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.

JYVÄSKYLÄ IN THE SUMMER

JYVÄSKYLÄ IN THE SUMMER

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).
JYVÄSKYLÄ IN THE WINTER

JYVÄSKYLÄ IN THE WINTER

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.

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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 HELSINKI CATHEDRAL

THE HELSINKI CATHEDRAL

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?

HELSINKI RAILWAY STATION

HELSINKI RAILWAY STATION

Conclusion

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.

Spring Holiday

I spent the last week on holiday in Finland, so I guess that must mean it's time for another instalment of these irregular travelogues.

My visit this time coincided with the holiday known in Finland as Vappu, which falls on 1 May. The celebrations actually start (at least for students) the day before with big public parties. Part of these parties involve the placing of hats on statues. 

 

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In the case of Jyväskylä, this statue is of Minna Canth, a leading Finnish feminist in her day.

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Once the statue is wearing her hat, everyone else dons their own. You might be forgiven for thinking I'm surrounded by sailors in the picture above, but these hats are actually given to all Finnish students on completing school.

 

No, I didn't graduate from Finnish high school, and no, I don't know why I ever uploaded this photo either

No, I didn't graduate from Finnish high school, and no, I don't know why I ever uploaded this photo either

Vappu day itself is more relaxed (possibly a consequence of drinking the night before?). It's a day for speeches, music and chilling out with friends and family. People drink sima, a generally non-alcoholic form of mead, and eat tippaleipä, a tasty type of cake most accurately described as 'brittle'.

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I missed Easter in Finland, of course, but I knew when I arrived that I had to take the opportunity to try out the traditional Easter food, mämmi. The Finns eat a lot of rye, from bread to pasties to crisps, all of which are delicious, but mämmi is perhaps the ryiest of all. I'd not heard particularly encouraging things about it, to be honest. I'd like to say that it was surprisingly tasty and my new favourite food, but unfortunately I'd be lying. 

Perhaps the best that can be said is that it tastes a whole lot better than it looks

Perhaps the best that can be said is that it tastes a whole lot better than it looks

While in Jyväskylä I managed to attend a game of ice hockey. It's the most popular sport in Finland, but this was the first time I'd seen it played. It's a very fun sport to watch: fast paced, filled with displays of great skill and just a little bit violent. It's particularly impressive to me given that I wouldn't even be able to move around the pitch, so poor are my skating skills, nevermind play hockey on it.

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This was actually a charity game for Vappu with celebrity players, and the rules may have been relaxed somewhat. For example, I might not really understand the rules of ice hockey, but I'm pretty sure the scene below wouldn't take place on any other day.

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For scheduling reasons, I flew for the first time with Finnair into Helsinki airport. It was considerably more luxurious than my usual flights, with free coffee and sandwich. It was also a good excuse to spend a day in Helsinki. I'd been before, staying on the outskirts, but this time I stayed with a friend in a youth hostel that as it happened was part of the old Olympic stadium.

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Nice hostel, nice location and remarkably good price, so worth remembering if you're in the area. Also free parking, and it's half an hour's walk from the centre along the river. Plus I can't think of a youth hostel I've ever stayed in with its own athletics track.

While in Helsinki we took the ferry across to Suomenlinna ('The Castle of Finland') , which is an island fortress just off the coast. It was originally constructed by Sweden when it ruled Finland, but was captured by Russia in 1808 after a three-month siege. It became Finnish when Finland became independent, and it's now a UNESCO monument, a home to about 900 and a rather impressive place to visit.

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Land ahoy!

Land ahoy!

Of course the Finns even have a better class of fortress than the rest of us.

Of course the Finns even have a better class of fortress than the rest of us.

The weather at this point had taken on something of an English bank holiday feeling   

The weather at this point had taken on something of an English bank holiday feeling

 

 

The King's Gate

The King's Gate

That evening in Helsinki we visited a bar named Stone's, which has a good selection of beers and unlike a lot of places is open on a Sunday. My own knowledge of Helsinki is very limited, but if you want to know what to do there you should check out the blog HelsinkiIn, which is full of good ideas and also offers regular insights into Finnish life that I've always found very interesting.

If you've got anything to add to what I've said, or if there's anything else you'd particularly like me to write about next, let me know in the comments below. If you haven't already, you might like to  have a look at my other articles on Finland here. And if you need even more to read you could always try my book!

