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Starting from the beginning: Learning Finnish

April 10, 2014

Learning Finnish: the nightmare of many a people who have moved to this country. Finnish seems to be particularly difficult for native speakers of English, as documented in a news piece from YLE News last fall. According to the US-based Foreign Service Institute, Finnish is identified as a language “with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English” and requires at least 1100 hours of instruction in order to learn it.

Well, I can say that I haven’t had 1100 hours of instruction, but I did get instruction right from the beginning, starting with the alphabet. This is a chief complaint of mine with regards to Finnish language instruction in this country. Start from the beginning, teach students of Finnish the alphabet first, it sure would help – instead of throwing people into phrases and sentences that require monumental effort to learn properly, especially at the beginning.


So, can I help you? Maybe I can. I am no expert, here is a rough (read: rough) pronunciation guide for you. The Finnish alphabet in sounds (aimed at the English speaker – I am from Canada, however, so my pronunciation may be different than yours!):

A – as in “Awwww, isn’t that cute?”
B – as in the sound of the word “bet” – minus the “T” of course
C – as in the sound of the word “set” – minus the “T”
D – as in the sound of the word “debt” – minus the “BT”
E – is a short e sound like in “bet”, “set”, “kept”… “ee”, a short E sound
F – in English we pronounce this “ef”, in Finnish it is “af”, with a short A sound
G – as in the sound of the word “get” – minus the “T”
H – as in the sound of the word “hoe”
I – as in the sound of the word “eek” – think of the “EE” sound in words like “seed”, “teen”
J – sounds like “yee” – combine the sound of “Y” as in the beginning of “you” and the “EE” sound
K – as in the sound of the word “cone” – minus the “NE”, also like co- as in co-operate
L – got a friend name Al? Say it like that, but say it quickly and don’t linger on the L
M – think of “I am…” “am”, with a short A sound, got it?
N – think of an apple, “an”, with a short A sound
O – long O sound as in “Oh!” and “go”, it is Espoo [Es-poh], not Espoo [Es-poo], no not poo!
P – as in the sound of the word “pet” – minus the “T”
Q – the word moon in Finnish is “kuu” – think “coo”, same sound
R – This might be a tough one, but think French. The French roll Rs – so do the Finns, So, short A sound in “ar” – roll the R with your tongue. One of the first words you learn in Finnish might be “perkele” – and if you can roll your R, you’re good in every Finns’ book!
S – as in the sound of “ass” (yes, really – but say it short and fast, don’t drag out the sound)
T – as in the sound of the word “tech” – minus the “CH” – “tee” with a short E sound
U – as in the sound of “OO” in the word “boot”, long O sound
V – as in the sound of the word “vet” – minus the “T”
W – double V or “tupla vee” or “kaksois vee”, even if a Finnish word includes the letter W, Finns mostly pronounce it as “vee”
X – think “ax” – the tool and there is the letter X
Y – Hmmm, this is a tough one. I have always struggled with Y and Ö. Well, in Finnish there are words like “kyy” (viper) and “pyy” (partridge) – ask a Finn for help with one, I am afraid I can’t.
Z – I might get this one wrong and that would mean I have been getting it wrong for nearly 17 years! Okay, so Z (zed in Canada) is pronounced “seta” (short A at the end).

And the Finnish alphabet also includes three additional letters:

Ä – this is a short A sound, as in “bat”, “cat”, “hat”
Ö – The only reference I can give you to this sound off the top of my head if from French “Un peu” -say that several times and this is the sound of Ö (the eu of “peu”)
Å – Swedish O – or Ruotsalainen O, it sounds like “oh”

I might be way off on some of this, but I am just an amateur – hoping to help others who struggle with the the Finnish language.

Have fun! Try to learn a new word every day, even if you don’t remember it the next day! 🙂


10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2014 6:25 am

    I agree, it is difficult! But you if you are here long term it is worth it. To REALLY get to know Finns, know their language. I know many know English here, but I have had some of the best conversations in Finnish. Glad to see your blog.

  2. April 10, 2014 7:43 am

    The alphabet was my entry point also! Perseverance is the key 🙂
    Although 12 years on my speaking Finnish is far and away from my written offerings… That is a learning experience that will continue until my dying day.

