Learning Finnish

I'm going to be visiting Finland again for the New Year, which means I probably ought to be revising my Finnish in preparation. That makes for a good opportunity to write something I've had in mind for ages.

This isn't an attempt to teach anyone Finnish - my own knowledge is extremely basic, and I'd like to be clear about that from the start (if anything I've said is wrong, I apologise, but please do let me know!). This is simply a way of sharing what I've learned from my own experience of studying the language, in the hope that others in a similar position might find it useful.



Why Learn Finnish?

A very good question, you might think. Of all the languages you could try to learn, no-one's going to claim that Finnish is one of the most useful in general around the world. There are said to be around 5 million speakers of Finnish, of whom you won't find very many outside of Finland itself. Unless you live there you shouldn't expect to need to speak it very often.

Still, I wouldn't say it's without its uses. While I'm probably unlikely to ever be the best French or German speaker in any given situation, however hard I try with those languages, if the time ever does come when a Finnish speaker is called for at my firm (for example) I suspect even my rudimentary knowledge will put me ahead of anyone else.

Of course, Finnish is going to be of most use to you if you intend having anything to do with Finland (and if you don't see why you might want to do that, may I point you towards a previous post of mine?). In that case, some Finnish will be very handy. English won't get you very far, for two main reasons:

  1. English isn't that widely spoken. in Finland Now, a lot of Finns speak very good English, but it's far less common than you'd find in Western Europe. It's not even the second language - Swedish is Finland's other official language (there is a significant population of Swedish-speaking Finns) and a compulsory subject at all levels of Finnish education. Of course, none of this is intended as a criticism; why should Finns learn English just to make things easier for us when they have a perfectly good language of their own? It's simply to make you aware that you shouldn't expect to be able to find an English translation wherever you go.
  2. You won't be able to figure it out like you might with French/German/Spanish etc. That's because Finnish is unrelated to almost any other European language - technically it's from the Uralic language family, rather than the Indo-European family that includes most European languages as well as Hindi, Russian and Urdu. It's therefore extremely different to anything you're likely familiar with, both in vocabulary and grammar (more on this later).


How To Learn

I suppose that the best way to learn would be lessons with a native speaker, but I'm going to assume for the purpose of this that you're as busy/cheap as I am and looking to self-teach.

Unfortunately resources for learning Finnish are limited compared to more widely-spoken languages. For instance, you won't find a Roaetta Stone course (I've no idea whether it would be any good if there was, having never tried one). That said, there are still useful materials you should look out for.

My starting point was a book called 'Finnish For Foreigners' by Maija-Hellikki Aaltio. It's out of print now, I think, but you may be able to find second hand copies online. It might be a little dated now but I found the lessons quite helpful and the explanations of grammar clear.  There is an exercise book to accompany it, and if you follow that you'll be able to pick up the basics. There's also an accompanying audio CD, if you can find that too, with a few listening exercises. I like it, although it's probably better for learning reading/writing than spoken Finnish.

That concern led me to pick up 'Teach Yourself Finnish' by Terttu Leney. It's part of the ubiquitous Teach Yourself range (I'd previously used one of their book/CD sets to pick up some very elementary Dutch) and will be familiar if you've ever tried any of their other courses.  It's much more focused on listening exercises than Finnish For Foreigners, although I personally found it a bit harder to pick up the grammar. I'd say the two books work well used in conjunction, though.

With any language you're going to need to find a way of learning vocabulary that suits you. Flash cards are often a good way, but for a more high-tech alternative I'd recommend a website/app called Memrise.  At its core it's effectively flash cards, but with a few brilliant innovations. For one thing, it uses 'mems', which are pictures or mnemonic phrases submitted by users for particular words to help you remember them. For another, users can record the pronunciation of words to be played along with the card. Since this is all created by the userbase rather than a central authority, even for languages like Finnish there is already a very good collection of mems and recordings.

