I’ve been learning Finnish for over a year now, and am getting nowhere fast. Finnish is a notoriously difficult language to learn—certainly amongst European languages—and so perhaps this is to be expected. But as an Englishman, one starts from the position of all other languages being a bit of an unnecessary hassle anyway.
However, it’s really hard. Leaving aside its almost unique structures, the difficulty of learning the language is exacerbated by most Finns possessing excellent English—certainly in Helsinki, anyway—such that there is little chance to try it out on the street. And although the organisation I work for is resolutely Finnish, all our work is conducted in a form of International English. For these and other reasons, I'm unlikely to be able to speak Finnish for business.
So I’m actually learning Finnish to understand the culture better, language being one of the core structural components within a regional or national culture.
My understanding of Finnish is drawn from near-weekly lessons with my excellent tutor, Outi, who has the patience of a saint and a sense of humour, both of which are probably required attributes for language tutors anywhere. But particularly with Finnish, perhaps. She is kindly suffering my endless inquisitions as to the origins of particular words or phrases, which must be frustrating given the clear direction to teach me a more useful everyday Finnish. But with such an ancient and distinct language, it’s impossible to resist. I also try this on with long-suffering Finnish friends too, who tend to be equally gracious, and perhaps more knowledgeable in their language than native English speakers tend to be.
But you can put a lot of this down to reading Diego Marani’s genuinely extraordinary novel, “New Finnish Grammar”. It's one of the most affecting books I’ve read. Set in World War II, it’s the story of someone who wakes from a coma after a head injury to discover himself without memory or language. He is discovered by a Finnish doctor working on a German ship in Trieste, from where he is ultimately shipped to Helsinki, whereupon he is immersed in Finnish language and culture in an attempt to recreate the man by recreating his language. The novel is beautifully written and constructed, and although it’s about the most unlikely guide to Finnish you can imagine, I personally found it invaluable and inspirational in understanding Finland. At least as much as I can claim to.
The book is A Proper Novel, with characterisation, plot development, scenes and so on. James Woods states that the “novel exists to be affecting, to shake us profoundly” and New Finnish Grammar certainly does that. So please don’t be misled by the excerpts I’m deploying below, which are selected passages about the Finnish language. Even if you have no reason for caring about Finland, or Finnish, it's a wonderful book. For more on New Finnish Grammar, the review that made me pick it up was Nicholas Lezard’s in The Guardian. Lezard also describes a little of the intriguing author, Diego Marani, who, somewhat amazingly given the fathoms-deep insight into Finnish, is an Italian. Major kudos also to the translator Judith Landry.)
Before I continue: to any Finns reading this: please be aware I know many of the following statements on your language are subjective, interpretative and not exactly the work of a scholar, let’s put it that way. And equally, please take my comments on Finns, Finnish and Finnishness as the generalisations they often are. For each sweeping generalisation here, I have met the (North) polar opposite, of course. Having been here almost two years, I’m in the dangerous state of having lost the naive clear-sightedness of the new arrival but not yet gained the deeper understanding of the long-term resident. So please forgive the linguistic errors or cultural faux-pas (and feel free to correct below or elsewhere.)