Hanna-Marika Mitrunen is a teacher of Finnish for foreigners at the Tampere University Language Center. When she studied Finnish as her major, she realized how interesting her mother tongue is and she decided to devote herself to teaching people from other countries and cultures. Now, she is glad that her work allows her to meet international students.
-QUESTION: Which are the hardest parts of learning Finnish?
-ANSWER: I would say that the so-called morphology would be one of these, the way how words change at the endings. For instance, how the word 'hand', 'käsi' changes: it can be 'käden', 'kättä', 'kädessä', so it’s hard to recognize which is the stem of a word. This might be difficult at the beginning.
The vocabulary is another difficulty, because most Finnish words are very different from the words in other languages. One needs to practice a lot, but later on it can become easier: for instance, if you know the word 'kirja', which means 'book', then you can learn easier the word 'kirjakauppa' ('bookstore') or 'kirjasto' ('library').
Also, when I learn new words, for instance in English, first I practice the pronunciation, this can help a lot. Some people write down when they hear something new, this keeps them active. Curiosity is important: whenever you see a new sign, you can learn it. one can use the unique situation that he/she is in Finland so there is the chance to use Finnish everyday.
-Q: What would you consider easy in Finnish?
-A: Compared to many other languages the word order is easier, the sentences are simpler to formulate in Finnish, the spelling is also not a problem, because it’s close to the pronunciation and it’s a very consistent system.
During Finnish language classes I have the impression that the pronunciation is not as easy, many can struggle with the sounds 'y', 'ö' or 'ä' or to just make a difference between these.
A person first has to recognize the sound and then to practice it, for instance to understand how the length of the vowels is important: one can say 'tuli' or 'tuuli' ('fire' or 'wind'), while many languages don’t have this difference. It can help if we know where our tongue and lips should be when we make a sound. We have to take the steps little by little. No one has to sound like a native speaker, that’s good to remember.
-Q: How can one improve his/her listening skills?
-A: I would recommend Yle’s website for that, they have a page called Selkouutiset where you can listen news in a simplified version of Finnish. When you have some knowledge on the language this is a nice way to practice.
Reading in Finnish
-Q: What about starting to read in Finnish?
-A: Yle has simplified written texts in the Selkouutiset page, this might help, and a little bit later, when one knows the language more, there are books available in a simpler version of Finnish. I would mention Private Finnish Lessons, where you can find these kinds of publishing.
-Q: You say that Finnish language is a kind of pyramid, while many other languages, like English are the opposite of that. What do you mean by that?
-A: In the case of English you can get the basic communication skills quite easily and you can use it in a short time, and it becomes harder if you want to get to the 'top'
With Finnish it’s different: the beginning is the hardest because it’s a different language from many others, so you have to study a lot. But once you get the idea of the system, it becomes easier, because it has a logic. What one needs is Sisu, the idea of not giving up!
-Q: How patient are Finnish people with a foreigner who doesn’t speak well their native language?
-A: I think we get little by little used to non-native speakers, but at the moment some people just want to help and say “let’s just speak English”.
But for instance, there are kind of name tags called 'puhu minulle suomea' ('speak Finnish to me'), so you can practice with them. I had exercises with my students where they had to interview people in Finnish, or for instance one can learn in tandem, when a Finnish person teaches you his/her native language, and you teach yours.