At least it’s easier than learning Finnish


Finnish Radio station YLE offers weekly news summaries in classical Latin. Because practically nobody outside Finland would understand the news in Finnish...

In my random travels around the Internet, I stumbled across this article on the subject of teaching Finnish to foreigners: Finnish's status as an official EU language has created demand for interpreters. Finns have long accepted that they will have to learn the languages of others, considering the language's comparatively minor exposure on the world stage. But now, others will have to learn Finnish!

I occasionally toy with the idea of learning Finnish myself but each time conclude that it would be too much work. Though I do have as a long-term goal to learn the major modern Germanic languages. In probable order of study: English, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Afrikaans, and Icelandic.

(Hey, I left out Danish.)

Comments (38)
  1. Dutch and Afrikaans have a weird relationship. They are originally related and you can clearly hear it, but for a native speaker of one (Dutch) I can say that it’s still pretty complicated to understand Afrikaans based only on knowledge of Dutch.

    Just like Danish though, reading Danish is trivial for a Dutchman, understanding spoken Danish is something completely different.

  2. Serge Wautier says:

    Wow ! You inted to learn all of these languages ? Impressive !

    I just wonder why you’d find interesting to learn that many related languages.

    Wouldn’t it be more interesting to learn languages from different origins (i.e. German, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese) ? Just wondering.

  3. Vladimir Putin says:

    How about Russian? It’s a major language.

  4. Aarrgghh says:

    Afrikaans turns out to be interesting; this article says there are loan words from African languages and even Malay: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrikaans

    The article also mentions that "citroen" (sans oomlauts) is the Dutch for "lemon". I suppose "lemon" has different connotations in French.

  5. Duncan Jones says:

    Somewhere in the backwaters of my synapses is the idea that Finnish is not related to any of the other European languages and that it’s nearest relative is something unlikely like Urdu?

    Anyway – keep at it. Can’t be any harder than my learning Irish…

  6. Russ C. says:

    Err I can’t read, Dutch must have been in my Blind Spot!

  7. Russ C. says:

    Nice to see someone who has my same ambition!, but don’t forget Dutch as a Germanic Language. I find that being a Native english speaker, and also having a fair understanding of German, I can quite easily understand simple Dutch (written down that is!). Similarly, between German and Old English, I find that Norwegian and Swedish are familiar.

    Finnish is closest to Hungarian and Estonian, being an Ugric language, A group of languages totally different to anything else in europe.

    I think Finnish is a very beautiful language to look at too .. but it’s native name is not so nice :) I’m probably wrong but doesn’t Suomea mean ‘Swampish’ ?

    Moikka !

  8. Jannik Anker says:

    As a Dane, I think you could just as well include Danish, if you’re gonna learn both Swedish and Norwegian.

    To me, the differences are few – basically, it’s a matter of intonation and dialect – grammar rules are (relatively) easily compared and related…

    I assume you must have some sort of passion going for languages when you set out to do this thing, and that makes the small differences in the nordic languages easy to figure out.

  9. Simon Hodd says:

    Duncan, Finnish is a Finno-Ugrian language and is related to for example Hungarian and Estonian.

  10. Afrikaans is a wonderful language, full of little sutbleties.

    My favorite is there is 2 different words for a customer.

    Both directly mean customer, but in essence one means a customer that is a regular and the other means a sporadic customer.

  11. Russ C. says:

    @Jannik, Small difference until you get to Icelandic :D

  12. Ilkka Hyvärinen says:

    Kuinka niin vaikeaa? Suomihan on helppoa ja yksinkertaista, vai mitä Russ? Kuka vain oppii sen parissa kuukaudessa! ;-)

    English summary: Whaddaya mean, difficult? Huh? ;-)

    BTW, Russ, about origin of the name Suomi — I don’t think its original meaning or etymology has been conclusively eplained. Swamp land (Suomaa) is just one theory AFAIK.

