Polyglot (I am not)

So I start my first Finnish class in about two weeks, and I’m already getting anxious about it.  I’ve been anxious to start it for… well, about a year and a half, but now that it’s actually going to happen, I’m getting the bad sort of butterflies.

Because it’s still the summer and I wasn’t sure of my lab schedule, I ended up signing up for a 2-week starter course for “false beginners.”  The description said it was for people who can count, know days of the week, months, colors, some foods, basic greetings, that kind of thing.  I’ve shared some of the words I’ve learned so far here, and there’s also a pretty good collection of words I know that haven’t made it into the blog yet, mostly because they’re kind of random and not very useful in daily life. Kainalo, for example, means “armpit.”  Jenkkakahvat are love handles.  A kallio is a kind of rocky hill, something we don’t have a specific word for in English, and I know that “moi” and “kiitos” both have multiple uses in different contexts which can’t really be completely translated over to English.  Some of the words I know are useful to me: ruisjauho is rye flour and savukinkku is smoked ham.  Some words are not quite useful but are interesting to me: ruusumarjat are rose-hips, literally, “rose berries.”  I can write my standard grocery list entirely in Finnish: maito, munat, sipuli, perunat, porkkana, kahvia, jogurtti, juusto, persikkat; if I’m doing some baking, I might also need voi, sokeri, jauho (probably vehnäjauho), leivinjauho, and suklaa.  When I walk around the city, I like to repeat the words I know in my head as I see them: aurinko, taivas, pilvi, lintu, lahti, kirja, talo, kauppa, kukka, ravintola, herneet, mustikat, herukat… it goes on.  But this is just in my head and very casual; studying is another matter entirely.


I hope I chose the right class.  In any case, I’ll have another chance at a course when the term starts.  But what I’m really worried about is the French 101 Effect: a conflicted, uncomfortable set of mixed emotions that really spoiled French for me.

Senior year of undergrad I decided to take a year of French classes, partly because it would have involved way too much paperwork to get my Latin credits to count for a foreign language requirement, and partly because I felt learning a bit of a non-dead language could only help me in life.  It started out all right; knowing Latin definitely helps with Romance languages, so I quickly picked up on the grammar and vocabulary.  I even liked the little soap opera that we were supposed to watch (in French, without subtitles) as a culture lesson.  The story was (I think?) about an Algerian family living in Paris: the father (I think his name was Rachid) struggled with racism in his new job at a television station, the mother struggled with homesickness and loneliness, and the little daughter had to go to a new school.  There was even a parallel plot about the secret military past of Rachid’s coworker’s grandfather.  I was interested, so I learned quickly and did pretty well on the tests and quizzes.

My problem was the conversation exercises.  The thing about French in particular, is that for Americans just beginning to study it, there are two ways to speak it.  One, in a terrible American accent as if you really can’t hear (or worse, don’t care about) the phonemes.  And two, in the best accent you can manage, which tends to end up sounding horrifically fake and affected.  I think it’s far better when you’ve had several years of experience and can formulate sentences more fluently (dear friends who have actually studied French for more than a year: I think your French is awesome and I am super jealous that you toughed it out long enough to not sound like an idiot when you speak it!).  But for me, having no exposure to French outside the culinary world, these seemed my only options.  I tried the authentic-as-possible-but-slightly-watered-down route, which turned out to make me sound more like I had a speech impediment than anything else.

It wasn’t just my own pronunciation that bothered me; it was everyone else’s, too.  I couldn’t understand why some of my classmates, wanting to show off, would memorize long phrases with terrible pronunciation and recite them during our conversation practice, leaving me to dig through my dictionary.  Far more than once I had to ask my partner to write it down, and then tried to tactfully let them know that they had utterly butchered the pronunciation to the point where I couldn’t recognize a single word when they spoke it.  The professor, fun and supportive as he was, didn’t seem too concerned about it.  It got to the point where the entire class would be pronouncing things one way, and I would listen closely to the professor say it, thinking that I must be wrong.  But what do you do when the majority is leaning one way, that way is the wrong way, and the professor doesn’t seem bothered to correct it?  Every class was torture: do I go along with the crowd, or do I stand out by copying the professor and not them?  Eventually I didn’t enjoy French at all, stopped studying, and sat in the back of the class hoping I wouldn’t have to say anything.

This is what I’m afraid of happening with Finnish.  I think the pronunciation won’t be as bad, since Finnish is so phonetic, and the Finns I know who have been teaching me words have commented that my accent is very good.  On individual words and phrases, at least.  I’m not worried about grammar: I’ve loved learning the grammar of all the languages I’ve studied, and I can already recognize plurals and the genitive form, as well as some suffixes that carry grammatical meaning.  And I’m not too worried about the vocabulary: anyone can memorize vocabulary.

What I am worried about is the social climate of the class.  I think maybe I will look into finding a single conversation partner, to relieve some of the pressure of speaking in front of others.  There’s just a weird kind of awkwardness that comes from trying to have a conversation in another language with someone who is so convinced of their own success that they’re willing to dive in and make all sorts of mistakes, and not even care to go fix them later.  I’m a big advocate of making mistakes, but I think you should analyze them afterward so that you don’t make the same ones twice.  Isn’t that the point of learning, after all?  And that’s really hard to do when you’re supposed to come up with a skit set at a cafe that uses 15 direction words from Chapter 7, in 5 minutes.

Maybe I just learn differently; maybe I just hate playing games in academia when it’s more useful to me to be reading and writing.  And maybe that was just a bad experience with one language, in one class, in college, where everybody is vying for social standing anyway.  In any case, at least this class is only 2 weeks long.

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  1. Peruskallio means bedrock. Forget the “continental” aspect and stick to immediate locality, so to speak, and consider that most of the soil in Finland was washed away during the last ice age (meaning that you can actually see the bedrock everywhere). Then you get the feel of the meaning of kallio – not just a rock, a huge fucking clump of rock under your feet. It doesn’t necessarily mean a hill of any kind, but it being a hill obviously makes it more prominent in the landscape.

    With Finnish, knowing Latin is a plus in terms of pronunciation and writing. I think people tend to forget to unlearn the idisynchrasies of their native language and pronunciation when they start learning a new one. They forget the limitations of their their native language and try to build up from there instead of starting at the beginning.

    I can pretty much promise the social climate in the class will be better. You’re not in high school any more – no one is – so that’s better. You’re all (most, at least, if not all) in there voluntarily to learn. And there probably aren’t going to be that many students there anyway. (Okay, there probably weren’t that many in high school either if you think about it.)
    The thing to remember is that you can choose to effect a better climate. It’s a form of leadership and the funny thing about leadership is that it’s mostly about make-believe and posturing: If you make yourself visible and start leading, people will follow – unless they have a reason not to. In this case it means that you can make the social climate better simply by setting an example.


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