Miten menee?

How is it going? 

Finnish class is going well, overall.  I started out with a 2 week intensive course for ” false beginners” that covered basically all of Suomi 1 in 6 sessions.  I did all right through the first week and most of the second, but I didn’t feel fluent enough in what was covered to go on to Suomi 2.  I came up with most of the right homework answers and could read and understand the dialogues, but it still takes me a minute to think about my answer, and to sort out the verb conjugations and locative cases in my head.  I learned about 40 new verbs, adjectives, and nouns in 2 weeks and didn’t really have enough time to encode their meanings, let alone be able to use them properly in conversation.  It’s just too many steps of thinking that I’m not doing fast enough yet.  So I signed up for Suomi 1, the official first course that lasts the whole semester.  It only meets once a week, which the teacher (the same teacher as my intensive course) hates, but I think it works for me.

In my 19 years of school I’ve come to terms with my odd learning curve.  Typically when learning something new, people start out very slow, one thing at a time, and build up faster and faster towards a plateau.  For whatever reason I tend to learn very fast at first, then gradually evening out to plateau.  In learning languages, I soak up vocabulary, grammar patterns, prosody, and word origins very quickly, drawing loose connections without really knowing the basis behind it but knowing that certain things group together.  Then as I start to be taught the forms, it seems like a ton of information that I can’t possibly remember all at once.  My performance slows, I get more wrong answers, I get distracted by the grammar and forget the things I’ve already learned.  So while everyone else is finally catching on to the conjugations and noun cases, I’m struggling to remember basic vocabulary and sentence structure, and it ends up making me look and feel like a complete moron.  But I think with this class meeting once a week, I will have the time I need to process what I’ve learned in class and kind of wiggle around reviewing previously learned things and working ahead when it appeals to me.  That’s how I learn best.  I percolate.

What I also noticed in the first class was how people with different native languages pronounce Finnish.  This was a class where most people had some sort of functional knowledge of Finnish but no proper training in it.  I had a French conversation partner who for the life of her could not pronounce either the rolled R or the hard H in Finnish.  The H is aspirated quite strongly–not glottal, but definitely holds its place in the word, even when it’s (often) preceding another consonant, as in sähköposti.  There’s a little aspiration between and ko, because every letter is pronounced.  That’s the beauty of a phonetic language, which French most certainly is not.

In my first session of Suomi 1 I had a Chinese conversation partner and an Australian partner.  The Australian had the same pronunciation issues as me, mostly the äy and yh combinations, and finding the cadence in compound words like voisilmäpulla.  The Chinese girl had issues with certain consonant combinations, like ks, and distinguishing front and back vowels, for example a as in ”papa” versus ä as in ”apple.”  On the other hand, there are a lot of people here who speak Japanese, which sort of makes sense to me because the sound combinations and alphabet are similar, and they’re actually both quantity languages. (I should post in about this, but briefly, it means that the length of a vowel can change the meaning of a word.)

And I think everyone who doesn’t have ö in their native alphabet struggles with it.  I had a conversation with some Finns about this actually; they claimed that in English we have this vowel, but it’s only in some words and it’s spelled very differently.  An example would be ”her”–it’s the ”er” sound with a very soft, almost nonexistent R.  If you can pronounce “Goethe” or “Schoenberg” correctly, that’s the vowel.  But of course, that’s only if you put on a British accent; I’m pretty sure ö does not exist in American English. I tried to explain that most American English vowels have degraded to the schwa, ə, over time, especially in rural areas.  Even more problematic to non-native English speakers, our tiny set of true vowels, a, e, i, o, u (and sometimes y) can be pronounced myriad different ways depending on the dialect, and all of them can be degraded to schwa.  (If you don’t believe that y can become schwa, go talk to a southerner.)  I believe the schwa is not used in Finnish at all, and I have to say I’m thankful for that.  I think it’s an ugly sound and I’m always self-conscious that my conditioned use of it gives away my accent.  Although, funny enough, the only people around here that have been able to pinpoint my accent are the Canadians and fellow Americans.

When we recited the Finnish alphabet in class, my favorite part was when we came to R.  I’m not sure why or how I was gifted with the ability to roll my tongue with extreme ease, but the trilled R has not been a problem for me, unlike for about half the class, which burst into frustrated laughter.  Saying R as part of the Finnish alphabet sounds like suddenly you’re impersonating a Spanish pirate.  ARRRRRR!  I’ll be the first to admit I spent a very smug 5 minutes while the teacher gave some tips on how to develop the trill if you can’t do it.  My confidence in her only grew when she said that trilling the R is physiologically the same as articulating a D very fast, it’s just the amount of air pressure that is different.  I had just the day before read this very thing in a phonetics text that I’m using as research for my doctoral studies proposal.  She knows her stuff!  She also recommended that we pick up a Finnish spouse at a bar so we can have a conversation partner, so she’s proving very useful for advice in multiple areas.

And I also have to admit, I am not at all put out that Finnish doesn’t use Q or X.  Qu’est-ce que c’est?  Minä en tiedä.