  13. Luc Cluitmans says:

    Good luck with trying to learn Finnish… been there, done that…

    I suspect you have a better knack for learning foreign languages than I do. Even though I live in Finland since 2000, I still have serious troubles with the language. As not many finns speak dutch (my ‘native’ language), and most finns do speak english, I use english as my everyday language…

    Oh, for those interested in seeing what finnish is like, have a look at the on-line finnish course at http://donnerwetter.kielikeskus.helsinki.fi/FinnishForForeigners/parts-index.htm

    What I know about the other languages mentioned:

    Dutch and Afrikaans are highly related, and if spoken slowly and carefully, more or less mutually intellegible.

    Finnish and Hungarian seem to be related only at some theoretical level: they have some common origin, but don’t expect a finn to understand hungarian or vice versa; IIRC, the grammars may be related, the vocabularies aren’t.

    On the other hand, Finnish and Estonian are very close: with my (limited) knowledge of Finnish, I could interpret most signs and menus I saw in Tallinn (the Estonian capital).

  14. Russ C. says:

    Ilkka, Kiitos :)

  15. Tero says:

    I think the difficulty of learning Finnish is a bit exaggerated. I have seen people learn excellent Finnish during one years stay in Finland, telling that it was not so hard after all. You have to remember, that there are some easy parts in Finnish grammar: everything is pronounced as it is written (kind of), and you can put the words in almost any order in a sentence – usually only the stress varies a bit, but everyone understands you. Also, people rarely think that you are rude if you use very straightforward language without too much decoration, since that’s how Finns communicate! (and that’s why people think Finnish people are inpolite. We are not accustomed to sentences like "Would you kindly tell me where the little boys room is. Please?". A Finn would just ask "Where is the toilet?")

    I’m a native Finn, so I’m only quessing here. Learning Finnish was easy for me ;-)

  16. Johan Johansson says:

    Tero: actually I bet you spent years learning it. It wasn’t necessarily easy because it happened a long time ago.

  17. Tero says:

    Johan, you have a point. I think, that even learning to pronounce the very first word took over a year from me. After that the pace was luckily a bit faster.

  18. pompo500 says:

    I just heard of this blog and was fascinated to see that one of the dudes who basically coded the Windows has an open ‘web diary’.

    And what do I see, you talking about my language. It’s always nice to see people in the big country talking about a small country like ours. ^_^

  19. Anonymous Coward says:

    Having spoken Afrikaans as a second language in my youth, I do find Dutch ok to understand although it sounds gutteral and messy. I think it is a lot easier for an Afrikaans speaker to understand Dutch rather than the other way round. To a certain extent it is like the relationship between Portuguese and Spanish.

    A more interesting language is Fanagalo which is a simplified combination of several Southern African languages. It has this wierd property that if you can speak any one of the other languages you can make out what someone speaking Fanagalo means. It was always interesting trying to communicate with people when you may share no language in common.

    One of the funniest things I witnessed was one of my friends try to ask about bats (flying rats) in a nearby abandoned mine shaft. His siSwati was way better than mine, but he didn’t know the word for bat. Various gesticulations and explanations like "flying rat" didn’t get any results.

  20. Hal says:

    Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish are all very closely related, or so says my Swedish-born wife. Icelandic is kind of like Chaucerian English, by comparison. (Although I once saw a video interview with Bjork, and she had a great throwaway line. She held up a journal and said, "I have a secret code called Icelandic, so you will never know what’s in here…")

    My understanding is that Finnish is part of the Altaic group of languages, and thus more related to Magyar (Hungarian) and Japanese than anything else.

  21. david says:

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  22. Raymond Chen says:

    ? What does that link have to do with learning languages?

  23. Russ C. says:

    Not a Lot

  24. Russ C. says:

    Hal, Nope Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language … Altaic consists of languages like Turkish, Mongolian, and very distantly related to Japanese and Korean – Hungarian is one of the Finno-Ugric languages , but it’s only similar in Function and Grammar, a Finnish speaker couldn’t Understand Magyar like an English man could understand High french or low german.

    Personally, I think learning Finnish is a great thing to do … It takes a quality of character for an English speaker to learn a language that has no Definate article (the!)

  25. .dan.g. says:

    so when are you going to learn english ;)

  26. berkus says:

    Well, so far i’ve learned only "Terve" which means kind of "Hello" in Finnish.