  3. April 10, 2014 8:00 am

    You are so right – it’s very important to learn the alphabet and correct pronunciation first, especially for the Finnish language. Finnish people are very sensitive to sound. If your pronunciation is off then Finns have to work very hard to understand you and they are then more likely to switch to English, which prevents you from getting the practice you need.

    While the language is indeed a difficult one, learning it has not been a nightmare for me personally like you describe. Rather the food situation in Finland has been quite a traumatizing experience. Finding food that tastes good and is prepared from quality ingredients has been almost an impossible feat, at least where I live in central Finland. Slowly but surely the food situation is improving here, thank goodness.

    • April 11, 2014 9:24 am

      I agree Real Food Suomi – it is so funny to be pegged as a foreigner when I am speaking Finnish. I especially get these queries from elderly Finns. I remember one gentleman asking me if I was from Estonia, but several others pegged me out correctly – from North America. It’s amazing and I always wonder – how do they do that?! 🙂

      I have admitted before that I am little lazy on the learning front. If I were to put more effort into it I am sure the grammar would improve and the vocabulary would expand…

    • anonymous permalink
      April 13, 2014 1:29 pm

      I’m assuming you’re comparing the sensitivity of pronunciation to English. It’s not really fair, because English is essentially monosyllabic and accents by even first-time speakers produce very predictable changes in pronunciation. This is not really the case with foreign speakers of Finnish. Their pronunciation often varies word by word, unlike say Savonian or Finland Proper or any native dialect speakers, who have predictable pronunciations even though there might be considerable “mutations”.

      If one were to be mean, one could also say that, in English, wovels are freely selectable or maybe even optional. In Finnish they are essential to understanding so you need to get them right. You might be able to do away with consonants, which you can’t really do in English. Finnish is sort of built around wovels even in terms of rhythm, whereas English is all about consonants.

      Of course, mispronunciation really affects the sort of conceptual association aspect of Finnish language. Most words in Finnish are essentially members of a family of words derived from some basic concept. I think that’s also how the it works out mentally, so it’s easier to lead the listener down the wrong path, because the word (or concept) recognition then probably tends towards the underlying basic concept rather than to similar-sounding words like in languages where words are less derivative in general.

      WRT Y and Ö..
      In Finnish, Y and Ö are to U and A (respectively) as Ä is to A.

      • anonymous permalink
        April 13, 2014 1:31 pm

        Nice! I meant Y and Ö are to U and O (respectively)…

  4. April 13, 2014 9:05 pm

    Blahhhh anonymous… You’re over-analyzing it! I did state that Canadian English is behind my analysis. Of course the English language locality will have an influence on how it rolls out of someone’s mouth.

    For the life of me I could never figure out why “Ä” is such a problem for people learning Finnish. I learned Ä and it stuck – Ä as in the short A in “cat.”

    Really, for the mono-lingual speaker of English, any new language can be a challenge – Finnish is definitely up there! Of all the people in my Finnish classes years back, it was the native English speakers who had the toughest time.

  5. Sonia permalink
    April 14, 2014 9:53 pm

    I don’t think that Finns are overreacting to imperfect accents (anyways we need to stand their accents in our native language(s) too) 😉 . I experienced that most of them appreciate if you TRY to speak it. The difference is that in nearly any other language you learn little by little and try it out – little by little. In Finnish you need to explore a LOT to construct any kind of more or less little tiny odd sentence 😀 That is why it’s frustrating until you dare to speak.

    Measuring the difficulty of Finnish on your mother tongue is misleading and incomplete. I think your experience with learning foreign languages plays a role. Also your motivation to use Finnish (in your everyday life). As a translator, I had high expectations on myself to start speaking it as soon as living in the country: but it did not happened in the first years! Frustrating. In addition, everyone kept on telling “ha, you learnt six other languages, it will be easy for you!”. Frustrating 2.0. Until I started speaking it – when I had to. Whatever it takes. Nevertheless, I still believe that my language learning methods and routines helped me to advance.

    I still find my way of speaking messy and far from perfection, but (I guess) I communicate. In everyday life and on the job. In addition to the language courses in Kielikeskus – the best language school was: life & work.

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