Finnish (suomen kieli, suomi) is spoken in Finland and by Finns elsewhere, predominantly in Scandinavia. Whether travellers to Finland need to learn Finnish is doubtful, since most Finns — including virtually all under 40 — speak at least some English. However, since so few people make the effort, you're guaranteed to get delighted reactions if you try.
Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language and hence completely unrelated to almost every language between Iceland and India. In particular, Finnish has grammatically nothing at all in common with other Scandinavian languages or Russian, although there are many loan words from both.
The origin of these languages traces back over 5000 years to nomadic peoples of the Ural mountains in Russia that migrated westward into Europe. Just across the Gulf of Finland the closest modern relative to the Finnish language, Estonian, is spoken. Other related languages are the Sámi languages of Lapland and the Murmansk Peninsula, and more distantly, Hungarian.
The Finnish language is fairly easy to pronounce: it has one of the most phonetic writing systems in the world, with only a small number of simple consonants and relatively few vowel sounds.
Native English speakers tend to have the most problems with vowel length and the distinction between the front vowels (ä, ö, y) and back vowels (a, o, u). English does make the same distiction — consider the "a" sounds of father (back) and cat (front), or the difference in the "i" sound for bit (short) and beat (long) — but you will need to pay extra attention to it in Finnish.
In Finnish, all vowels are single sounds (or "pure" vowels). Doubled letters are simply pronounced longer, but it's important to differentiate between short and long sounds. Example:
tuli (TO-ly) → fire
tuuli (TOO-ly) → wind
tulli (TUL-ly) → customs
The basic Finnish alphabet consists of the following letters:
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p r s t u v y z ä ö
Additionally the letters š and ž appear in a small number of loanwords and are pronounced like English sh and as s in treasure, respectively. The letter w also occurs infrequently in some proper names and is treated identically to v. Lastly, the letter å occurs in some Swedish proper names and is pronounced "o", but the beginning learner need not worry about these minutiae.
The harmony of vowels
Finnish has an unusual feature called vowel harmony, which means that the front vowels (ä, ö, y) and the back vowels (a, o, u) can never be found in the same word. (Compound words don't count, and the mid-vowels i, e are OK anywhere.) This extends even into loanwords and conjugations: most Finns pronounce Olympia as olumpia, and suffixes with "a" bend into "ä" when necessary (jaa → jaata, jää → jäätä).
Long vowels are indicated simply by doubling the vowel in question.
like a in father, but short and clipped
like a in father
like e in get
not found in English, but just stretch out the e sound
like ee in beet
like o in nor
stretch out the o sound
like ou in would
like oo in moon
like German ü, similar to ew in few but with lips rounded (transcribed uu)
not found in English, but just stretch out the y sound
like a in cat
like a in bad
like German ö, similar to e in her (transcribed eu)
not found in English, but just stretch out the "ö" sound
Diphthongs (vowel sequences) like the uo of Suomi (Finland) are common. They retain the individual sounds of their vowels, but are slightly blended together to be pronounced in one "beat".
If a Finnish consonant is doubled, it should be pronounced lengthened. For plosives like p, t, k, this means getting your mouth ready to say it, but pausing for a moment. Hence mato (worm) is "MA-to", but matto (carpet) is "MAT-to".
b c d f
pronounced as in English (rarely if ever used in native Finnish words)
like g in get
like h in hotel, pronounced more strongly before a consonant
like y in yes
similar to English k, but unaspirated and slightly voiced
pronounced like English x
l m n
pronounced as in English
pronounced like ng in sing
similar to English p, but unaspirated and slightly voiced
trilled, as in Spanish perro
like ss in hiss
pronounced as in English
like v in vine
like ts in cats (not used in native Finnish words)
Word stress is always on the first syllable; compounds words have more than one stressed syllable. There is no tone whatsoever in Finnish speech, just long strings of fairly monotone sounds, with all syllables given equal value except the first one. Foreigners tend to think this makes the language sound rather depressing; Finns, on the other hand, wonder why everybody else's languages—including Russian—sound so sing-songy.
Finnish grammar is radically different from English (or any other Indo-European language), making Finnish a rather difficult language to master, and Finns love to regale foreigners with horror stories of compound words a mile long and verbs with seventeen suffixes tacked on. Basically, everything in a sentence (nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns) inflects to indicate who is doing what, why, when and in what way, so constructing even a simple sentence requires lots of tweaking about:
I go to the shop. I quickly buy bread.
Menen kauppaan. Ostan nopeasti leipää.
go-I shop-to. buy-I quick-adverb bread-object.
Nouns can be declined in 14 different cases and there is a whole assortment of additional suffixes, leading to improbable but entirely grammatical monsters like talo ("house") → taloissammekinkohan ("also in our houses, perhaps?") or kala ("fish") → kalastajamaisuudettomuudellansakaan ("even by using his non-fisherman-likeness").
The good news is that most of these monstrosities are limited to formal written Finnish, and it's possible to "speak like Tarzan" (without conjugating anything) in subject-verb-object order like English and still be more or less understood. Minä mennä kauppa, minä nopea ostaa leipä (I go shop, I quick buy bread) will get you a zero in Finnish class, but it gets the message across.
And there are some minor consolations for the aspiring student: Finnish has no articles and no grammatical gender. Rules for conjugation are often complex, but at least they are very regular.
Phrases in the following phrase list use the informal singular (sinuttelu), which is by far the most common form in modern Finnish and appropriate for almost all situations a traveller might encounter.
Note: Due to the ease, specificity and regularity of Finnish pronunciation, the difficulty of transcribing long vowels, and the general inaccuracy of English-based phoneticizations, it is highly recommended you take a few minutes to learn the alphabet instead of relying on the phoneticizations. That being said, however, Finns are often quite excited to hear a foreigner attempt to speak the language and tend to be very forgiving of pronunciation blunders.
Mikä sinun nimesi on? (MEE-ka SEE-noon NEE-meh-see ohn?)
My name is ______ .
Nimeni on ______ . (NEE-meh-nee ohn _____ .)
Nice to meet you.
Hauska tavata. (HOWS-kah TAH-vah-tah)
Pretty pretty please?
The word please doesn't translate very easily into Finnish, although starting requests with Saisinko... (Could I please have...) or Voisitko... (Could you please...) can often substitute. If you have been asked something (eg. "What would you like?", or "Where do you want to go?"), you can just state X, kiitos in response. Better yet, just smile!
Chopping up numbers
Does saying things like seitsemänkymmentäkahdeksan for "78" seem terribly long-winded? Finns think so too, and in colloquial speech they abbreviate brutally, leaving just the first syllable of each component: seit-kyt-kahdeksan. Here are the short "prefix" forms, but note that they can only be used in compounds.
The University of Helsinki offers a highly popular Finnish for Foreigners program in six different skill levels, ranging from absolute beginner to advanced courses ending with language certification. Spring and Fall classes are offered in standard 1 unit (3 hrs/wk, 135 €) and intensive 2 unit (8 hrs/wk, 310 €) versions.