Myth 1: Finnish is the World’s Hardest Language

Many a meme has been crafted on the uncommon or particularly taxing features of the Finnish language. But do the loud claims of Finnish's outstanding difficulty stand up to close analysis?
Photo: Kalle Kataila. All rights reserved.

Let’s start by busting the big one. If you’ve heard this one, you’ve probably heard it mostly from Finns – which is a little strange, perhaps. After all, how would they know? It wasn’t hard for them personally to pick it up at home and in preschool. What’s more, this myth is often stated with a smile on the face. Some Finns, it seems, are rather fond of it.

The truth, however, is that Finnish is a language like any other among the great multitude of world languages. It is harder for some, and easier for others. And thousands of people from all different backgrounds have come to Finland and learnt to speak Finnish very well.

There are, of course, also those Finnish learners that repeat this mantra of the Finnish language’s unsurpassed difficultness. They, however, are more likely to do so with their head in their hands than with a satisfied smile on their lips.

Finnish can indeed be challenging for speakers of many European languages, largely because its structure and vocabulary is so different. Someone from the UK, for example, who had a fairly easy time in Spanish lessons learning that ‘one’ is ‘uno’ and ‘two’ is ‘dos’ will probably find it harder to get their mouths (and their memory cells) around the Finnish ‘yksi’ and ‘kaksi’.

Those starting out on their Finnish learning journey can also find their brains overheating at the number of grammatical forms they have to digest just to talk about basic things in the past or the plural. You just want to say there are some apples on the table, but what were those rules for existential sentences and the plural partitive case?

Thankfully though, it’s perfectly possible to express yourself clearly in Finnish without cracking all the grammar rules, and to gradually absorb the different features of the language without the need for linguistic terms and fat textbooks. What’s more, many learners find that the initial challenges eventually pass – the logic of the grammar becomes clearer, the words start to stick, and putting the sentences together is just a kind of jigsaw puzzle.

Some data from the respected FSI Language Difficulty Ranking also helps to put things in perspective: native English speakers learning Finnish, a category 4 language, usually need to put in around twice as many weeks of full-time study to reach professional working proficiency compared to those studying Swedish, a category 1 language. But they need only half as many weeks as those studying Chinese or Arabic.

With this wider and more accurate perspective, we can focus on a question more important than whether the language is in itself hard or easy: are you using the opportunities you have to learn and practice Finnish in your daily life?

Yes, this can be challenging when Finns so quickly switch to English at the sound of a non-native accent. It can sometimes feel that foreigners don’t get to play, and the Finnish Language Club is one you have to be born into!

You can play your part, however, in shifting this pattern and making Finland a more learner-friendly country. Say that you want to practice your Finnish, and don’t go along with their well-meaning language switch. Then reward yourself afterwards with a big fat pulla.

There are many good adjectives to describe the Finnish language. It is a rich, unique and fascinating language. But it is not the hardest language. In fact, for speakers of related languages such as Estonian, it is probably the easiest. The important thing, whatever your language background, is to find those tools and habits for making language learning part of your everyday life – and for sharing your journey of learning with those around you.

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