Finnish Design

My previous post about Finland turned out to be surprisingly popular. It was picked up by the Finnish tourist board's Twitter account, and is still one of the most visited pages on the site with a regular trickle of visitors, from Finland and around the world. In light of that it seems like a good idea to write something else about the place. There are a few topics I could have chosen, but in the end I decided on design.

It should probably be said at the outset that I'm no expert on art, architecture, design or anything like that. I'm sure there is much more knowledgeable writing about this available, if you want it. But during my visits to Finland I've come across many examples of what I consider to be good design, and that's what I want to share with you - an outsider's view on Finnish design, if you like.

Probably a good place to start is with Alvar Aalto, who seems to be pretty much a 20th century Nordic Leonardo da Vinci. He was, among other things, an architect, with a very distinctive style. He designed a great many buildings in Jyväskylä, particularly in the university, and indeed all around the world, but probably his most famous is Finlandiatalo in Helsinki.

Just being an iconic architect wasn't enough for him, though. He also decided to turn his hard to furniture making, along with his wife Aino Aalto. Have you ever seen any of his pieces? Well, if you've ever gone into an Apple Store then you'll have seen his High Stool 64. The Paimio Chair is also pretty recognisable.

And then, because achieving world renown in two fields was too easy, Aalto dabbled in a bit of glassware too. One of his most successful creations is this vase.

One other thing ought to be said about Aalto's buildings, though. Several of them on the Jyväskylä University campus suffer from what's known as Bad Air.  No-one seems entirely clear what this is all about, but it seems to be a peculiarly Finnish problem that afflicts buildings throughout the country and manifests itself through headaches and nausea. It may be something to do with mould developing in the Finnish climate. My own, completely uninformed, opinion is that this is a consequence of the Finns having grown up in a place with absurdly good air quality. In Britain, for example, we're well used to breathing pollution, so no-one notices a bit of mould here and there.

So that's Alvar Aalto. Next, there's Marimekko. This is a modern design brand with shops across Finland. They primarily produce a range of fabric designs in bright colours, like the poppy-based Unikko. It's a bit like the Finnish equivalent of Liberty Print. Here's a Unikko oven glove.

And here's a Unikko mug (yes, I do quite like this design, how did you guess?)

Another well-known Finnish brand is Iitala, who produce glassware. Of course, our friend Aalto worked for them in his time too. They have a certain range of glass bowls, which you'll find in virtually every Finnish household. And mine, naturally.

There's also Arabia, who specialise in ceramics. Here's a nice cup and saucer:

Photo by Richard Spoun

So, all this arty stuff's very nice, but what about something more practical? A design that saves us time? Well, look no further than the Finnish Dish Drying Cupboard, invented by the Finnish Association for Work Efficiency. If you're feeling lazy, drip drying is an easy way to deal with the dishes, but then you still have to put the stuff away. Who's got time for that? Well, why not put a drying rack in a cupboard over the sink? I can't see why it hasn't taken off outside Finland.

Photo by Richard Spoun, genius by Finland

I hope you found this brief trip around Finnish design interesting. If unlike me you know what you're talking about, you can always put me right in the comments. Or, if you're looking for something to do, you can always read my book, or you might like to check out my other articles about Finland here.

 

Why I Love Finland

Since you're probably all bored with me talking about my new book all the time, I thought I'd try something different today and try to explain why it is that I'm always going on about Finland these days.

It all started in January this year, which feels like an awfully long time ago now. I've got some friends living in Jyväskylä, a town in central Finland, and so I decided to pay them a visit.  The only advice I received was "bring plenty of warm clothes", which turned out to be very good advice indeed.

Finland in January is cold. Very cold. -27 degrees Celsius when I stepped off the plane in fact, cold enough to freeze the inside of your nose. Cold enough that you didn't need to use the huge bridge that crosses Jyväskylä's lake, since it was frozen thick enough to walk across. Or ski across, if you prefer.

Yes, I'm standing in the middle of a lake right now

Yes, I'm standing in the middle of a lake right now

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So yes, wrap up warm if you visit in winter. But I was never at all cold inside; the Finns seem to understand heating and insulation far better than we do in Britain.

I spent my first visit getting to know Jyväskylä.  It's a nice town, with a good university and lots of buildings designed by the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto.

