Finnish – isn’t that like one of the hardest languages to learn?

I live abroad, so I hear this a lot. Everyone seems to think that Finnish is one of the hardest languages to learn. Well, I have no idea if this is true, after all, I learned to speak it when I was about 2 years old… But since it comes up so often, it’s something I’ve actually thought about: why does everyone think Finnish is such a hard language to learn? And also, why, when I lived in France, most people thought German is much harder language to learn than French? This was not my image in Finland, where I would say most people would think German is the easier one.

So, what gives Finnish the reputation of being a hard language to learn? I would say the problem is well illustrated in the picture below:


The picture is from SSSS comic by Minna Sundberg. It’s background for the comic, but based on real information from Ethnologue.

So, if you are, let’s say, a native English speaker, you might notice that while Hindi is quite far from your branch, it’s still in the same tree. While Finnish (and Estonian and Hungarian for that matter) are in a completely separate tree. This is true for other languages which are considered hard, like Japanese or Chinese as well.

What is interesting to me is that many English speakers find French easier than German, even though English is a Germanic language. For example Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has French in the easiest category of languages and German a level higher. What I find even stranger about this is, that German and Dutch are in different categories. Now, I’ve never learned Dutch, but I know several Germans who can understand Dutch somewhat just based on their own language. So, I would’ve assumed their difficulty level would be the same.

But back to French. If I think both languages, French and English that is, I find them more similar to each other than to German. Maybe this is due to a lot of loan words which makes many words really similar, just spelled and pronounced differently. And of course there’s a lot of history between France and England which maybe has had influence on the languages as well. At least they are pretty much comparable in the inconsistency of their pronunciation. I once had a discussion with a French person who was insisting that you need to pronounce the ‘e’ in ‘clothes’ because one needs to hear the plural. I thought this was funny especially coming from a French person, since often the plural (or gender) is not different when pronounced in French, even though you show it in writing.

In my opinion, there are no universally “hard” languages, there are just languages that are closer and further from your own. I mean, I find Estonian nice and easy. And I think most Finnish people find German easier than French, because German is very close to Swedish, which we have to study at school and also, at least for me, the pronunciation of German is much easier for a Finnish person. I can understand the words I know from pretty much any conversation and, while my own pronunciation is not perfect, people do understand the words I say.

Finnish is not a particularly hard language. It’s just very different of your native language (well, by you I mean someone who speaks indoeuropean language as their native language). And this is true about all languages: there are no easy or hard languages, only languages that are easy or hard for you. Partly this depends on your native language and what languages you know before, but also motivation plays a huge role. If you have enough motivation the work seems fun and you feel like the language is easy for you. And next time you think about Finnish being such a hard language, it might be worth to remember that your language is probably as hard for us than Finnish is for you.

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