I am a little anxious for the next few months of Finnish class.  I keep having a nagging fear that it’ll turn out like French–at some point my self-consciousness will take over and I’ll fall behind, and suddenly I’ll stop understanding things.  I don’t know why I thought that always happens when I try to learn a language.  I haven’t really tried to learn more than Latin, French, and now Finnish.  It didn’t happen with Latin. I don’t remember ever struggling with Latin; I read histories and poetry easily, even aloud in their respective weird forms.  (“That’s beautiful and all, but where is the verb?  Six lines down.  Why does this line have five zillion awkward syllables?  It doesn’t.  You have to elide all those vowels.”)

Maybe I’m afraid of actually learning the language.  Because if I know enough of it, then I don’t have an excuse for being bad at it.  People have told me for a long time that I’m good at languages, and I’ve always just accepted that as true.  I do have a firm grasp on English grammar, vocabulary, and literature.  I may be a bit rusty but I can read most church Latin and some poetry. I can read some French although my vocabulary is terrible, and I can read and understand enough Dutch to avoid (unintentionally) buying anything really weird at Albert Heijn.  In Europe, that’s pretty pitiful.  It seems that the idea that I’m good at languages came from being interested in them, and being able to read a menu at a nice restaurant.  (“Orecchiette?  What is that?  It’s pasta.  Pasta?  Where does it say that?”)

To be really blunt about it, telling someone they’re good at languages when they’re in the middle of trying to learn a particularly difficult one is like telling someone they’re good at skydiving and then chucking them out of an airplane during a hurricane.  It’s not productive and it only makes them terrified to fail.  Because then what?  Then… maybe you’re not actually good at languages.  Maybe it was all a smokescreen.  It really all comes back to Imposter Syndrome, over and over again.  Maybe you’re just not good enough. Maybe you aren’t trying hard enough.  Maybe you aren’t smart enough to learn this.

Lately I’ve been having what feel like revelations, quite literally; the language is being revealed to me.  I’ve had a couple of opportunities to write a paragraph or so in Finnish, and I was surprised at how easy it was.  Walking down the same street every day, I understand more of the signs and side talk, and it feels like garbled radio speech coming into focus.  All of a sudden instead of walking around hearing the teacher from Peanuts (wahh wah waaah wah wahhh) I know that the guy in the white shirt wants to know when the rest of his friends are coming to the bar.  I know that this shop is having a weekend special on red seedless grapes.  I know that child wants some strawberries but the mother doesn’t have time–they are going to visit his grandmother.  And I don’t have to stop and think about the translation–these things just are.  Cinnamon rolls are things you eat with coffee; with kahvia, I prefer korvapuusti.  Kasviskeitto is a thing entirely separate from my concept of vegetable soup, and I bought my Finnish text at the kirjakauppa, not the bookstore.

Of course, perspective tends to make it feel like nothing.  I have a hard time understanding when people are talking to me, because spoken Finnish can be quite different than it is written, and people talk really fast and my vocabulary doesn’t yet cover the whole range of things people might ask me about.  I also tend to blank when people speak to me directly, even though if I heard the same thing asked of someone else, I know what is going on without a problem. For some reason my brain just wipes out what is immediately said to me and then I realize what it was too late. But I’m getting more confident with conversation in Finnish class, confident in the pronunciation and the cadence of the sentences.  I only use a rising intonation for questions about 30% of the time now.*

And I think maybe it’s about openness.  I know some people here who have been here for far longer than I have, and I wonder how they survive, because they don’t know the most basic of things.  The kind of things you can’t help but pick up, because they’re pounded into you every time you go outside: ravintola, kahvila, lentoasema, katu.  Iso, pieni, kaunis, päivä, voileipä, pulla.  How do you even get from the airport to the city and not pick up these things?  I’m not sure, but I intend to soak up as much as possible.  I may not be the type to stop people on the street and stutter to them in broken Finnish, but I can sit back and observe, and learn.  Joka päivä, minä puhun jä minä ymmärrän vahan lisää suomea.

*For those who are interested, I’ve made some observations about the prosody of questions in Finnish.  Since you don’t use an upward inflection like you do in English, questions are marked by question words like mitä, miksi, millainen, kuinka, etc. or the suffix -ko on a verb that is then placed at the beginning of the sentence. For example, Mitä kieltä puhut sinä?  What language do you speak?  Or Puhutko sinä suomea?  Do you speak Finnish? When my Finnish teacher asks a question, she uses a high tone on the first syllable of the question word or the most important part of a question phrase and finishes the sentence on a medium tone, as opposed to a declarative sentence which is inflected like English (more stress on the important words) and ends in a low tone.


One Comment

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  1. It seems to me, as someone without any linguistic or pedagogical expertise whatsoever, that you’re either linguistically gifted or that you’re intuitive learner (or thinker, considering the imposter syndrome thing and the loop verification by hand), which gives you an advantage at the beginning, but may actually be a disservice in structural learning, since you “coast” the first lessons by using that gift rather than doing the work. Doing the work would give you a conscious understanding of the rules and structures, which you could then build intellectually on top of, in a conscious way.
    To counter that effect you could try either always doing the work consciously, by exercising the rules rather than intuition, or you could embrace it and push yourself to learn through the unconscious process by reading and writing more. In fact, your Latin experience makes it sound as though you read a lot more when learning it, which gave you an intuitive grasp of the structures, etc., and thus you were less frustrated with it.


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