Learning Finnish

If you look at my CV or my About pages you will see that in 1998 I spent some time in Finland learning Finnish. It was four intense weeks of Finnish through the medium of Finnish, supported by the nice people in the Finnish Government who, at the time, funded two people to go to study at summer school in Rauma each year. I am not sure if they still do it and I don’t even know now how I found out about it. I was a temporary agent in Brussels at the time but I got the scholarship on the basis of being Irish.

Anyway, four weeks of intense study will take you so far, and I did some follow up work while I was still living in Belgium, but life took an interesting turn into computer programming and somehow, this habit of acquiring bits and pieces of human languages got set aside in favour of speaking directly to computers. I wrote assembler for a long time. And I learned Java, and I made projects happen with Javascript, Python and R. And SQL.

I did a postgrad in computer science last year which finished up around September and usually, when I do something like that, I follow it up with some completely different activity. Instead of it being some form of craft work (my last postgrad was followed up by a stained glass and mosaics design course), I decided to pick up Finnish again.

Finnish is an interesting language in a lot of respects. It is a branch of the Finno-Ugric languages which are generally thought to be unrelated to the Indo-European languages (although I believe there is some research in philology questioning this). Unlike most languages, it has an entirely logical spelling system with no irregularities. It has some grammatical oddities and structurally, it has some serious idiosyncrasies. Above all, it is a highly compacted language. I remember some of the very basic stuff, but I have more or less forgotten the verb and noun rules.

Being prudent, I have picked up the books I bought 15 years ago to study Finnish, mainly because I know they are good books, and also because getting decent dictionaries seems to be harder now than it was then. And this includes going through the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa book store online. The other thing I am doing, which is linked to some rather traumatic memories involving German, is reading a news story a day with the aid of a dictionary. This is massively challenging for several reasons, of which, having forgotten the verb and noun rules, identifying root forms of both can be impossible, and of course, it just takes a long time. I do, however, believe it is one of the more effective ways of broadening your vocabulary. It’s just not that easy.

In terms of language acquisition, some things are much easier now. I am not really going to talk about Duolingo (I have doubts about it as a learning tool for me anyway, and I don’t believe it offers Finnish), but the simple availability of media. Even for Finnish, there is a substantial amount of material available through Youtube videos, for example. There are a number of radio stations available via TuneIn. YLE, the state broadcasting service does a special Easy Finnish news report which is what I use as raw material for my reading exercises. At the weekend, I think I will be able to watch skijumping and ice skating in Finnish.

When I was learning French, to get any media at all, I used to hide in a car which had a long wave receiver. At this point, it doesn’t massively matter how much I understand, only that the amount I am understanding is growing on an ongoing basis. My passive vocabulary will grow much more quickly than my active vocabulary and this is not all that surprising since this morning’s news story was about unemployment and part time work.

The interesting thing, from my point of view, is how much hard work goes into language acquisition. Being absolutely honest, it is harder work than learning programming languages.

And yet, in certain respects, it is very rewarding. One of the interesting things about Finnish is how sentences are structured and how that might suggest a completely different way of looking at the world. I find it fascinating purely from that point of view, never mind being able to converse with people in Stockmann when I go shopping there. In a lot of ways, I am really sorry I set it aside for so long. I am having fun with this.

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