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One thing you realise very quickly in Finland (as an English-speaker, at least) is how alien the language is. Whereas anyone with English and a smattering of French or German can often figure out the gist of most written languages throughout Europe, that won't get you very far with Finnish.  It's a Uralic language, along with Hungarian and Estonian, and so it comes from a completely different root from the Indo-European languages we know and love.

That means that not only is the vocabulary completely unlike anything in English, the grammar is very different too, relying a lot on different cases with different word endings. I've been trying to teach myself, and I've managed to pick up a lot of the basics, but there's an awfully long way to go. Still, it's a nice challenge to learn something so very different.

One other thing I picked up on my first visit was a love of Finnish vodka, and Koskenkorva in particular. I've drunk plenty of Russian vodka before (or at least, the sort that's sold in the UK - I'd be very happy to learn this isn't typical of what the Russians actually drink) but it's a drink with a clear purpose, and that purpose isn't to provide a great flavour. Koskenkorva, on the other hand, tastes absolutely delicious straight, particularly when drunk straight out from the freezer.

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Even aside from Koskenkorva, the range of drinks on offer in Finland is quite diverse. Who needs Jaegerbombs when you've got fish shots, pine shots, mint shots and salmiakki shots? The latter is made from salmiakki, a kind of salted liquorice which is perhaps an acquired taste, but the Finns love it and by the time I left so did I.

By the way, if you think Finnish beer is a bit flavourless, take it in the sauna to properly appreciate it.

Not all mine, I promise

Not all mine, I promise

My second visit to Finland came in July, by which point it was a completely different country. Instead of the freezing cold of winter, the climate was now much more like a decent English summer. Instead of short days, now there are just a few hours of twilight before the sun rises once again.

This was taken about 3am. In another hour it would be as bright as noon.

This was taken about 3am. In another hour it would be as bright as noon.

Jyväskylä in the summer - contrast with the same shot above

Jyväskylä in the summer - contrast with the same shot above

This time I had some other friends with me, and so we hired a car and went on a bit of a road trip from Jyväskylä up to Nilsiä and down to Helsinki. Driving between towns in Finland, you come to realise just how sparsely populated it is. Just five and a half million people live there - the rest is trees.

Lots of trees

Lots of trees

As you might expect, this makes for some rather beautiful landscapes. The picture at the top of this webpage (and on the front of my book) was taken at Koli national park, from where you can look out as far as Russia. There's also a lot of wildlife, although unfortunately (or perhaps not) I still haven't seen a bear.

July, like every other time in Finland, is the perfect time for a sauna. It's a massive part of Finnish culture, and there are supposedly two million saunas in the county (for five and a half million people, remember). You probably won't believe me until you've tried it, but there are few things more fun than jumping from a scorching sauna into a freezing lake.

Lighting the sauna

Lighting the sauna

The stereotypical Finnish sauna is located at the kesämökki (summer cabin), a little wooden cabin on the side of a lake.

The sauna

The sauna

The lake

The lake

My third visit to Finland this year came in December. It seems that it's been quite a mild winter so far, and I'd been told that all the snow had been washed away. Despite this there was still more snow than you're ever likely to see in England.

There was one thing in particular I wanted to try this time: skiing. Not downhill, since Finland isn't particularly mountainous, but cross-country. I'd never done any kind of skiing before, so I didn't quite know what to expect, but I went to a winter sport park with one of my friends (who had at least skied once more than me) and rented some skis.

Unfortunately, so early in the year there was only a single course open, and with hindsight it probably wasn't the best one for beginners, particularly those without any instruction. My skiing proved to be mostly falling down hills and trying to work out how to regain my feet while on a slope. The end result was a lot of bruises, but I'm looking forward to trying again in the future. I can only get better, right?

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So, that's my experience of Finland so far. Aside from the above, it's also extremely clean and has awesome trains. The people can be shy, or rather quiet, but also very friendly. It's the only country I know of to have defeated both Nazi Germany and the USSR in the Second World War. It has the world's best schools and I've seen no signs of poverty. It's home to the one and only Father Christmas (known locally as Joulupukki). It has the highest ratio of metal bands to people of any country (as well as some great music from other genres, too), and drinks more coffee than anyone else either.

So that's why I love Finland. Why don't you visit it yourself someday?

UPDATE: If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in my other articles about Finland. Take a look!