  27. Samuel Green says:

    You should learn "Tuoppi", "pint of beer, please". :)

  28. Marcus says:

    Russ… Icelandic is remotley similar. We do share common roots atleast. I have as a goal to master it some day.

    And ‘Vilken bra idé att lära dig Svenska!’ to you..!

  29. zia says:

    "iso" = "a pint of lager, please. cheers."

  30. Cooney says:

    A more interesting language is Fanagalo which is a simplified combination of several Southern African languages. It has this wierd property that if you can speak any one of the other languages you can make out what someone speaking Fanagalo means. It was always interesting trying to communicate with people when you may share no language in common.

    Wouldn’t that be considered a pidgin?

  31. Andy says:

    I speak pretty decent Finnish but every Finn I speak to tells me they can tell I learned Finnish in Savo. Since Savo is the perfect place on earth I don’t feel bad about this at all :) . I went to highschool in Finland and graduated froma Finnish highschool(Kuopion Musikki Lukio) even though I am American and Norwegian by birth. Finnish honestly is not that hard of a language to learn. Just throw out every rule of grammer you have ever learned with Germanic languages and don’t try and construct sentences in the Germanic fashion and you will be fine. I haven’t been back to Finland since 95 so I’m getting a bit rusty but I still read the news from Finland here:

    http://www.helsinginsanomat.fi/

    they also have an English edition.

  32. Russ C. says:

    Marcus, Thats what I meant … Norwegian, Swedish and Danish have evolved and expanded , Whereas Modern Icelandic practically the same language as the Vikings spoke .. I understand that a child in Iceland can read the Viking sagas in original Dialect almost as easily as Harry Potter.

    But there are still cognates in basic words, Bread, Brøt, Brot and brauð and Wine, Wein, Vin and Vin :) Shame about Beer, Bier, øl and bjôr and öl . (I have my priorities right) but even there you can see how the language split …

    Whereas higher words have changed more, Undertand, Verstehe, Forstå and Skilje for example.

    and ‘tack så mycket :)’

  33. Russ C. says:

    I guess I could shoehorn in Faroese somewhere in the middle of all of that too :)

  34. Zachary Turner says:

    To Robert MacLean,

    If you like Afrikkans because of that subtlety, try learning Japanese. Having been studying it for approximately 3 years now, I can say without question that it has more subtleties than I even know what to do with.

    Examples:

    ~ nai you ni naru = to become, turn out like

    ~ naku naru = to become, turn out like

    The difference is that the first is a more gradual change that occurs due perhaps to an obstacle, or a change in situation, whereas the second one just happens.

    Also, there are about 5 different words for "a lot", and if you use the wrong one it sounds strange.

    On the other hand, there are situations where many different English words map onto a single Japanese word. Consider the following English conversation (Don’t worry if you don’t understand the Japanese part, the point I’m illustrating is obvious just from looking at it):

    A: (Enters B’s office)

    B: Oh hi A. I got those documents. Here they are.

    A: Oh really? Let me take a look at them. (Walks over the B’s desk)

    B: Let’s see. Here you go.

    A: (Looks at the documents). Hmm, isn’t there one page missing?

    B: Ahh yes, here it is.

    A: No problem.

    A: Well I guess that just about does it. Thanks!

    B: Sure, any time.

    A: See you later.

    In Japanese I’d translate this conversation as:

    A: (Enters B’s office) Shitsurei shimasu.

    B: A-san, Ohayou gozaimasu. Shorui ga moraimashita.

    A: Sou desu ka? Anou… Shitsurei shimasu. (Walks over the B’s desk)

    B: Hai, douzo.

    A: (Looks at the documents). Aaaa.. Shitsurei shimasu. Ichi mai wa arimasen ka?

    B: Aa, hai. Chotto matte kudasai.

    A: Shitsurei shimashita.

    A: Jaa, doumo arigatou gozaimashita.

    B: Hai.

    A: Shitsurei shimashita.

    Now, how many times did A say "Shitsurei shimasu" or the past tense variant of it in a single conversation? 5, out of a total of 6 sentences. I agree this example is a bit contrived, but it illustrates my point at least.

