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Finnish language classes in the U.P. showcase heritage

DAN ROBLEE
Associated Press

Hancock, Mich. — For some of the students in Hilary Virtanen’s community Finnish class, studying the language is a practical matter.

“My kids are going to Finland, and one of us better know how to look for the bathroom,” said Chris Dijkstra, mother of two Kivijat and Loistavat folk dancers who’ll be performing at a festival there this summer.

For others in the class, held Mondays at Finlandia University’s Finnish-American Heritage Center, learning the language is a matter of reclaiming their heritage.

“I’d always had an interest in learning Finnish. My grandparents spoke it,” Tom Helppi told The Daily Mining Gazette. “My great uncle did, my dad did, but not to us at home. I missed out on learning to talk with them.”

That mix of perspectives and of ages — the class ranges from college students to senior citizens — helps keep things fresh for Virtanen, she said, as well as for students who repeat classes to continue improving their vocabulary. It also helps keep things fun, and lightens up what could sometimes be a frustrating experience.

“The construction, the (word) positions, there’s not any other language that’s like that,” said Anne Wilson. “I took Russian for three years at Michigan State, and it’s much harder than Russian.”

That’s because Finnish belongs to a very small group of languages that aren’t anything like what most Americans and Europeans are used to. Virtanen said the vast majority of languages spoken in Europe — and stretching across much of Asia — are part of the Indo-European language group. Finnish is in a separate family, Fino-Ugric, used in just a few other small pockets of northern Europe, including Hungary and Estonia.

“It’s very different… and the way people think, and are made to think is different,” said Virtanen. “You have to approach it in a completely different way.”

One example is the way Finnish uses agglutination, or builds complex words out of multiple smaller words or parts of words. The phrase “tulen varapresidentiksi,” for example, means “I’m to become Vice President,” with modifications to the base word “president” added as prefixes and suffixes.

“All of the words keep adding onto each other, just getting longer and longer,” said Rebecca Gast, a Michigan Technological University student who’s thinking about a trip to Finland.

The vice presidential example also highlights another oddity. Virtanen said there is no actual future tense in Finland, but that different sentence construction is used to indicate the future.

Pronunciation can also be a challenge for the American tongue. Helppi said he’s mostly overcome that by breaking words down into short chunks and taking it slow. “That’s how I didn’t freak out with all double consonants,” he said.

Virtanen said Finlandia’s classes offer an opportunity for local residents. Outside of about 10 university programs and an immersion camp in Bemidji, Minnesota, opportunities to learn Finnish are “pretty rare,” she said, noting that Finlandia also offers for-credit Finnish courses for its students.