, and after my trip. Unfortunately, seeing as though the Finnish language is only really spoken in Finland, it’s really hard to find resources to learn the language, especially if you’re not in Finland. Thankfully, if you’re an exchange student, you have all the resources you need living around you if you really put your mind to it. Now, I’m not saying just being in the country will teach you the language, nor am I saying that you’ll be able to achieve fluency in your trip (I certainly didn’t) However, pushing yourself to use the language as much as possible sets a really good foundation in your head for future studies of the language. I know that in the last paragraph I talked about how much fun it can be to talk in English with your friends, however, if it is truly your goal to learn the Finnish language, I’d say it’s best to force yourself to only speak Finnish (perhaps at designated times), so that you can burn as much of the language and it’s insane grammar system into your head. However, it can be overwhelming to constantly speak a second language, especially if those around you speak your language and you know it’s an available option. This doesn’t mean you’ll never learn the language, seeing as though the options for personal studies are limited, there are some very good courses and books. I’ll put a list here of the ones I think helped me to learn the most Finnish during and after my trip, and a link so you can find them.

  • Duolingo Finnish course – this is a new course, so the lessons are very limited, however, I’d recommend completing this course sometime during your time abroad, as once you know the basics of the language, this can be helpful to teach you some new vocabulary.
  • FSI Finnish course – the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) offers an incredible amount of free courses and resources for all the languages you can imagine, Finnish included. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t discover this until the end of my trip, but if you read through the book (downloadable as a PDF and printable) then you can gain a really, really useful amount of information about the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary of the Finnish language.
  • Survival Finnish for Travelers: Lumi Bear’s Basic Travel Finnish – this one is a book that I was given for my birthday about a month before my departure from my parents, and it’s full of really helpful phrases and words that you can use when you’re travelling and you don’t have a translator at hand.
  • Suomen Mestari 1 – when you get to Finland, you’ll probably have organized with your program a course with which you’ll be learning Finnish for a portion or all of your trip. The Suomen Mestari 1 book is the book which I bought for my class. The whole book is written in Finnish, as it’s made for people from any country to learn Finnish, not specifically English speakers. You’ll likely end up buying a book for the class you attend, but on the off chance that you want to buy this book anyways (assuming you don’t automatically buy the same one for your course), I’d recommend getting this after you already have obtained a basic understanding of the Finnish language with a source made for English speakers.

I must confess, of all four sources listed above, I’ve only completely finished the work in the Duolingo course. However, I’ve completed or reviewed a lot of the work in the other sources, and I can see at this point that they really helped with my growth in the Finnish language. 

The ultra-hot saunas, and feeling like a chump in them compared to the Finns

Okay, if you’ve been in an American sauna before, you’ve probably noticed that they’re really hot, but at least tolerable (hopefully). At least, in my experience that’s about how I’d describe them. However, if you end up going to a Finnish sauna during your trip (which you definity will, they’re unavoidable), I recommend you prepare yourself for a level of heat that is unmatched by saunas outside of Finland. There’s a reason why they’re known all around the world for their saunas and how they use them, and that is because they will not stop throwing water on the rocks, even if to you it feels like you’re sitting in an oven. My first time going in my host family’s sauna, it got so hot that when they told me we were going to jump into a hole in the frozen over lake, I didn’t have to debate it in my head, I got in the water as soon as I could. You’ll likely hear a few jokes by your Finnish colleagues who have travelled to America about how ‘cold’ our saunas are, but don’t worry, because the more trips you take to the sauna in Finland, alone or in a group, the stronger resistance you’ll build up to the heat. In fact, if you go enough, by the end of your trip you may be able to make it through a whole sauna session with some Finnish peers without flinching when they add more steam.

Tipping- don’t do it

This one you may have heard before, either about Finland or about another country. This is another thing like taking off shoes, one that depends on where you go, as many places have it one way while others have it the other way. In Finland, it isn’t offensive to tip your waiter or someone helping you with service in a store, however, it is unusual. It’s one of those things that you might want to avoid doing if it’s your goal to fit in better in your community. 

Day and night

As far as the daylight goes in Finland, you’ll generally get elongated days in the summer and elongated nights in the winter. Depending on what time of the year you travel and how far north you go, you’ll likely get to experience something unlike what you see in the US, even in the heart of summer or winter. In the summertime, when the days are long, oftentimes people in Finland will go swimming in the lakes late at night, as they can still see with the sun up or barely set. In the wintertime, the sun will be set by the time school is out, or it will begin to set soon after. As tough as this might sound, it’s actually quite nice as Christmas decorations are very common late in the winter there as they are in the US, so even though it’s dark out for so long, you get to see the fun lights and decor in the long nights. This aspect of the Finnish environment might be particularly special for students from states further south in the US, as day and night for them remains fairly consistent throughout the year. 

Candy and Salt

This last one I’d consider a recommendation not to be taken lightly. In America, our idea of candy is usually things like gummies or chocolate or hard candies. Seldom in my life in the U.S. have I eaten a candy that was completely salty, not making an exception for things like “salted caramel” which are nearly always sweet in whole with just a bit of salt. However, at times in Finland, finding candy that did not contain salt was a challenge. Finns really love their candy a lot, they have a ton of selections of chocolate and other mixed types of candies like pastels or gummies. However, what I believe they are best known for (or should be if they aren’t), is their ‘Salmiakki.’ Now, if you don’t know what this is, you can look it up. It’s like liquorice, but it’s more salty than it is sweet. Like, that’s not my opinion, that’s just the catch. This isn’t to say it’s a bad thing, as a ton of people (including myself at times) like the salty liquorice. However, there are types that (in my opinion) are way too salty, or that are just surprising to find. What I mean by this is that you can go into a store at the beginning of your trip without knowing how to look out for salty liquorice (they have a specific type of package and key words on the cover that you’ll eventually grow accustomed to), and you could buy what you think is a chocolate bar, only to find that the inside is full of a black goo. That’s a liquid form of salmiakki (and a real candy that they have in most stores). There’s chocolate covered salmiakki, there’s fruit candy mixed with salmiakki in bags, there’s pastels, there’s gum, I even bought a licorice flavoured shampoo towards the end of my trip. They have managed to package one of the most controversial candies in virtually every form. So my recommendation to you is simply, beware. If you don’t like liquorice, salty candy, or both mixed together, or if you just aren’t accustomed to it yet (as most Americans aren’t), just be careful when purchasing candies there. Now, obviously this isn’t a matter of life and death, but there were times there when I would pick up a piece of chocolate, and bite into it only to find that it was just double-salted liquorice disguised as chocolate. So again, just beware. 

I’m going to leave some of the other things you’ll learn about while in Finland up to you to discover, as this was simply a list of what affected me most. Throughout your time abroad, you’re going to run into things that seem different from the way life goes for you normally, in a multitude of ways. All I can say is you have to view these surprises as positive, and let the changes be good things. Even if they seem hard to adjust to at first, you’ll ultimately learn to love a lot of aspects of your host country, it just requires time and patience. So be sure to always prepare for new experiences, keep an open mind, and good luck on your adventure abroad! 

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