About Finnish

Finnish is not an Indo-European language. For us, that means that it shares almost no structure with any other language that most people know or have learned. So, when learning it, one has to do a whole lot more work: it isn’t just substituting words for other words, but decomposing the meaning and re-creating the meaning from the start in a different grammatical form. There are also types of grammatical operations which don’t exist other places, which have to be learned. These are described below.

On the plus side, Finnish is a relatively new language in some sense. It has been spoken for thousands of years, and had its first writing system developed around 500 years ago. However, in the last 200 years, it has been standardized. As you will learn, Finnish has many different dialects, none of which is the “standard” Finnish that you learn in courses. During the standardization process, they took parts from the various dialects and (in the usual Finnish way) made a standard language that was logical and systematic. This is actually a great help in learning it: there actually are some rules that make things make sense.

The downside to this is the standard Finnish (Kirjakieli=standard Finnish, “book language”) is not what anyone speaks. It is only used in somewhat official contexts: formal TV programs, children’s shows, official speeches, language courses, etc. So, even after studying Finnish for a long time, you may try but be unable to understand what you hear in your day to day life. It can be good to browse the puhekieli(=spoke Finnish, “spoken language”) to stay aware of some of the spoken words, even before you get to it in your courses which unfortunately usually comes very late.

Finnish is a very synthetic language, not an analytic language like English. This means that words change, inflect, and combine very much. In Finnish, this is basically how all words are formed. In English, it is easy to tell what a word is: everything that is separated by spaces can be directly found in a dictionary and has a definition. In Finnish, most words are not used in their standard form, but instead various derivatives which you will learn about in a later chapter.

Because of this, it takes some effort to be able to separate the words (things separated by spaces) into the basic components that you learn about. When listening, this is even harder because of the way that Finnish flows together. Recommendation: when studying Finnish, put lines between the base words and suffixes. This will help you to mentally break things down into the components.

People also use this to make fun of Finnish: “oh, there are so many words”: ex1, ex2, ex3, and so on. But this is missing the point: Finnish is synthetic, and the concept of these being different words isn’t quite right. They are a base modified by different stems, the equivalent of different words in other languages. You can’t evaluate Finnish by the criteria of other languages. Instead, you will learn how to break these down into their component pieces to understand them (and really, all these examples are highly pathological).

The grammar of Finnish is very different. If you know English, and are learning something like Spanish, it is relatively straightforward: you can substitute one word for another, and do some various small changes. In Finnish, entire sentences need to be reordered to convey the right thought. This means that it can be much harder to get started. This can mean that real-time production of Finnish requires a lot of practice and intuition.

Because Finnish comes from a different language family, all of the basic vocabulary is different. When learning a “normal” language, words bay be quite different, but very quickly you start seeing patterns and connections to some language you know. That’s not the case in Finnish: you have to learn all-new basic words, medium-advanced words, and advanced words. The only place where you get consistent relief is modern technological words - but even that isn’t everywhere, because often it is a literal translation to Finnish (e.g. “workstation” = “työasema” = “work station”)

Finnish has a fewer sounds than many other languages: many of the letters in the Latin alphabet aren’t used for native Finnish words. Instead, you get more richness in the usage of fewer letters when they are turned into syllables. For example, “tuli” is “fire”, and “tuuli” is “wind”. In English, letters don’t necessarily mean anything about the pronunciation, but in Finnish pronunciation is essential. Jokes: ex4.

Finally, I believe that in many cases Finnish is hard to learn because of the way it is taught. In many cases, it is thought as a “total immersion” method. This works in many languages, where there is enough similarity that you can pick up something, and then work your way to the rest. But Finnish is so different there is not really anything to pick up on unless you start as if you are a child learning your first language. Even living in this country for a few years doesn’t necessarily let you see the patterns without some help. Why is this? Every language is built on some basic components, and you recognize these components and work up to a larger understanding. In Finnish, the components are so different that it takes a lot of time to build up to them. Even in modern “machine learning” techniques, some sort of basic features are programmed in and used to infer the rest: you don’t learn patterns with absolutely no context. Unfortunately Finnish is so different that there’s hardly any context to start with, and most people with jobs which don’t require Finnish don’t get the type of immersion they need.

The very purpose of this course is to solve this problem: to teach you the basic components of Finnish, so that you can understand what you are seeing. This will make learning Finnish much more enjoyable, and also give you a greater chance of picking up some over time.