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Is Finnish a difficult language?

By Hannele Branch, lecturer in Finnish, University of London

How easily can a foreigner learn a language like this? In fact, Finnish is a very logical language, as many students who have methodologically studied it admit.

Finnish often expresses ideas very differently from the ways of the more commonly studied European languages. In other words Finnish is different. But this does not make it more difficult than other languages. Linguists recognise a phenomenon called Sprachbund. This means that in a certain geographical area, languages which differ from each other typologically share other similarities which result from living in a similar environment. This kind of phenomenon exists, for example, in the Baltic region. Because of the same environment, a common history, culture and contacts, Scandinavian languages, German and Finnish share some features (perhaps mostly in vocabulary) which bind them together and accordingly make it easier for people who know these languages to understand some features of Finnish.

To start with, Finnish is a very demanding language, not least for a teacher and an author of a Finnish textbook. Why? Because Finnish is a very synthetic language. Both nouns and verbs have a large number of inflectional types, some of which are more frequent than others. Furthermore, as I have already mentioned, languages are never static. They change, and, therefore, it is often impossible to give a strict rule for a particular grammatical point. One example of this is the change ti > si which started hundreds of years ago and is still continuing. Many native speakers might hesitate, for example, between the imperfect forms kielsiand kielti, meaning "he forbade".

For these reasons, the problem facing the teacher of Finnish is to decide in which order grammar and vocabulary should be taught and how thoroughly they should be learnt. The answer to this depends on the aim of the language course. Is it just to learn a little conversational Finnish and to keep the students amused for two hours per week? Or is the learner going to be a translator or interpreter who has to understand all the nuances of the language?

To understand the kind of complexities that Finnish presents to the beginner, let us examine the Finnish equivalent of the simple English sentence: I like you. The English sentence is very easy for a foreigner to handle because you simply place one word after the other. This simple sentence translates into Finnish as Minä pidän sinusta.

Before you can produce this Finnish sentence, you have to know the following:

  1. how a Finnish verb is conjugated (the personal endings);
  2. pitää is a verb affected by consonant gradation; you must know about the t-d alternation;
  3. pitää requires the noun in the elative case; thus you must know about the case system and how the pronouns are declined.

It is quite a lot of grammar to handle such a simple sentence. Of course, you can say Minä pitää sinä leaving all the words in their basic form, and surprisingly the Finns will understand you (provided your body language is appropriate). But if you are a perfectionist or otherwise take your studies seriously, you will want to know how a Finn says it.

However, that is only the start of the problem. In reality it is not very likely that a Finn today would say: Minä pidän sinusta. If a young Finnish man were bold enough to express such feelings in words, he would be more likely to say something like: Mä tykkään susta. This brings us to the reality that every language has a range of dialects and registers. Finnish has regional dialects and different social variants (jargons, slangs). Colloquial Finnish often differs markedly from the standard language. For a foreigner, however, it is always best to start with the standard form of the language.

This all brings me back to the question: Is Finnish a difficult language? As the reader might already have guessed, my usual reply to the question is: it is not difficult but different. The biggest problem is where to start. You want to learn but there seems to be no end to what you have to remember before you can form even the most simple statement. There are so many words which all seem to look the same but which have different meanings and functions.

But is Finnish more difficult than French or Spanish or Latin or German which you might have studied at school? Remember how you learnt (or failed to learn) French at school. How many years did you spend on it? How many classes did you have with teacher every week? How much home work did you have? What was your French like when you left the school? What is your French like now?

When people study Finnish abroad it is most often once a week for perhaps two hours at a time in an evening class. Most teachers give students some homework but many students do not do it. Students often believe, or expect, that a language can be learnt by osmosis – just like that, in the classroom. Unfortunately, the study of any foreign language requires work – and often very hard work. Finnish grammar can be learnt logically. The greatest obstacle is the vocabulary, which requires memory; and the teacher cannot memorise for you.

See also:

Who's afraid of Finnish? »
Where does Finnish come from? »

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