Puhutko suomea?

Learning Finnish is hard.  Anyone will tell you that.  The teacher will tell you that.  The Checkout Girl at the grocery store will tell you that.  The nurse will tell you that.  (All of those examples have told me that.)  It is noted as one of the most difficult languages to learn.  It is completely foreign for English speakers – which, I know, is a stupid statement to make, obviously it’s completely foreign, duh!  What I mean by that is, there is no commonality to languages we’re more exposed to.

Many Americans know a spattering of Latin and Germanic language, including Spanish, French, Italian, and German.  Even a little bit of Swedish, because it’s similar.  Take, for example, sal (Spanish), salz (German), sel (French), sale (Italian), salt (Swedish).  If you say the words aloud, and can narrow it down based on context (e.g., a list of ingredients), you could probably figure out that it means salt.  The Finnish word for salt is suolaa.

Finnish grammar is particularly difficult, with what seems like hundreds of different verb endings depending on the tense, mood, active/passive, affirmative/negative…  The verb puhua (to speak), in the first person, can be puhun (I speak), en puhu (I don’t speak), puhuin (I spoke), en puhunut (I didn’t speak), puhuisin (I would speak), en puhuisi (I would not speak)…and it goes on and on.

The Finnish textbook – all in Finnish

In the Summer, I took an introductory Finnish class.  My first issue with the class (and, it seems, most classes) is that the book is entirely in Finnish.  There is no translation, so in order to know what the book is saying, you have to look it all up.  Which…I don’t know, it just ticks me off.   I mean, what’s the point, if I don’t know what it’s saying?  On top of that, the class was taught in Finnish.  I know that’s the best way to learn, but if I can’t understand her when she says, “Do you understand?,” then there’s going to be a problem.  Yes, she would speak English quite a bit, because we were all obviously so lost, but the idea was to teach it in Finnish.

For some reason, I latched onto the numbers.  Man, I could recite my numbers 0-1000 without thinking about it.  I was so proud of myself, so excited.  I had learned something, and I got it.  Then the teacher came in the next class and said, “So we learned the numbers, but that’s not how people actually say them.  Let’s learn the spoken Finnish.”


And that’s another issue with Finnish.  There’s Finnish, then there’s Spoken Finnish.  And then there’s the fact that the town I live in has it’s own dialect that is completely different (there are several different Finnish dialects, I believe).  Want an example?

  • English:  Feel yourself at home. (I’m guessing this is kind of like make yourself at home?)
  • Finnish:  Ole kuin kotonasi.
  • Spoken Finnish (Helsinki):  Oo niinku kotonas.
  • Rauma dialect:  Ol niingon gotonas.

Oh, shoot me now.

The one really good thing about Finnish is, the pronunciation is really easy.  Every letter is pronounced (no silent letters!), and the accent is always at the beginning of the word.  The only thing an English speaker needs to know in order to pronounce Finnish is that the a is like Ma and Pa, e is like hay, i is like weed, j is a y as in you, y is like the beginning of ew, ä is like hat, and ö is…kind of like long o meets uh.  Even the h is pronounced in cases like kahdeksan.  In Finnish, like in German, words are put together to form compound words.  Over time, you get to the point where you see the different words in the compound word, so you know how to pronounce it.  Remember, the accent is always on the first syllable, and that includes every word in the compound word.  The word älykkyysosamäärä is composed of three words:  älykkyys, osa, and määrä.  So the word actually has three accents.  Try pronouncing it!  It really is easy, once you get the hang of it.  (Want to know what it means?  IQ.)

This fall, they were offering a morning Finnish class that was more about daily phrases, and it didn’t use the book.  And it specifically said it was taught in English.  So I signed up, along with several other people I know, hoping to get useful phrases like, “Can you help me?” and “Where is ____?” and “How much is it?”  And I have gotten those phrases, but there are other issues in the class that are frustrating.  Plus, once I ask those things in Finnish, how am I supposed to know what they say back to me?

