How to Learn Finnish: Why Finnish is Easier than You Think
So you want to learn Finnish? Good job!
I want you to know, you don’t need to be daunted by your goal of speaking Finnish, no matter what others say.
If you search for most difficult languages to learn, you will find Finnish in the top 10, or even top five. Yet it’s up to you to judge whether Finnish (or any language, for that matter) is difficult to learn or not. It all starts in your mind. If you want it, then go get it!
It doesn’t matter if Finnish is difficult, or easy. What matters is your mentality.
You may already know this quote from Henry Ford:
Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.
Translating this to apply to Finnish:
Whether you think you can learn Finnish, or you think you can’t, you’re right.
So if you ask me, you might as well think you can learn Finnish!
In this article, I’m going to show you what makes Finnish easy. I’m not promising you any magic pill to make you learn Finnish overnight. I’ll simply give you an overview of what you need to know to get started with Finnish, so you can learn Finnish faster and smarter.
Let’s get started!
Finnish Words aren’t Gendered
If you’ve ever learned French, you’ll likely remember when you discovered that French objects have a gender. And headaches followed to figure out if it was le table or la table, la voiture or le voiture. Then perhaps you decided to switch to Spanish and…horror! Spanish objects have a gender too! And the worst had yet to come: Spanish word genders didn’t always match with the French! For example: “The car” is la voiture (French, feminine) and el coche (Spanish, masculine).
But the Finnish language is here to save you. Even though its grammar is a magnificent beast, its nouns and other objects will leave you alone at night. You can sleep tight because there is no gender in Finnish. No feminine, no masculine. Nada. And this doesn’t only apply to objects. Humans have no gender either. For example, “he” and “she” have the same translation. It’s hän in the formal/written form of Finnish.
It gets even better when you start speaking Finnish. In spoken Finnish, “he” and “she” are usually translated by se, which is Finnish for “it”. So you only have one word to learn and remember (se=he/she/it).
Finnish Grammar : Finnish has No Future Tense
Finnish has no future tense. You only need to know and use the present tense.
You might be thinking: “Ok, cool, but how will I know whether we’re talking about today or tomorrow?”
Simple: Context is key. Let’s see an example in English: “Let’s eat here.” You understand that you’re going to eat here, probably now, or in a near future. Now if she had said: “Let’s eat here tomorrow,” in that case you’d understand that she’s not talking about now, or today, but tomorrow. And it’s obvious. The same thing happens in Finnish. You will have clues in the conversation. Here are a few useful words to help you:
- today – tänään
- tomorrow – huomenna
- now – nyt
- here – tässä, täällä, tänne
Finnish Pronunciation: Finnish is a Phonetic Language — So You Can Say What You See!
A phonetic language is a language whose pronunciation follows its written form. So there are no pronunciation traps. What you read is what you say. For me, this is the ultimate feature in a language.
The thing is, I’m French. And to be honest, French is a messed-up language! If you’re learning French, there’s a 99% probability that you will mispronounce a word you’re seeing (without hearing it) for the first time. But none of that happens with Finnish.
I’m not going to give you an exhaustive explanation of Finnish pronunciation. Instead I’m just going to focus on the elements you’re not familiar with. There are only two vowels and two consonants that you need to focus on. The rest is very similar to the English pronunciation.
Let’s start with the vowels. These two new sounds are rounded versions of English vowels. Rounding your lips means that you make them go from flat (or straight, or stretched) to rounded. Make them come closer to the centre of your mouth. Make them form a small circle.
Start by saying “ee”, as in “tee”. While you maintain this sound, round your lips. And you obtain the letter y in Finnish (similar to the French “u”). Now start with “e”, as in “help”. Round your lips, and you obtain the letter ö in Finnish. Et voila! You just learned the two vowels you didn’t know before.
Now for the consonants. The first tricky one is the trilled r. This one needs some practice. This sound is made with the tip of the tongue vibrating by pushing air out of your mouth. My advice is to practice for 5-10 minutes a day until you get it right. Really exaggerate at the beginning to start making it. Practice the sound alone. And then practice it in words and sentences. You will get there little by little. Be patient and keep practicing a little everyday.
The second consonant you need to pay attention to is the Finnish v. It’s a forced version of the English “v”. Something between the English “v” and “w”. Notice the difference between the English “v” and the English “w”? A “w” is a “v” with rounded lips. And the Finnish v is actually like an English “w” but with straight lips (like an English “v”). Or like an English “v” where the lips have the same position but are squeezed! Your upper teeth are touching your lower lip when you pronounce the Finnish v.
If you want to go further into this, take a look at the Wikipedia page for Finnish phonology.
