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Learning Finnish


Colloquial Finnish

Daniel Abondolo, 1998. Routledge, London. ISBN 041511389X.

A relatively slim volume at 300 pages, but satisfyingly sturdy: heavy paper bound in signatures, although it's a paperback . My copy shows little deterioration after five years -- in fact age renders it slightly more amenable to lying flat.

The content follows the pattern of just about every modern language book, interleaving grammar, vocabulary, and dialogues. The subject matter of the dialogues also forms a useful introduction to Finnish history and culture. At the back are English-Finnish and Finnish-English glossaries -- although, at 20 pages in total, these do not even cover all the vocabulary in the book. There is also a useful glossary of grammatical terms, and an index to the grammatical expositions spread through the book. Annoyingly, these are referenced by chapter number rather than page.

There is little to fault in the grammar sections. The layout is clear and uncluttered. Grammatical rules are explained systematically and imaginatively: consonant gradation, for example, is presented using a cunning analogy of boxes and lids. Concepts are evenly distributed through the book, minimising the amount of information that needs to swallowed in one gulp. This can make things tricky when referring back, espcially in conjunction with the vague index, but you can't have it both ways.

The presentation seems to occur, wherever possible, in terms of rules rather than tables. For example, whereas Mastering Finnish (see below) states that "The way to master [consonant] gradation in Finnish is to learn it as part of the principal part pattern of nouns and verbs", Abondolo devotes two pages very early on to setting out detailed rules for gradation, and largely lets his readers work it out for themselves thereafter.

The dialogues are lively and as interesting as could reasonably be expected. Personally I prefer consistent characters throughout my language courses, rather than Abondolo's interminable parade of semi-anonymous Annas, Sannas, Villes and Kalles who rarely last beyond a single dialogue, but this is a minor quibble. Common colloquial forms and pronunciations are introduced as well as the formal ones, but the distinction is always kept clear.

A language course is not by its nature a captivating read. It is therefore refreshing that Colloquial Finnish is occasionally leavened with humour, mainly directed at its own dry style and at the clichés of language tuition. Expanding on the distinction between the elative and ablative cases, Abondolo helpfully volunteers: "... a postcard is normally Heikiltä `from Heikki'; Heikistä would be either `from inside Heikki' (i.e. surgically removed, after he had swallowed it), or more likely, `about Heikki'...". The accompanying cassettes have their gems too: an introduction to a purported discussion between Liz and Nick, two tourists in Helsinki, finishes with the deadpan rider "... they speak Finnish with one another, of course." Even some of the chapter titles might be suspected of harbouring levity -- "Karhut voi kai olla vaarallisiakin: Bears can be dangerous, I suppose".

All in all, an excellent book. For full satisfaction, I recommend supplementing it with a dictionary and Karlsson's fine grammar -- not that Abondolo skimps on grammatical coverage, but, as mentioned, the grammar is too evenly spread to make Colloquial Finnish an ideal reference work.

Colin Batchelor adds:

Colloquial Finnish beats Leney's TYF with its much more extensive grammatical coverage, and greater coverage of, as the title suggests, colloquial Finnish, in particular the spoken language in Helsinki, though nothing as frightening as YKT's Reissugaidi. My main criticism is that not every grammatical section has a matching exercise or drill. I assume that the typical serious student of Finnish is likely to be highly motivated and capable of writing their own, so it is a less serious omission than in a book on holiday Spanish, say.

Mastering Finnish

Börje Vähämäki, 1994. Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York. ISBN 0781802334.


I know what popular wisdom has to say about judgement, books and covers, but I can only counter that they started it. They being Hippocrene, the publishers. The book's cover design audaciously and accurately imitates the distinctive appearance of Macmillan's deservedly popular Masters series. The title, of course, is also of the same form, though this could charitably be put down to chance, as could the remarkable resemblance between Macmillan's colophon and Hippocrene's. But the overall impression is of a fairly unabashed attempt to capitalise on Macmillan's success.

Photograph of two books

Spot the difference. I know the colours on the spines are different, but that's because the red on Mastering Finnish has faded dramatically with time. Upon reflection, the Hippocrene colophon also bears some resemblance to the old Collins fountain.

Inside the covers, things do not improve. This is one of the few books I've seen which has been typeset using a word processor, and it shows glaringly. The layout is amateurish, the quotes are unsexed, hyphens are used to approximate dashes, and the word spacing is erratic. Diagrams and larger brackets are drawn in by hand. A thousand and one little things are wrong.

My ire is not, of course, directed at Mr Vähämäki. An author is not a typesetter, and it is the responsibility of the publisher to produce a presentable book from his drafts. What Hippocrene appear to have done is to send Mr Vähämäki's drafts straight to the presses. Prominent smudges appear on some pages (the originals were, I think, printed on a bad inkjet printer, and at least one seems to have suffered rain). At one point the text runs off the page entirely. The presentation of this book is a shambles.

