Puhuminen Suomen — A Journey in Finnish

Before starting on my reflections when learning Finnish, I would like to highlight the first impression other learners get from the language. Many memes have circulated here and there talking about the sheer difficulty in learning Finnish. Even I have rated it as among the most difficult foreign languages to learn as a [monolingual] native Chinese speaker, due to the astounding number of differences between the two languages. While we see memes that feature the compounding and suffixing nature of Finnish like this one below, we also see memes which feature the ambiguous part of it.

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It is also nice to note that there are memes which feature how a change in vowel or consonant length could change the whole meaning of the phrase or sentence. Probably the most well known one is

Tapaan sinut — I meet you

Tapan sinut — I kill you

There are a ton of other memes about Finnish (language differences too), Finland and their people, who take personal space very seriously. Finnish Nightmares is one cute and accurate web comic regarding the Finnish people so check it out. And now, my reflection.

From the various memes I have seen on social media, I thought that Finnish would be a great challenge to learn. I had never really attempted learning any Finno-Ugric language before, and this would be my first taste of this language family. Finnish sounds are pretty simple, to be frank. Consonants and vowels are pretty much the usual few, just throw in a few vowels not found in English, add some foreign diphthongs like öy, äi and yö, and also, make vowels and consonants distinguishable by length. Long vowels and short vowels are pretty much common in languages like Hindi and Tamil, but long consonants (technically they are doubled consonants)? It is something I have not really come across often, and so it posed a challenge to me when learning to speak it. From the meme I shared earlier, vowel length does matter when it comes to the meaning of the sentence, and hence its importance.

Another anomaly I came across when learning this language was the concept of consonant gradation. In Celtic languages like Welsh and Irish, words are mutated or eclipsed at the beginning, but in Finnish, consonant gradation typically takes place at the last consonants of a stem, and there is a strong and a weak grade. Knowing when to use what is challenging to a beginner, but I slowly got used to it as I picked up.

One more feature is vokaaliharmonia, or vowel harmony. This is quite a common feature in languages like Hungarian, Turkish and Mongolian. Finnish classifies its eight basic vowels into three groups — back vowels, front vowels and neutral vowels. A, o, u belong to the back vowel group, i and e belong to the neutral vowel group, and the rest are in the front vowel group. One rule is that front vowels only mix with front or neutral vowels, and back vowels only mix with back or neutral vowels. Thus, each ending which contains vowels would change according to vowel harmony rules.

The grammar is manageable at first, but boy does the learning curve pick up real fast. Basically, Finnish nouns have a dozen or so case endings, which are used on one of the four forms. My dictionary listed the four forms as the nominative (the basic), the genitive (the possessive), the partitive singular, and the partitive plural. Some nouns vary in all four forms, making it a pain to learn, like strawberry — mansikka, mansikan, mansikkaa, mansikoita. Or accident — onnettomuus, onnettomuuden, onnettomuutta, onnettomuuksia. The most crucial cases to learn would be the nominative, genitive and partitive, the next few would be the inessive (in/at) and elative (from). The genitive and partitive have two purposes, their intended function (genitive is more on possession; partitive is more on, well, parts), and as a replacement for the accusative case (because it is not really there) to demonstrate the extent of completing the action. For example, “ostan kanaa” means “I buy some chicken” (partitive), and “ostan kanan” means “I buy a whole chicken” (genitive). Despite the huge number of case endings Finnish has (in contrast to say, Russian or Tamil), Finnish still uses post positions with the genitive case.

Verbs in Finnish are more nightmarish though. To be fair, they have two tenses — present and past. Thus the future tense is represented by the present tense. But they also tend to compound interrogative particles, passive voice, conditional, imperative and potential moods, as well as the negation part into the conjugation tables, creating a decent mess. One interesting this is that, negated Finnish verbs do not conjugate in the present tense at least, but more rather, the negative particle conjugates. So “I speak” is “[minä] puhun”, but “I do not speak” is “[minä] en puhu” and “we do not speak” is “[me] emme puhu”. Yes/no questions are asked by a -ko- insertion, as in “Onko…?” “Is he/she/it…?”, and can be compounded to form things like “Oletkokoskaan maistanut…?” “Have you ever tasted…?”.

Overall, in my opinion, Finnish is a great language to learn for anyone who likes a bit of a challenge. While phonetics may not be so challenging, the grammar will be, and it comes down harder as one progresses. To maintain the learning pace, I selected this language to work on for Mizuki Tao’s Seven-Day Language Challenge, and I have to say, it is quite an interesting challenge to keep learners motivated and committed to learning their target language. Finnish grammar bogs down a lot of learners even in the beginning stage, and thus I would highly recommend activities like this to keep the motivation going in order to meet your goals in the language. Tao’s blog is found here on Fluency Spot: http://fluencyspot.com/

As I continue to work on this language, I plan to be able to use it effectively on my visits, to understand the locals, their signs and menus, as well as to gain proper immersion in their rather contemporary culture today.

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