Finnish is beautiful but difficult
Moi! (Hello!) Mitä kuuluu? (How are you?) Aurinko paistaa! (The sun is shining!) Foreign students are chatting with each other as they gather in the classroom. An elementary class in Finnish is about to begin.
The teacher of the class is Päivi Vetsch, who has been teaching Finnish for foreigners for over 15 years. "People of all ages take Finnish classes at the University", Vetsch describes her students. "The youngest was 16 years old and the oldest one over 80." The classes Vetsch teaches are not meant for those studying in institutions of higher education but for others interested in learning Finnish.
I want to know whether the cliché about Finnish being an extremely difficult language is true. "Finnish is just as easy or difficult as other languages", Vetsch declares. "The problem is that most of the foreigners learning Finnish come from countries where Indo-European languages are spoken. Indo-European languages are like dialects of each other. Finnish uses suffixes instead of prepositions."
This is what makes Finnish hard for some. However, Päivi Vetsch adds that for example the Finnish verb system is significantly easier than the Spanish one.
Learning takes years
Learning is also often linked to the cultural background of the students. Americans as well as English and French people may start studying their first foreign language only as adults. Scandinavians, on the other hand, are used to studying several languages and find learning easier.
"The education system and teaching methods of different countries also affect learning", Vetsch explains. "Russian adult students who went to school a few decades ago are used to the teacher talking and the students merely taking notes. They think listening to songs and oral exercises are a complete waste of time. On the other hand, to put it roughly, Swedes only want to sing and play. They are not all that interested in the theoretical aspect."
Learning Finnish is not a quick process. It takes a year or two to manage in a café or supermarket or engage in small talk with the neighbours. Achieving the ability to discuss a wide range of topics will take four to five years.
The students of Vetsch's advanced Finnish classes read the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper. "At this level the vocabulary of the students is already large. They are also familiar with a lot of grammatical structures", Vetsch says. "However, the student's ability to actively produce Finnish depends on the person. I might have a student who understands articles in Helsingin Sanomat very well but isn't able to speak at all. There may also be students who speak well but find Helsingin Sanomat incomprehensible. This is largely due to the fact that written standard Finnish differs so greatly from spoken Finnish."
Kiitos, kulta, jäätelö!
So how do the students find studying Finnish? Suvalaxmi Roy, from India, and April Schick, from the United States, both ended up in Finland through their husbands' jobs. Both are now taking the elementary course in Finnish. "It's hard!" sighs Suvalaxmi. "But I'm trying my best. I try to speak Finnish at the market place and in the shops. However, I think the language is getting more and more difficult."
April Schick is critical of Finnish teaching methods and the teaching material used. "I'm definitely a reader. I would prefer listening to the teacher in class and looking up the information later by myself. It is difficult to concentrate in class when you always have to write at the same time. It's frustrating. I don't think the books we use are particularly good, either."
Both Roy and Schick think the language itself sounds pleasant. "Kiitos (thank you) is such a sweet word", Roy smiles. "Tervetuloa (welcome), anteeksi (sorry)." Suvalaxmi tells me that her native language Bengali and Finnish actually have some words in common. "For example, the word 'sata' means 'a hundred' in my language as well!"
Some Finnish words make the duo giggle. "When I arrived in Finland in October I saw the word 'kulta' on a shop window", Suvalaxmi recalls. "In India, 'kulta' means a bad woman. I told my husband that he wasn't allowed to call me kulta! 'Putki' is also a funny word. In our language it means a very small person."
April Schick thinks the most interesting word in Finnish is jäätelö, icecream. "I like and dislike the word! Pronouncing it is very difficult for me. That's why I'm always watching people's mouths when they say it. The sound at the end of the word makes the mouth look really ugly!"