Sunday, March 27, 2011

The language(s) of Finland

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote of his discovery of Finnish grammar in a letter to W.H. Auden in 1955: "It was like discovering a complete wine-filled cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me..."

I'm certainly not going to argue with a linguistic giant like Mr. Tolkien: in fact I'm going to say that his assessment is spot on, from a non-native speaker's point of view. That rush is what keeps me chugging through class after class, trying to force my brain to forget thirty years of English and understand language in an entirely different way. It's no secret that Finnish is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn for an English speaker, but I have to disagree with that. Finnish isn't difficult at all; the small children on the bus babbling away in Finnish to their mothers proves that. And if small children can learn this language, then I don't have much of an excuse to whine about it being hard. Tensor calculus is hard, and toddlers can't do that. But they can speak Finnish. What makes it seem hard is how different it is from English. Once you accept that it's completely different and you'd better give up looking for any cognates anywhere, you start to make your own connections. You can scare people by saying that Finnish has sixteen grammatical cases, or you can simply map them around the meanings of various prepositions in English and realise that they have the same overall function. In fact, they usually map directly to particular prepositions. Suddenly, it seems less like a hard language, and one where the same things are expressed but using a completely different grammar. In certain ways it's even easier than English. For one, the language was written down so recently that it's maintained a completely phonetic alphabet: what you see is how you say, one hundred percent of the time. None of this nonsense where vowels act in all manner of ways depending on which other letters surround it or which word family it's in. It's also a very mathematical and regular language, and with most of the grammar rules there are only one or two exceptions to remember. There's also no gendered nouns, like English and unlike most Germanic and Romantic languages. There's not even a separate pronoun for "he" and "she".

Finnish does have a spoken form that differs quite a bit from the written language. In all of my classes so far, there's been precious little discussion of spoken language so far - even in our Practical Finnish course, though we're supposed to cover it a bit at the end. If using the spoken language isn't practical, I don't know what is! I suppose they're keeping that for the last classes; once you've mastered the grammar you're allowed to tear it apart again. But it's quite different from the written language, and if you speak the written language it's going to sound funny to native speakers, as if you went around in the US speaking Shakespearean English. But at least you can make yourself understood. Half of the difficulty in learning the spoken form is that, well, you actually have to speak, and that requires getting over one's own shyness about using a language you're still learning. It's the difference between learning to drive a car in the middle of a farm field and then heading out on the beltway during rush hour. It's much easier to understand foreign languages than to actually produce them, but there's no other way to improve - especially when it comes to spoken forms.

Once you get the hang of the spoken language you have a whole new world of Finnish still to be discovered: the local dialect. As in the US, some dialects are pretty spread out while certain towns (I'm looking at you, Rauma) have their own distinct language. Some are slight accents upon the Helsinki-based spoken language, while some sound more similar to Estonian or something else entirely. Current slang in Helsinki is more or less incoherent to anyone not living there, so I'm with plenty of native Finnish speakers in my complete non-understanding of Hesa-speak.

Then there's the growing amount of people like me who are learning Finnish, using our various native accents from all around the world, with varying levels of skill. You hear this in classrooms and at Finnish for Foreigners clubs. I find myself resorting to Finglish all the time, and to paraphrase a classmate of mine: "If Finglish is wrong, I don't want to be right!" I suppose that even at a more advanced level of fluency, dropping in a bit of English here and there is just going to be the way I do things, because some things just don't translate very well. The same goes in the other direction.

Someday I'd love to learn Finnish well enough to teach it to English speakers. That day is pretty far off, but the more I learn, the more I love it - even as my classes become more complex and difficult. Somehow, continuing to wrestle with this language instead of throwing my hands up in defeat, just makes me love it more and more. I look forward to when I can claim some kind of victory and use it fluently.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Packing up: reprise

In a couple of weeks I move to Germany for my four-month exchange semester. I'm looking forward to simply being there, where it's already springtime, with a new city to explore and new places to go. Even here the temperatures have been creeping up past zero for the past week or so, and while there's still plenty of snow, you can find tiny patches of grass near footpaths or along the south edge of buildings. The roof of my neighboring apartment buildings is visible for the first time in months. The crisp white snow is finally turning into a black slush by the roads and refreezing overnight on the footpaths to create incredibly slippery walking surfaces, but it can't last forever at this point. Even the sun is back to keeping regular hours again.

In packing up my room I've come to realize that in six months I've managed to acquire about twice as much as I came here with, somehow. I thought I was being good and holding back on buying stuff, but I still find myself wondering how the heck I generate so much stuff! Granted, a lot of that are clothes for winter or lamps to light my room or whatever, but even halfway packed I still feel like I have plenty to do before I leave - and that's without packing up everything I still need while living here! Luckily my roommate will still be here in August when I get back, so I will just use the apartment's storage space and not rent my own. The university doesn't have any solutions for people who are going on exchanges, even short ones, so like everything else here I have to work things out myself.

I'm also meeting up with the Academic Career Services department to talk about what is required for my internship when I come back in the fall. I won't have much time to find out about this once I get back, so I'm at least setting things up before I leave. One more thing to keep track of in the two weeks I have left here! My department coordinator hasn't gotten back to me at all on this, so it looks like if I don't find help with this, no one else will. But by the end of the day I should know how long the internship will be, how it's being paid for and who will pay it, and other such details that a potential internship provider would want to know.

This weekend should be pretty exciting, there's a Viking reenactment event at the Rosala Viking Center, down in the archipelago somewhere. I haven't really been to the archipelago proper (just Ruissalo, so far) so I'm looking forward to it, even if it takes a long time to get there. I finally get a chance to break out my garb again, and sleep in a Viking longhouse in a place the Vikings actually went! I'll probably bring my camera, even though I'm still going through hundreds upon hundreds of Prague photos... it's a never ending battle against my memory card. :)

EDIT: Rosala photos can be found here!