Some may regard these criticisms as irrelevant: after all, the reader is likely to have bought the book in order to learn Finnish, rather than as a paragon of typography. But even for the less pedantic reader, the presentation would interfere with the reading of the book. Good typography is invisible: it presents the text elegantly so that the reader is able to forget the process of reading and concentrate on the information being conveyed. A book like this one constantly jars the attention away from the message, back to the uglinesses of the medium.


Happily, there is some reward for perseverance, though I should mention that mine did not suffice -- my first encounter with Vähämäki, before I discovered Abondolo, lasted a few weeks and ended in ignominious retreat. Some months later I bought Colloquial Finnish, and got through most of it before glancing at Vähämäki again. So this review is based on a slog through the first four chapters of twenty, and a considered but incomplete sampling of the rest.

The pattern is the familiar braid of dialogue, grammar and vocabulary, though occasional excursions to the 45-page reference grammar disrupt the linearity a little. All in all there is probably slightly more content than in Colloquial Finnish: 386 pages, including interspersed historical and cultural background information. There are also numerous illustrations -- a few historically interesting (a 19th-century steamship taking emigrants to America), some dull ("the well-preserved wooden church in Kerimäki"), and some hilariously excerpted from bad seventies tourist brochures ("Chef offers his services to young couple on Silja Line").

The grammatical material, although in bite-size chunks, can be a little forbidding. The approach is distinctly more old-fashioned and schoolmasterly than Abondolo's: nouns are dispatched briskly into any of 17 declensions and presented with four principal parts -- combined with the poor layout, these make for some imposing vocabulary lists. It is to some extent a matter of taste whether you prefer this onslaught to Abondolo's somewhat less categorical system of rules, which make learning easier but reference harder. Vähämäki occasionally resorts to capital letters and exclamation marks to drive home a grammatical point, and I can't help but imagine him as a small, bald, irascible man in rimless spectacles, pacing up and down in front of a blackboard. The reference grammar is the same only more so -- the type and the margins are smaller, and it's too compressed for comfort. Useful though it is, some concepts are only explained there, which can disrupt the flow of reading somewhat.

Mastering Finnish lacks an index, but the thorough listing of contents goes some way towards making up for this.

With sufficient fortitude it would be possible to learn Finnish from this volume, but I would certainly not recommend it above Colloquial Finnish. I suspect it would be a good book to work through after Colloquial Finnish for a different perspective, and intend to attempt this when time permits. The reference grammar can certainly be useful, but I would far rather pay the extra for Karlsson's Essential Grammar (see below).

Finnish: an essential grammar

Short review: "good".

Long review: pending.

Teach Yourself Finnish (both editions)

These reviews kindly contributed by Colin Batchelor.

The two editions of Teach Yourself Finnish both fail for very different reasons. The first, by Arthur Whitney, dates back to the 1950s and takes you through all of Finnish grammar, mentions a fifth infinitive, provides a huge amount of vocabulary in the reading exercises, and gives you absolutely no exercise in production. The design is also very much of its time, with no white space or linebreaks to mark off the italicized Finnish from the upright English.

Someone who has worked diligently through Colloquial Finnish might well benefit from borrowing this from the library or finding it in a charity shop, but it would be an unwise choice to actually learn the language from scratch from.

Terttu Leney's modern version is well laid out but not nearly as comprehensive as other texts. It has useful phrases for tourists in Finland, and is certainly more help than a phrasebook, but not, again, my first choice for Finnish ab initio.


Kieli-ikkunat (contributed by Colin Batchelor). A series of columns (in Finnish) about aspects of Finnish. The introductory paragraph elaborates:

Kieli-ikkunat ["language-windows"] has been published weekly in Helsingin Sanomat's culture section since March 1996. Researchers at The Research Institute for the Languages of Finland write in the column about the phenomena of language. The writing deals with, among other issues, the origin and meaning of words and phrases, the norms of language, neologisms, loanwords, the standard language, dialects, slang and nomenclature.

YourDictionary.com's Finnish section. As comprehensive a list as I've found of on-line Finnish dictionaries.

Courses and classes

Finn-Guild one-day Finnish course

Finn-Guild have a list of their courses and classes.

Colin Batchelor writes:

Does intermediate-level Finnish exist? Are sentences containing no words that you recognize after three years a serious problem? And what will a one-day course do for my production?

I went to find out at the Finnish Institute (www.finnish-institute.org.uk/) in London, on a course run by Finn-Guild, in October 2004.

We were divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced classes. The intermediate class was conducted largely in English. Most of us had been learning for between one and three years. The theme was the family, and we had revision of the words for members of the family, along with when to use the partitive and the genitive. It was a bit like German lessons at school, and actually very useful for practising production. I was relieved to find that I could still, eleven months after I was last in Finland, produce sensible Finnish sentences as I went along and be understood. It feels a good deal less silly declaiming Finnish sentences in a class of eight or so people than it does on your own.

The food was proper warming Finnish stuff with plenty of potato. At lunchtime I had a chance to speak to the people in the advanced class, which had the same theme, but was entirely conducted in Finnish and tightened up less basic bits of grammar. It will be interesting to see whether I'm ready for the advanced class after another three years.

Last modified 2005-05- 5 23:05 BST