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The language struggle?

January 21, 2010
My Finnish grammar is terrible and my vocabulary is quite weak, but somehow I manage to get by in almost all daily situations with my Finnish. I doubt I could ever get a job in the service industry or anything that required me to write in Finnish, because for sure my written Finnish is the worst of my abilities in the language.
Yet after 11 years I suddenly find myself speaking more Finnish when I make phone calls or deal with people in public – and being understood (!). I guess I can thank my daughter for that, since having her, I have much more daily contact with the language.  A couple of weeks ago I had a fiasco with my wallet. Thinking it was lost, I was filled with horror thinking of all of the cards I had to cancel and reorder. So – I proceeded to phone the relevant authorities to report my lost wallet and I was able to deal with everyone in Finnish, having to ask for clarification a few times, but I managed. A day later I found my wallet – under my bed. Do not ask me how it got there, I have no idea! Sarcastic
Around the same time I went and did an interview at the Vermo race track in Leppävaara (hopefully the article will be forthcoming in Six Degrees). In addition to talking to the marketing assistant, Sari Heino and the CEO Jorma Ojapelto (we mostly spoke English), I also got to interview Antti Serkamo*, a long-time trainer of harness racing horses. Antti speaks English, but I was able to ask him many of the questions I had in Finnish… The interview was a success. Wow – I am shocking myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I do stumble, sometimes with unanticipated consequences. Most Finns are really impressed with foreigners’ efforts to learn Finnish, because even they admit that Finnish is not an easy language to learn. Last fall I went to the post office in Tapiola to send a letter to my dad who is a stamp collector. He likes to get the real thing, so I asked if I could get stamps on the envelope and the clerk asked me a question that I did not understand. She repeated it three times and when I said I didn’t understand she blustered in English and asked what kind of stamps I wanted. When I answered back in Finnish that anything was fine, I added that she used words that I had never heard before. No comment. I think she woke up on the wrong side of the bed or something that day because she was a grouch. I was caught off guard by her hostility, something you don’t normally see in day-to-day encounters with Finns.
The point in learning Finnish is to make the effort to learn it, yes, it takes a dog’s age! I still teach English once a week to a group of engineers at a small company in Espoo and we’ve made a deal that I will come in with five new Finnish words every week if they come in with five new English words every week. The activity generates a lot of discussion among my students and it is a useful exercise for me too. What else do I do? I watch Finnish news on TV, I grab Metro lehti every day on the bus and read it, I surf to Finnish news websites occasionally, and this is just a smattering of the things I do… I do my web-banking in Finnish – but that is because the English interface of the web bank I deal with is atrocious.
So why doesn’t this closet ability make it into my daily work at a software company? I’ve been here for nine years already and I am one of few native English speakers in the office, so my "skills" are sometimes sought by others. The vocabulary of the hi-tech industry is different and I get lost listening to my colleagues discuss code and technological issues in Finnish. They also use a lot of slang. Not to mention that it would just seem downright awkward to start speaking Finnish with the people I have worked with for the past nine years – sorry everyone. Put a few beers in me and I might manage at work. Open-mouthed
*Look in this blog for a future entry on Vermo and Antti Serkamo.
7 Comments leave one →
  1. Juhani permalink
    January 22, 2010 12:05 am

    Way to go, Carmen…! Finnish is indeed a tough language even though I sometimes joke that it can’t be since even children know how to speak it… 🙂 Just make sure your English doesn’t get messed up by bad influences… If you start saying things like "the same than", you need to stop speaking English with the Finns and listen to more BBC…! Take care, Jussi

  2. anon permalink
    February 6, 2012 5:43 pm

    Start reading books in FInnish. That’ll really shift your language learning to high gear.

    • February 7, 2012 10:26 am

      I haven’t graduated that far just yet – but I am listening to Finnish audiobooks with my kid! 🙂 I also look at the paper every day… I am getting there!

      • anonymous permalink
        February 19, 2012 5:07 pm

        Oh come now. March to the library and find the children’s or teens’ section.
        You’ll find that you’re better than you think.

      • February 22, 2012 10:40 am

        My kid has a few audiobooks, so I am getting pretty good at following along. 🙂


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