Finlandia University in Hancock, Michigan offers classes in the Finnish language every Monday at the Finnish-American Heritage Center for students who are interested in their heritage.
Since the middle of the 17th century there had been a remarkable wave of migration from Finland, drawn by the availability of jobs in railroads, factories and mines. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where Hancock is located, has the highest concentration of Finnish-Americans because the area’s climatic and geographic features are almost the same as in Finland.
Learning the language is a practicality
Finnish language instructor Hilary Virtanen says the opportunity to learn the language is rare for the community yet it is a practicality. Mother of two Loistavat and Kivijat folk dancers, Chris Dijkstra succinctly described it. She said that she and her children will be going to Finland in the summer to participate in a local festival and one of them should be able to at least find the bathroom.
Others are learning the language to reclaim their heritage, according to students attending the language class at Finlandia University. A student, Tom Helppi said that he was always interested in the language that his grandparents, his great uncle and his father spoke. He said that he missed out on being able to talk to them in their native tongue.
The students in Virtanen’s class are interestingly mixed. Some of them are college students while some are already senior citizens. Many of her students repeat the classes just so they could improve their vocabulary. With such a range of student ages, she said the classes are always fun, fresh and light.
Finnish is not an easy language to learn
Virtanen like the fact that her class is mixed because learning Finnish could be frustrating. Anne Wilson, one of her students said that the sentence construction and the position of words are very much different from other languages. She related that she studied Russian for three years and found that it is much easier to learn than Finnish.
Virtanen explains that this is because most of the people in North America and Europe are used to the Indo-European language group while Finnish belongs to another language family called Fino-Urgic. This language family is used in small communities in northern Europe, such as in Estonia and Hungary, thus it is completely different in construction.
Differences with other languages
The language uses agglutination or the building of complex words by adding smaller words or parts of words, which makes new words longer. Virtanen also explained that Finnish does not have an actual future tense but through agglutination, it could be created and indicated. Another challenging task for students is pronunciation, particularly with several words having double consonants.
Currently the university only offers one beginner and one advanced class each semester and students repeatedly take the community classes to improve their pronunciation and grammar. Virtanen said she rotates vocabulary units to accommodate the students. The classes help them improve their conversational skills, challenge their brains and help them when searching for their genealogy.