Here’s What You Should Know About Learning Finnish

Finnish: The Eccentric of the Nordic Neighbourhood

According to Babbel Magazine, Finland’s next-door neighbour, Sweden has a national language considered to be the second easiest for an English speaker to learn. Go further through the Nordic neighbourhood to Norway, and you’ll find a national language considered to be the easiest of all languages for an English speaker to learn!

I was very surprised to learn this fact, and like an old school, conservative father of a teenager who rejects a place in Oxford to audition for the circus, I’ve asked this question out of frustration and fear.

Finnish, why do you have to be so difficult?

The answer to this question is simple. Finnish isn’t difficult; It’s just different, as most great things in life are.

Swedish, Norwegian and English are related languages and share some historical milestones and origins. They are incredibly different languages of course, as Swedish and Norwegian belong to the North Germanic branch of the Indo-European Language family, while English belongs to the West Germanic branch, but they are distant cousins and they totally hang out at parties and events.

And then there’s Finnish, the Nordic wallflower. Standing awkwardly at a school dance with his mate, Estonia in a dark and lonely corner holding a homemade sign called the Baltic Finnic Language club. There’s no shame in being different, guys. Show the world who you are!
So now we understand why Finnish is so different, let's talk about what makes it different.

Unique Features of the Finnish Language

Formal and Informal Finnish.
A native English speaker understands the difference between formal and informal language. For example, a high-brow BBC Radio 4 report would be presented using the following language,

“Two men spent the evening at the local pub, slowly getting intoxicated on local ales to escape the trappings of everyday life.”

However, that story would change in an informal setting to;

“Two mates spent ages down the pub getting pissed because their jobs were doing their heads in.”

Finnish is a similar language to British English in this respect as “Standard language” (Yleiskieli) is used in settings such as job interviews and political speeches, while the “Spoken language” (puhekieli) is used in normal social situations and most TV shows.  Puhekieli Finnish is used often in the Finnish produced soap opera, Salatut Elämät. The language may be the reason for watching, but the drama will be the reason for not changing channels!

This can be confusing as most non-native Finnish speakers learn Formal Finnish, and then find they need to learn Informal Finnish in everyday situations. Thankfully, most Finnish people are very supportive to those learning Finnish, so the best method of overcoming this challenge is just to look silly every now and then for a few years, and to speak to lots of Finnish people.

The Finnish alphabet is derived from the same Latin alphabet as English, so appears comfortably familiar to a new starter. This can sometimes cause a problem because the pronunciation of most letters doesn’t resemble English. For example, the letter K in Finnish is soft and resembles the English G sound. Mastering this requires a lot of practice, but there are some fantastic Youtube channels to help with this process. Check out this tutorial by @katchatss.

Finnish grammar is one of the most challenging aspects of the language to understand. Some differences are easy to remember such as the rule of not distinguishing gender in nouns. It’s correct and polite in Finnish to refer to someone as “It”, is an easy fact to retain, but prepare yourself for a long fall down a rabbit’s hole with this example of how individual words change depending on context.

Talo: House (As an object)

Talossa (In a house)

Taloon (Into a house)

Talotta (Without a house)

Thankfully, you don’t have to learn ten new Finnish words for one English word, as the changes follow a standard grammar rule explained here.

These are just a few examples of the factors that make Finnish look scary, but they also illustrate how these concepts can be easily understood. Learning Finnish may look like an impossible challenge at first glance, and the process demands commitment and Sisu, but remember, different does not mean difficult.


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