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Why Finnish can seem like such a tongue-twisting, mind-bending language

The nature of your own native language could affect how well you learn a foreign tongue. That’s according to polyglot and university lecturer Rogier Nieuweboer. Nieuweboer says that Finnish is so unique, that no other language exposure prepares learners for its peculiarities.

Koululainen äidinkielen tunnilla.
Because of its uniqueness, newcomers to the Finnish language often find they are ill-prepared to grapple with its peculiarities. Image: Yle

Helsinki University’s lecturer in Dutch language and culture Rogier Nieuweboer says that learning a new language involves many factors. Nieuweboer, who has lived in Finland for about ten years, says he already knew some Finnish before relocating, as he had lived in Estonia for a couple of years.

“I still don’t speak Finnish fluently. Perhaps quite well. From the start I could speak some Finnish and I learned quite quickly,” he said.

According to Nieuweboer a learner’s own native language can play a major role in learning a foreign tongue. His native language is Dutch, so other Germanic languages such as German, Swedish and English come easily.

It’s this phenomenon that works against learners when it comes to getting a handle on Finnish, whose noun conjugations and prepositions of place can be a puzzler for those not familiar with the language.

“If Finnish is your first foreign language, it can come as a small shock. Dutch was no help for me learning Finnish because it’s such a different language. So where Finnish is concerned your own native language doesn’t help as much as with other foreign languages. But living in Estonia helped me a lot,” Nieuweboer explained. Estonian is the only national language that resembles Finnish.

Good basis for foreign language learning in Finland

Learning foreign languages in school provides a strong basis for linguistic proficiency. The university lecturer says Finns have a good basis for learning other languages.

“They learn many languages at school. Here at the university we often get the feeling that no language is too difficult. Finns are used to the notion that all other languages are very different,” Nieuweboer added.

The more you use a foreign language, the easier it becomes to get your head and tongue round it.

“I speak Finnish every day. I also speak Dutch at work, Swedish at home and German with my colleagues. If I used Finnish all the time I would learn faster,” he noted.

Above all however, learning a foreign tongue requires motivation. If learners don’t need or use the target language in their everyday lives, then learning it will be more of an uphill climb. It’s even possible to get by in Finland without speaking a word of the language.

“I love languages. It’s fun for me to learn Finnish, although it is somewhat challenging. If you don’t like the subject, then learning will be difficult,” Nieuweboer declared.

In addition to Dutch and Finnish, Nieuweboer speaks German, English, French, Latin, Greek, Russian and Swedish. He has also studied Yiddish and Modern Greek.

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