I always said that if I moved to a foreign country, I would learn the language.  I would not expect to be able to communicate if I didn’t.  I would not expect the people of that country to speak English.  But here’s the thing – most people in Finland do speak English.  At least enough to ask “Can you help me?” and “Where is ____?” and “How much is it?”  At least enough that I don’t worry too much about being in a crisis and not being able to communicate.  I’ve met some Finns who speak better English than me!  Learning Finnish is not a necessity to get around here.  Yes, it would be wonderful to be able to read signs and understand the radio and read the newspaper, but to communicate, it’s really not needed.

Finnish is spoken by about 6 million people worldwide.  I will be here in Finland for another year or two.  I can’t help but wonder if learning Finnish should be something I spend my time on.

I have tons of time, I know.  But even still, I could spend that time writing, or working on a different language I would get more use out of in the future, like French or Spanish.  I could save myself the frustration of class – not a frustration with the language, but a frustration with the class.  Walking out of class irritated with my brain fried isn’t all that fun.  I should be enjoying new experiences, not hating them.

I know a guy who speaks English, French, and Spanish, learned Chinese in six months without a problem, but has given up on Finnish.  And I think I have, too.

I can say hello, and goodbye (it’s the same word, which is helpful!).  Kiitos is Thank you (and Please).  Anteeksi is Excuse me.  But my favorite is Puhutko Englantia.  It means, “Do you speak English?”

Categories: Finland | Tags: , , , , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “Puhutko suomea?

  1. just reading the explanations of the Finnish, Spoken Finnish, and the Rauma dialect is enough to do me in! I think it would be different is this was your new permanent home, but if I lived in a place for 3 years, I would certainly make an effort to learn the language. I think you’re already doing that, clearly. I think over the next two years, you’ll probably pick up more than you think. It’s such a shame they don’t have Rosetta Stone in Finnish!!

  2. TGFN

    Loved reading this and ‘brushing’ up on the very little Finnish that I learned last year. I religiously listened to Berlitz’s “Finnish in 60 Minutes”. So helpful! Download it on itunes and stick it in your iPod. And yes, Puhutko Englantia is one of my faves too. That and Haluaisin. 🙂

    • No i-anything in this household. But I’ll look and see if it’s available on some other format – thanks for the tip!

      • anonymous

        Yes, stick it to the fanboys!
        I’m with you there, though I must admit I have an iPod, pre-touchscreen model. The thing about it is, though: I only bought it so I could run RockBox on it. I think I’ve only booted the Apple firmware once deliberately.

  3. Oh boy, I cannot agree more. I am married to a Finn. I have lived here for more than two years, and have been studying Finnish intensively since January this year. I have every reason to want to be fluent in Finnish (and I really do WANT to be) but some days I just want to scream and throw in the towel. The noun conjugations are even more fun than the verbs… for example, strawberry is “mansikka”, but if you want to say “I like strawberries” you should say “Tykkään mansikoista”. As you said, SHOOT ME NOW!

    • Yeah, most of the other bloggers I read are here in Finland for the long haul, which means Finnish is pretty much mandatory. I mean, I can’t imagine living somewhere for 10 years and still not learning the language! I read your (collective your) blogs about the trials of the language, and it doesn’t help me want to learn! 😉

  4. steverp

    Reblogged this on steverp.

  5. Yes, You are right. You have to learn two Finnish languages, literary and spoken language. I met a couple of years ago French student which came to study Finnish churches. To her, it was difficult to understand that if a word had two consonants, the she had to pronounce both. One example: Heippa, meaning bye, is pronounced in this way: Heip and then pa, not heipa.

    • I get the double consonants better than the double vowels. I know I still don’t pronounce those correctly… :-/

      • anonymous

        I remember seeing or hearing something like in other languages the rhythm or pace tends to be based on the consonants, whereas in Finnish it’s based on vowels.

  6. puhutko englantia!!! my favorite indeed!

  7. Pingback: What I didn’t know a year ago « Embrace Life. Be Inspired.

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