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Is Learning Finnish Really THAT Difficult?

I have spent the past two weeks writing articles for my freelance job quite intensively. I enjoy it so much, this is exactly what I want to do for living, but the negative side is I have less time for blogging. Especially now, when we have a baby in the house… but I will tell more about it later.

While spending my days writing articles, I’ve come across the complexity of the Finnish language, over and over again. You have probably heard that Finnish is not the easiest language to learn. It’s not impossible though, I know many foreigners who speak fluent Finnish, but indeed it’s not the easiest one. And, to be honest, in case you are not living in Finland or working in a Finnish company, it’s not the most useful language either.

But can Finnish really be THAT difficult? I stumbled upon some funny examples, so have a look and tell me your opinion.

One of the reasons for Finnish being a tricky language is that you hardly ever benefit from other languages you know. Why is that? Because even if a word would be pretty much the same in every other language, it won’t be that in Finnish.

Is Finnish language really THAT difficult? | Live now – dream later travel blog

Sometimes it might also get a bit confusing, as one Finnish word can have so many meanings.

 

Is learning Finnish language really THAT difficult? | Live now – dream later travel blog

Yet I think what really makes learning Finnish difficult are long words and how our words bend. We don’t have prepositions, but we add all the attributes at the end of the word. And the rules for that are not so straight forward.

Just to give you an example, instead of saying ‘on the table’ we say ‘pöydällä’, where the basic word, ‘a table’ is ‘pöytä’. In most languages the attribute would be placed in front of the word, but in Finnish we add ‘-llä’ in the end of the word. And that’s not all: we also change the letter ‘t’ in the middle of the word ‘pöytä’ for letter ‘d’.

Simple, eh?

Please note, this is also exactly the reason why Finnish doesn’t work with Google Translator. So don’t even try using that. The sentences just won’t make any kind of sense. There is no such translation robot that could do Finnish.

Is learning Finnish language really THAT difficult? | Live now – dream later travel blog

So, now we have learned that one Finnish word can have several meanings and we are bending words without any rules that would make sense. Imagine how it is to form sentences in Finnish.

 

Is learning Finnish language really THAT difficult? | Live now – dream later travel blog

In the end, Finns are a shy nation. We don’t do small talk, we don’t sit next to a stranger on a bus or a train, and despite some exceptions, like myself, Finns don’t normally speak much. So you can have a nice conversation in Finnish by using only a few short words.

Is learning Finnish language really THAT difficult? | Live now – dream later travel blog

If you ever have considered learning Finnish, this post didn’t probably encourage you much. But I do know people who actually want to learn Finnish, and the best reason that I have heard is “I want to learn Finnish because it sounds like a language from outer space. If aliens ever attack, I bet they are speaking Finnish.”

And if you are crazy enough, and you took this post as a challenge rather than a mission impossible, here are some tips for learning Finnish. I hope you’ll find them helpful. Happy language learning!

 

Is learning Finnish language really THAT difficult? | Live now – dream later travel blog

Are you tempted to start learning Finnish – or have you already started? Do you find it difficult? Share your thoughts on comments below ↓


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Is learning Finnish language really THAT difficult? | Live now – dream later travel blog


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Saana

The girl behind the blog is a Finnish travel and outdoor enthusiastic with a huge passion for writing and fulfilling dreams. When I'm not abroad, I'm showing you the best of beautiful Finland. My heart lies in the archipelago of Satakunta and Rauma area in the South-West of Finland.

This Post Has 10 Comments
  1. Haha! I’ve just found this! Or should I say….Mä löytän tämä juuri nyt! – I try! Constructing questionable sentences with the vocabulary I have accumulated in my brain, it’s a fun game. A hit and miss, fun game! 😉

    1. Haha, hit and miss indeed! At shortest you would say “Löysin tämän juuri”. 😛 You’ll get there, you’ve done amazing job learning Finnish by yourself! By Midsummer you’ll be fluent, right?

  2. If someone like Sheldon Cooper had been asked to invent an artificial language, he could accidently have created something like Finnish 😉

    At first, I want to add a point that really needs some getting used to: Finnish uses long and short sounds more than other languages. Example:
    – muu, partitive: muuta, abessive: muutta
    – mutta
    – muta, partitive: mutaa
    – muuttaa, imperative and conegative: muuta
    That’s six words and word forms that only differ by length (muuttaa, muuta, muutta, mutta, mutaa, muta). There is also sata, sataa, saattaa (imperative and conegative: saata): you can say something like saattaa sataa. Another set of words is tuuli, tuli, tulli. German and English do use short and long sounds, but not like that.