Bonus: The two vowels you just learned also exist in French. So if one day you decide to go back to fight those ugly French articles, then your Finnish pronunciation training will come in handy.
Finnish Intonation: A Simple Stress Pattern
One of the things you need to master in order to reach near-native fluency is intonation.
Every language has its own pronunciation. Its vowels, its consonants, its own weird unique sounds. It can become overwhelming when you add intonation to this mix.
But wait! Don’t run away yet! As we saw before, Finnish pronunciation is simple. And Finnish intonation is actually easy too. All you have to remember is to stress the first syllable. That’s it. The primary stress is on the first syllable. And if you really want to dig deeper, all you need to know is that there’s usually a secondary stress (for words with at least 3 syllables) on the third syllable.
Finnish Cultural Influences and Loanwords
One major difficulty for beginners is vocabulary. Finnish is a Uralic language, and many of its words are completely different from anything you’ve ever seen (unless you already speak Hungarian or Estonian).
You need not worry though. There are a lot of Finnish words that you already know, or will easily recognize. One of Benny’s favorite hacks to start speaking from day one is to use loanwords. And the good news is that there are more and more English loanwords appearing in Finnish conversations every year.
Let’s start with pure loan words (these words the Finns have kept intact). They come mostly from Germanic and Latin languages. They include: idea, smoothie, radio, piano, video, and metro. You can meet some Asian words as well, such as manga and tsunami.
The Finns have also adopted English words from the Internet and new technologies. For example, the verbs spammata and googlata (or googlettaa) mean “to spam” and “to google”.
Some English or French words have been finnishized simply by adding a vowel at the end of the word (most often a i). For example:
- banaani – banana
- baari – bar
- oliivi – olive
As you can see, sometimes vowels get doubled in Finnish. And the last consonant can also be doubled, as in bussi for “bus”. But not always, like filmi for “film”.
Other loanwords undergo several operations to be easier to pronounce for the Finns. The letters b, c, d, f, and g rarely appear in Finnish. Many loanwords use Finnish equivalents instead:
- b —> p
- c —> k, or s
- d —> t
- f —> v
- g —> k
When you see kahvi, musiikki, and pankki, can you guess which English words have been transformed?
Spoiler alert! The answers are coffee, music, and bank.
Also, the letters “w” and “x” appear only in archaic forms or some loan words. V and ks usually replace “w” and “x” in loan words.
How to finnishize a word in 3 easy steps:
- Replace b, c, d, f and g by p, k or s, t, v and k, respectively.
- Double the last consonant.
- Add a vowel (most often i) at the end of the word.
Can you guess the meaning of these words: pallo, taksi, tomaatti, and kitara?
The answers are: ball, taxi, tomato and guitar.
More Finnish Words You Already Know
As you’re reading this, I’m guessing you speak English. And as an English speaker, you already know more Finnish than you think. Sauna is a Finnish word, for example.
And have you ever heard of Finnish bravery? It’s called sisu. The Finns use it to show they have guts. It represents their tenacity and strong character. It was first introduced in the English language during WWII to describe Finland’s resistance against the Soviets. More recently, the CEO of Nokia used the word “sisu” to describe the company’s endurance and determination to overcome all obstacles.
The word tundra comes from Finnish too. A tundra is a treeless area in a cold region.
You may have also heard about salmiakki. If you ever visit Finland, you will have to try it. It’s a salty liquorice, and a very popular candy in Finland. Nightclubs in Helsinki even have salmiakki-vodka shots.
Last but not least, Finland named the Molotov cocktail (Molotovin koktaili in Finnish). Finnish soldiers used this weapon to push back the Soviets during WWII.
Finnish Articles? They Don’t Exist! There’s No “a” or “the” in Finnish
Finnish is full of cases (up to 15!), which I’ll talk about in a moment. But, unlike German, you don’t need to worry about articles (words for “a” and “the”) when you change the case of a noun. Why? Simply because there are no articles in Finnish, neither definite nor indefinite. No Finnish a. No Finnish the. Pure freedom! Well, almost. Since you still have to deal with 15 cases!
The next section will help you understand cases more clearly.
How to Learn Finnish Cases: Forget the Rules
There are 15 Finnish cases, and that’s still 14 too many. And there are no hacks to learn them. But instead of focusing on cases, forget them!
Cases mustn’t terrify you. A case is just another way to use words like at, on, for, in, …
So forget about them. Don’t learn them. Burn your textbook. Instead, start using Finnish. Speak Finnish. Sing Finnish. Live the language! You will learn Finnish grammar naturally, without noticing it, when you spend time just living the language, instead of cramming it into your brain.
Forget the rules. And absorb Finnish naturally.