  35. asdf says:

    In a way, learning Indo-European languages like German, French, Spanish, Italian etc. is rather straightforward for English speakers. They are all related on a deep level – you do not need to change your ways of thinking in order to construct sentences in the new language. But languages like Finnish and Japanese are completely different – different enough that I would consider them like different programming paradigms. Know one, know all. Nobody is impressed when you already know C and tell them you’ve learned Pascal – they’re both imperative languages with small differences. Similarly, I’m not that impressed when an English speaker learns Swedish.

    It’s a far bigger effort to learn something completely different like Finnish, Japanese or Scheme, because it requires you to think in strange ways ("strange" before you realize how beautiful those languages are). That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily difficult – when you are in a receptive state of mind and in an environment that encourages learning (Finland is particularly bad here because we tend to switch to English the moment we realize the other speaker’s Finnish is not going to cut it), it’s possible to learn the language in a year. I’ve seen exchange students become almost perfect Finnish speakers in a year.

    For much of the same reasons, I suppose, the English ability of Finnish people is either particularly good or particularly bad. You either "get it" or don’t. Personally, I noticed it somewhere around the first year of high school (~16 years of age) – I was suddenly able to hold lengthy and detailed conversations in English and understand any text written in English. Prior to that I was sort of afraid of using the language, because I really don’t like making mistakes. :-)

    Having mastered Finnish (as it’s my mother tongue) and English, I’ve started learning Japanese. Finnish is definitely a better starting point for that than English. I figure it’s more useful than Indo-European languages for the simple reason that there are already lots of people who learn and know many of the Indo-European languages, but far less people who know English, Japanese and Finnish, the only true world languages. ;-)

  36. Jimbob says:

    Personally, I don’t know why people find Finnish so hard to learn. It is the only language I have learned (English is my mother-tongue), as I live in Finland.

    Yes, it does not belong to the Indo-European family, which makes it challenging at a very fundamental level: the whole grammar and "way of thinking" is very different to what a "Westerner" would be used to; simple one-to-one translations just do not work.

    BUT, the language is extremely rigid in structure (unlike the anything goes nature of English), and often I find it easier to express myself in Finnish than in English.

    The only drawback is that Finnish isn’t much use outside Finland, but that’s not my problem.

    No, my problem is that my next target is Welsh: how useful are Finnish and Welsh on the global level? Hmmm…

  37. English also has it’s share of subtleties. For example:

    to come = tulla

    to become = tulla (joksikin)

    It took quite a some time for me to grasp the difference. Now I don’t even have to think about it. I’m actually learning Japanese too, still at "?????", "???? ??????", "??" and not much more but progressing fast :) oh sorry, I mean ^_^

  38. Someone once said that studying Finnish is the exact opposite of studying English. Finnish can be difficult in the beginning (unless you’re a speaker of Estonian) but it will get easier and easier as you learn more. Getting the initial "hang" of English is very easy, but English becomes very demanding as you move on to a more advanced level. There are some features in Finnish that make the language easier to learn – such as the relatively free word order. To top it off, Finnish spelling is phonetical (with some exceptions) which eliminates the need to learn the spelling and pronunciation of words separately (something that is required in English).

    The most challenging part of studying Finnish is the complex morphology: each verb and noun has hundreds (theoretically, thousands) of different forms that can be derived from the basic form of the word only through a large set of complex rules. Of course, a lot of other languages around the world have similar morphological systems but Finnish is one of the more extreme examples.

    For example, the word "kertoa" (to tell) can take different forms, depending on the mood, tense and person:

    kerron = I tell

    kertoo = he tells

    kerro = tell (imperative)

    kerrottiin = it was told (passive)

    kertonette = you may tell (plural)

    kertoisivatko = would they tell (interrogative)

    Here are some links that you might find interesting.

    Finnish morphological analyzer (just enter any Finnish word in the text box for analysis):

    http://www.lingsoft.fi/cgi-bin/fintwol

    The 2,253 forms of a simple Finnish noun:

    http://www.ling.helsinki.fi/~fkarlsso/genkau2.html

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