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.
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?”