ELF Talk: Language awareness in everyday life (By Tiina Matikainen)


As I am sure you agree, there are many benefits to learning another language, such as English. For example, knowing and understanding two or more languages can boost your brain power as you learn the rules and patterns of a foreign language. Also, it can improve your knowledge and understanding of your first language and make you more aware of similarities and differences between your native language and any new languages you encounter.

In my case, in recent years, I have been surprised to see many words and expressions in my native language, Finnish, all over Japan. Most strikingly, I have come across many businesses that have a Finnish name. For instance, there is a chain store in Tokyo selling interior and fashion products named Kiitos which means thank you in Finnish. In Osaka, there is a women’s fashion store called Olohuone which means living room in Finnish. Also in Osaka, there is a pancake cafe called Pöllö which in Finnish means an owl. Then there is of course the famous fashion brand Minä Perhonen which in Finnish means I butterfly.

Usually we only see or hear Finnish inside Finland. There are only a little over 5 million Finnish speakers in the world, most of them of course in Finland. That is why it is so surprising to see so much Finnish in Japan. Some people say it is because it is trendy to use Finnish. However, there may be another reason. In fact, there are several similarities between Finnish and Japanese. Firstly, both languages have vowel harmony which means that we repeat the same vowel in one word, for example, kasa. Secondly, both languages are agglutinating which means that we form complex words by combining suffixes, prefixes, or both onto root words, but we do not change the spelling or pronunciation of them. Thirdly, both languages use subject + verb + object word order and lack grammatical gender.

Knowing this information about Japanese and Finnish, I realized that there are many identical words in these two languages. Many of the same words are used in Finnish and Japanese with different meanings. I have included some examples in the table below.

Word Japanese Meaning Finnish Meaning
HANA Flower Water tap
KANI Crab Bunny
RISU Squirrel Twig
KASA Umbrella Pile
NAMI Wave A piece of candy
KITSU Shoes Invitation
SORA Sky Gravel
TORI Bird Open marketplace
HIMA Open marketplace Home

It’s both fun and educational to compare and contrast languages like this. We can do this in everyday life, and we can learn important things about both our own language and the foreign language. Can you become a “linguist” and think of similarities and differences between English and Japanese? For example, how is English used around you in everyday life? Why do you think that is?