Introduction: Although Finland, depending on one's definition of the term Scandinavia, is often bracketed together with the Scandinavian countries Sweden, Denmark and Norway, its language is entirely different. While Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are Indo-European languages, Finnish is part of the Finno-Urgic branch of the Uralic language family. As such it is related to Hungarian and Estonian. It has about 6 million native speakers, in Finland and neighbouring countries.
Alphabet: The Finnish alphabet is based on the same Latin alphabet used by English, plus three vowels with diacritics which are placed after z.
Phonology: The Finnish and English sound systems are quite different. Finnish has a sound pattern called vowel harmony, in which front vowels cannot appear in the same word as back vowels. English words such as phoning or yellow that contain a combination of both types of vowel can be fairly difficult for Finnish learners. Other vowel problems include the failure to discriminate the short and long vowel sounds in words such as sit-seat / pip-peep.
The English consonant sounds that cause Finns the most problems are, predictably, the /θ/ /ð/ sounds, such as in the words then, think and clothes. Words starting with the /w/ sound are often pronounced as a /v/, and the sh- sound at the beginning of words like ship, sheep is often pronounced as a straight /s/: sip. Consonant clusters are not a feature of Finnish vocabulary, so words like strength, Christmas, twist are problematic for many Finnish learners.
Finnish invariably places primary stress on the first syllable of a word, and the stress does not significantly affect the vowel quality. This is in stark contrast to English, which has fairly unpredictable stress patterns. It is not surprising, therefore, that beginning learners may fail to make themselves understood even if the grammar and vocabulary of their message is correct. Finnish intonation is typically falling. This can make it difficult for them to produce the produce the rising tone of English questions.
Grammar - Verb/Tense: Finnish is an agglutinative language. This means, for example, that verbs show tense change by successive addition of suffixes. This is in contrast to English, which makes heavy use of auxiliary verbs. This fundamental difference often results in Finnish beginners having trouble forming questions or negatives in English.
Finnish does not have a progressive verb form, leading to mistakes such as: I watched television when they arrived. (correct = was watching). In general, Finnish uses its tenses to express similar meanings as the corresponding tenses in English. For example, the present perfect and past perfect tenses are used in much the same way in the two languages. One difference is the use in Finnish of the present tense to talk about the future, where English speakers would use the auxiliary will. This leads to mistakes such as: I tell him when I see him.
Grammar - Other: Finnish has the same basic Subject-Verb-Object word order as English, but it allows much more flexibility in the placement of elements in a sentence. This is because it is a highly inflected language and does not require the position of an element to convey meaning as in English. This can lead to errors in the structure of the English sentences that Finnish learners write. Specific problems are in the positioning of adverbials and the order of words in the subordinate clauses of reported speech.
There are two further areas of difference that may result in negative transfer. Firstly, Finnish does not have separate pronouns for he and she. Beginning Finnish learners may cause confusion by mixing these up in spoken or written English. Secondly, Finnish does not use the definite or indefinite article, so mistakes in this aspect of English are common.
Vocabulary: Although Finnish and English words share the same letters, there are no cognates since the languages are from distinct language families. Even words that are imported into Finnish are transcribed so that they lose their familiarity. The English word headache, for example, becomes hedari in Finnish. Clearly, Finnish ESL students do not have the same advantage with cognates as enjoyed by their Swedish peers, and may take longer before they can read fluently.
The best-known import from Finnish into English is sauna.
Miscellaneous: The spelling of Finnish words is closely related to how they are said, which is not the case in English. This can result in beginning learners having serious problems writing English, particularly as the common vowel and consonant patterns in English bear little relation to those of Finnish.
Since politeness in Finnish is often conveyed by tone and use of the appropriate pronoun rather than through words such as please or expressions such as Would you be so kind as to .. , Finnish learners may seem a little abrupt in English conversation.