    However, some characteristics that learners might consider difficult are not worse than other languages. As a German (from the country that used to have a law called Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, look it up on wikipedia), I wouldn’t consider long words to be bad in principal. Also, I was amazed to see that some words are build up using the same pieces: When you agree to a contract, you write your name (or something derived from your name) beneath it. Whereas English uses a completely different word for that (“sign”), German, Russian and Finnish express it exactly like that: unterschreiben, подписать (podpisat’), allekirjoittaa. Literaly, this is beneath+write. So although “sign” is shorter than “allekirjoittaa”, the latter is intelligible by its parts, without learning an additional word.

    Finnish spelling seems easy, I mean really, really easy: Germans like to think their spelling was easy and straight-forward, and compared to English and French it is. However, compared to Finnish, it is not. I’ll give you an example of something that is part of a language of which the spelling is widely considered coherent with its pronounciation: In order to write long vowels, we have 3 ways in German: using a double vowel, adding an “h” after a single vowel, or force learners to learn the correct pronounciation without marking it in the written word. Then there are some “buts”: Only a, e and o can be duplicated. u, ä, ö and ü can only take a “h”. A long “i” is “ie” in the middle of a word, but “ih” at the beginning (or it’s just “i”). Sometimes, it’s even “ieh” for no obvious reason. “aa” and “oo” can turn into “ä” and “ö” e.g. when pluralizing nouns, they keep their long length, but still you don’t write äh/öh even though it would seem more logical. In Finnish, you just use a double letter for a long sound. Although this simple principle yields words like “päättää” (or vaate -> inessive: vaatteessa, inessive with 3rd person possessive: vaatteessaan), which look somehow unusual to people outside of Finland, it makes a part of that language easier, a part which is quite difficult in many languages. It must be awful for Finnish people to learn French spelling!

    Your example with pöytä – pöydälle is not worse than German: In German, we put a preposition before the word for “table” (der Tisch), but still modify the noun and the article in order to express the difference between “on” and “onto”. In this specific example, it’s even funnier to compare singular and plural. So:
    pöydällä – auf dem Tisch
    pöydälle – auf den Tisch
    pöydillä – auf den Tischen
    pöydille – auf die Tische
    Of course, articles and suffixes depend on if the noun is male, female, or neuter, and there is no way to find the plural of a noun other than by knowning it. In Finnish, at least you have all the information in one place (the suffix), and the t->d change is not unusual (just like the about 15 other patterns).

    In Finnish, you have rules like “When forming the imperfect tense of a verb whose stem ends in -a, the final a turns into an o if the stem has 2 syllables and the first syllable also contains an a.” (auttaa -> auttoi, antaa -> antoi). If Finnish was like French, such rules would apply to only 90% of all verbs that look like they could undergo this change. The ruleset in Finnish is large, really large, but at least it’s used.

    Many people who say that they are skilled in languages actually want to say that they easily recognise patterns that are similar to patterns they already know. Only few of them want to start from scratch, with nothing similar at hand at all. Only few are really willing to learn lots of rules and then use them in simple examples. This creates problems with unique grammatical phenomena. Some people try to make you believe you could learn a foreign language without studying grammar, but when trying to learn Finnish, this won’t work for most people. Finnish works in a way that is so different from indo-european languages that you need a lot of time until you actually know how to express really simple things. Explaining “mennä tekemään” or “kieltää tekemästä” requires speaking about grammar. Most people probably don’t like the idea of a “3rd infinitive”, even less of an infinitive taking case endings. Those who don’t want to hear about grammar will run away at that exact moment, and you won’t be able to stop them.

    With Finnish, the difficult part is to find out how much grammar you need in the beginning so that on the one hand you can feel progress, and on the other hand you don’t feel an urgent need to screem and to run away. That is a fine line.

    1. Wow, Alex, it seems like you’ve really given this a thought! Thanks for your great comment, although I’m afraid it’ll scare all the rest of the learners we have left! 😀

      You mentioned you’re German, and you seem to know a lot about Finnish and other languages as well. I assume you’ve been studying different languages a lot? As a Finn it’s sometimes so difficult to step on the boots of a foreigner trying to learn our language. I agree with you that the spelling is easy, and we actually say words as they’re written (no silent h’s or anything like that) but the similarity of the words with very different meanings, and the changing letters in the middle of the words (like pöytä –> pöydällä) must be confusing. Not to mention the compound words, even the most of the Finns can’t get them right! 😀

      I’d love to know about your relation to languages? Have you just been studying a lot out of interest, or are you perhaps a linguist by profession?

