“I’ve Heard It’s Really Hard…” : On The Finnish Language

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I began my journey with the Finnish Language in March 2013, during a few weeks off in the United States.

After having spent eight months in Sweden, I remember that many of my friends (Swedish and otherwise) found the Finnish Language odd, interesting, and completely unintelligible, despite the fact that there were Finnish translations on almost every single piece of food packaging in the country.

“Strange Language. Double Letters. Long Words.”

One time I asked a Swede why the Finnish language was understudied in Sweden. His answer: “You don’t study Cherokee in the United States, do you?”

And that was nothing to say of the fake Finnish thrown around by some Swedish comedians. What follows is likely the best-known example (with English subtitles):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAl9OyGYxOg

I’m not passing judgment on any of these phenomena. They are what they are.

I did research in Finland for my MA Thesis—an effort I will submit later this week. Obviously it made sense to show commitment to the culture by learning the language. While I was not fluent by the time I arrived in November 2013 (and I still am not, but I am almost there…), my efforts were appreciated by everyone whom I interviewed , and the following exchange I had with the Rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch in Helsinki was priceless:

 

Rabbi Wolff: “You obviously know a lot about the Finnish Language. When did you first arrive here?”

Jared: (with a smile) “…just a couple of hours ago…”

 

Only last night did I hear for the I-stopped-counting-how-many-th time that Finnish is super-hard. There is one thing in common with everyone that I hear this from:

None of them have tried!

Interestingly even for a few people who learned about twenty words of the language, they don’t find it especially difficult—just different.

I’ve had significant struggles with language grammars. Modern Greek’s future tense system gave me nightmares. The Hebrew binyanim became something I never wanted to think about. And then there was Finnish’s lesser-known relative, Northern Sami, which had consonant shifts across the board that I still struggle with.

I can tell who is informed about the Finnish Language if he or she uses one word to describe it: logical. Some have even said that it is a language that is possible for an outsider to learn perfectly (I would never say this about American English).

The grammar does take some effort to learn, but I found that in comparison to the grammar of Modern Greek and Modern Hebrew especially (not also to mention those of the ancient languages that I had forgotten), Finnish was an easy ride. It is true that there are about thirty-five different noun categories for declination (Greenlandic only has ten). Most of these are intuitive, however, and I couldn’t have said the same thing about anything regarding, let’s say, Classical Greek.

And then we get to the second part about what I constantly hear from outsiders about the Finnish language:

“lots of cases”

I always counter this with the following: “most of them are straight-up prepositions”

In the Slavic Languages that I have learned (Russian, Polish, and one Czech lesson), when there is a preposition, there is a case that goes with it:

 

“Polska” = Poland, “w Polsce” = in Poland.

 

Now note the equivalent in Finnish:

 

”Puolassa” = in Poland

 

The information about the preposition is contained within the case itself.

When I was first immersing myself in Finnish, I found it difficult to absorb native material because I felt that my brain was trying to watch a ball being thrown back and forth by professional athletes with unnatural reflexes. Namely—I couldn’t absorb all of the case information very quickly.

This, too, comes with practice. And this brings me to my next point about the Finnish Language:

As the accent is always on the first syllable, distinguishing words in spoken speech is very easy.

Even if you are relatively inexperienced, you can use this principle in order to type in words you hear into Google Translate just by hearing them.

The Finnish Language, in comparison to others that I have heard, is spoken slowly.

I’ve noticed very much the same in most instances of spoken Swedish as well.  This definitely isn’t Brazilian Portuguese or Andalusian Spanish that you are dealing with.

Maybe FinnAir stewardesses speak very quickly sometimes, but most of the time, I have noticed a significantly slower tempo—in both spoken speech and in the media.

Are you afraid of learning a language because people speak too quickly and that you can’t make out the words? Both problems solved! Just choose the Finnish Language.

There is only one real difficulty, however, and that is the fact that most words are not Indo-European at all. Never fear, there are a handful of Swedish import words (luvata = att lova = to promise), German idiomatic structures (pääkaupunki = Hauptstadt = capital city), internationalisms (dramaattinen, poliittinen), and English words (rooli, mestari).

Aside from that? Mostly it is an issue of getting out the flash cards, or the right software to assist with your memory. But you can do it!

You would have to be doing memorization like this anyway. I don’t see people complaining that Hebrew is an extraordinarily difficult language, and I know why not: it is more commonly studied.

Another reason why some people might believe Finnish to be difficult is because of the long- and short-vowels. The difference between these two sentences is well-known, and this paradigm was my first-ever exposure to the Finnish Language, back in 2008:

Minä tapaan sinut huomenna ´= I will meet you tomorrow

Minä tapan sinut huomenna = I will kill you tomorrow

Back when I was younger I was ready to give up right then. There would be no way I could manage anything like that! Or so I thought…

But one thing that I didn’t think about was this: I played lots of piano at the time and it never occurred to me that it was merely an issue of holding a note for longer. That is the same difference you would find between the long and the short vowels, not also to mention the long and the short consonants (valita = to choose, vallita = to govern).

Both of them, just like everything else in a language, takes time getting used to—and you’re not going to get people angry by accidentally using the short vowel when the long one should be used. Context is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

Therefore, pronunciation isn’t actually a problem. In both Finnish and Hungarian I have heard that is it quite easy to sound like a genuine speaker (I still have yet to have extended experiences with Estonian and Northern Sami, not to mention the other Finno-Ugric Languages). My friends who would struggle with a few words of a Scandinavian Language like Norwegian could easily pronounce Finnish words with no difficulty.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Finnish pronunciation could very well be easier than that of Esperanto.

Then there is the issue that the written language is quite different from the spoken one, but start with the spoken language and then you will be able to read the billboards and even the newspapers with enough discipline and practice. The difference between the two sides of this language is no different than between the spoken and the written German Language.

And here’s a secret: the German Language and the Finnish Language, despite their differences, are very similar idiomatically!

Even better: almost everything you will need to become fluent is contained in one site: http://www.uusikielemme.fi/index.html

That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use other resources—hearing the language is essential, and my progress in the language would have been impossible without it. There is lots of material to be found, American children’s classics included.

And here’s the best part: even if you learn the language to an “okay” or even rudimentary level, the mythology that the Finnish Language is extraordinarily hard means that you will command respect from people, most of who have never tried!

Aren’t you excited?

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