You can choose to follow pre-existing courses (again, submitted by users) or you can make your own. Personally I made a course with lessons containing all the vocabulary for each chapter of my books, as a way of memorising it alongside my study. It then uses an aparently well-researched system of revision and testing to help the words lodge in your mind and stay there.

There are also a whole range of features like points, friends and leaderboards that make it rather addictive. Even better, it's free. It has recently introduced a premium membership with some additional features, but you still get all of the above without paying.

Finally, I also like the book 'Finnish: An Essential Grammar' by Fred Karlsson. As the title suggests, it's a pretty comprehensive guide to Finnish grammar. It's most useful where you're struggling with some particularly weird Finnish rule that you've come across in the other books and want to see it properly explained. It's also a good reference for looking things up when you're trying to put your own sentences together.


How Finnish Is Different

As I noted earlier, Finnish is likely very different from any other language you know. That can make it a bit more difficult - or more of an interesting challenge, depending on your point of view. However, one of the things that bothered me trying to learn some Dutch was that I could never tell how much of my understanding came from actual learning and how much was cheating based on what I knew of English and German. With Finnish, though, you get the satisfaction of knowing that anything you understand is a sign of what you've learned.

Here are some of the things you should expect from learning Finnish:

  1. Alien vocabulary. Finnish words bear no relation to their equivalents in any other language you know (unless you know Estonian or Hungarian, that is). If you're in Finland and see something that you think you can translate, it's more than likely Swedish.
  2. Long words. Finnish is an agglutinative language, which as far as I can tell means that it works by sticking stuff onto the end of words. There are various cases for nouns, which give them different suffixes.  Some of these are for where English would use prepositions. For example, the word sauna means 'sauna' (yes, really), but if you wanted to say 'in the sauna' you would say saunassa. Similarly, you can turn anything into a question by adding the suffix '-ko' e.g. saunassako? - 'In the sauna?' If you see a long word, it can quite possibly be broken down into an entire sentence.
  3. Surprisingly easy pronunciation. Pronunciation in Finnish is generally very regular, and stress is always on the first syllable, which means that once you know how each letter and diphthong is supposed to sound you can pronounce most words.
  4. No future tense. This one takes some getting used to. In Finnish, to talk about the future you use the present tense, with the appropriate words to indicate the time (such as 'tomorrow') if necessary. This supposedly has some interesting psychological effects; a study has found that people who speak languages without a future tense tend to be better prepared for the future.
  5. A separate form of language for speaking. This is annoying when you learn the written form and then realise that everyone is speaking something slightly different, and that you sound silly to them. Oh, and that's not even getting into the dialects.
  6. Gender-neutral pronouns. The pronoun hän means both 'he' or 'she'. While the difference in English can sometimes be convenient, it is also very annoying when trying to talk about a person of unknown gender, and forces you to use cumbersome descriptions (e.g. 'the robed figure') in sentences crying out for a pronoun.
  7. No articles. You can't say 'a car' or 'the car', just 'car'. The meaning is normally clear from word order.


The Bare Essentials

I know I said I wasn't going to teach any Finnish, but as with most languages, you can go lo a long way with a few simple words and phrases. In no particular order, here are a few that you really need to know before visiting Finland:

Hei means 'hello'. You can also use moi, or (hyväähuomenta which means 'good morning'.

Näkemiin means 'goodbye'.

Kiitos means 'thank you' but you can also use it to say 'please' (two words for the price of one!). When handing something over (e.g. money) you can also say olkaa hyvä, which is used like 'here you go' .

Hauska tavata means 'nice to meet you'.

Saanko...? means 'can I have...?'

Olutta means beer. Koskenkorva is a delicious brand of vodka. So, at a bar you might say Saanko Koskenkorva, kiitos?




I hope that this might be of some use if you're trying to learn Finnish. I've tried to keep things simple, but if you notice any errors please do let me know and I'll correct them. Also, if you have any suggestions for other good ways to learn Finnish, I'd be very glad to hear them!

If you liked this you might also be interested in my other articles about Finland. Alternatively you might want to read my first novel. I can't promise that it will help you learn Finnish, but then again I can't promise that it won't.