      1. Hi Saana,

        to me, this is just personal interest. In fact, I’m a computer scientist developing software. Very precise language is important to me, because otherwise wrong things will end up in software. Most funny or not so funny software problems that you might have heard or read about are related to imprecisely phrased requirements… like Mars rovers missing Mars because someone didn’t properly say which values are in meters and which values are in feet.

        When Finns learn English, don’t they run into the same issues as speakers of English who try to learn Finnish? Such as: totally different words, totally different grammer, totally different way to represent sounds in writing? Do you know the “ghoti” joke? See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghoti. If this word existed, English pronounciation rules would let it sound like “fish”. The words “tough”, “though”, “through” and “thought” don’t sound similar to each other. Isn’t that disturbing? Or do Finnish children start with English so early that it becomes natural to them?

        Anyway, the change of t to d, as in pöytä -> pöydan, is not that confusing. Example of bad changes: In French, you have verbs like “aller” (to go) which have forms like “je vais” (I go), “j’irai” (I will go) or “j’aille” (I go, but used in subclauses if expressed as a wish, a necessity, or a fear). If you don’t know that, you would never guess that these are forms of the same word. Changing a “t” into a “d” is only a small change. Also, it’s again regular if you know that the t changes at all (counter-example: auto, auton; the stem simply doesn’t gradate): the weak grade (in this case: d) is used if you append a suffix which consists of one consonant or which starts with two consonants, and if no long vowel follows the t (pöydan, pöydällä, pöydältä, pöydälle etc, but pöytää, pöytään, pöytänä), provided that the suffix is not a possessive and not an enclitic (“our table” is pöytämme, not pöydämme, because mme is a possessive and thus can’t trigger the weak grade on its own despite of its two consonants).

        Compare this systematic change to German: The plural of “Apfel” (apple) is “Äpfel”. Why? No idea. Foreigners are generally recommended to memorize each noun along with its plural form. “Falle” (trap) -> plural “Fallen”, “Fall” (case) -> plural “Fälle”. There is also a verb “fällen”, which means to cut a tree. There are even nouns that are identical in singular, but different in plural: mother = Mutter, Mütter, whereas nut (the screw thing, not the food) = Mutter, Muttern. Strauß, Strauße = ostrich, ostriches; Strauß, Sträuße = bunch, bunches (of flowers). We can identify foreigners, even if they are speaking perfectly otherwise, because they will sooner or later drop in a wrong plural form even after having lived in Germany for 10 years.

        As to similar words with totally different meaning, this is not a specific issue of Finnish. In French, you might accidently order poison instead of fish if you don’t properly differentiate between voiced and unvoiced “s”. That’s not better than tavata/tappaa (minä tapaan/tapan), it’s just bad in a different way. In general, French becomes unintelligible if you don’t pay attention to voiced verses unvoiced sounds. This is certainly difficult for Finns (the problem doesn’t exist in Finnish), but less difficult for Russians, who have the same feature in their language. Finnish probably become unintelligible if you don’t get long and short sounds right, which is a real problem for Russians because they don’t use lengths to differentiate words.

        One could probably go one like this, saying which specific feature is probably difficult for speakers of which language.

        Of course, one problem (or challenge) remains: With a ruleset as large as in Finnish, people need years of daily training until they even have a chance to get this right in real time (and can thus speak). But I’m convinced that it’s possible to learn to write Finnish correctly, assuming that the learner is able to understand and use rules, and that the learner has enough time to learn. On the other hand, someone who only relies on memorizing words and recognizing patterns will fail with Finnish because the amount to memorize would be too much.

  3. You really are passioned about the topic, I’m truly impressed! 🙂 I feel that English is fairly easy to learn for Finns, mainly because we start learning it in such young age, but also thanks to our non-dubbed television. Even if you didn’t study English, you keep hearing it every single day since your childhood (assuming you watch a little bit of television every day), which already creates a solid ground for the actual learning. I can’t even remember what was the hardest part in learning English when I was a kid, but I know where I still struggle more than 25 years later; It’s the prepositions, when to use on, in, at… I still get them wrong, probably quite often, I know it. But luckily, it’s such a small mistake that people can still understand me.

    Here’s another funny image about the simplicity of Finnish language, for those who love to learn:
    https://twitter.com/FinlandExplorer/status/798254977093435392
    😀

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