Recently I found myself at a festival for early music (vanhamusiikki) in the charming little Swedish-speaking town of Karjaa. How I got there mentally is a long story, but the physical inter-city train only takes an hour. I arrived early, having given myself plenty of time to make the half-hour walk through town to Lärkkulla College and get lost in the meantime, which is always possible and not always unpleasant. But I didn’t get lost, and so I was there too early for check-in. Eventually I found the front desk, and asking about check-in in English, was greeted with a guessing game of who I was, since there were only three English-speaking people on the (fairly small) course. The receptionist made a big deal about it being my first time at the course and repeated several times that I didn’t know anyone there, which was offputting to hear from a stranger when you already feel a bit out of place, both in a local sense but also existentially. Of course, my room key wasn’t ready yet so I sat by myself for an hour with my backpack, looking through some music.
After the inital awkwardness though, things warmed up. Everyone did know each other, I quickly found out, and equally quickly learned that these comments about me not knowing anyone there weren’t meant to exclude or make me feel badly, but rather the opposite: everyone wanted to get to know me! We had a welcome meeting all together and then went to meet our instrument teachers and studios, and as always the oboes soon banded together in our odd little tribe. I was informed that my first lesson (of FIVE!) would take place right after dinner that very day, and then we had some free time, and could get the rest of the room keys that hadn’t been ready before.
I went to reception to get my key and the receptionist immediately recognized me. She indicated that the blonde girl standing in front of me was my roommate, and gave us our keys. We went up to our room, which was at the attic floor of an old building. It turned out to be spacious and bright, with high pointed ceilings and a large pentagon-shaped west-facing window. Across the hall was the “galleria,” an expansive wooden room done up like a classroom with a large window twin to ours, beautiful wooden rafters, painted shelves in the walls and an old-fashioned blackboard on wheels.
At that point, I was still anxious, but starting to feel that nervous energy. I hadn’t taken a music lesson since the last year of undegrad four years ago, and I hadn’t really played for most of that time. Most of the oboe studio, I had gathered already, were real musicians, and I was intimidated. It brought back all the negativity I had been working through for the past four years, and I started to feel that punched-in-the-stomach knot of tension.
I shouldn’t have worried, it turns out. Or maybe the worrying drove me to practise. Either way, I started with the Zelenka trio I had been assigned for one of my chamber groups and after a bit of the adagio, the oboe teacher stopped me and said, “that’s lovely.” I got on with him and the rest of the oboe studio very well, and we had chats about life and music and reeds and oboes and wine and French bread and good books and travelling. It was a familiar feeling, the same way I feel unlocking the door to my apartment here after having been away. It’s coming home, but to a home that you never would have expected, and maybe didn’t think you could have.
The thing I really love about baroque music in particular is that it has this strange double personality of being both natural and artificial simultaneously. Compared to the modern conservatory, the instruments are simpler in a way, closer to the raw materials, and the sound is very raw and clean. But in terms of art, the Baroque was an era of gilt and brocade, the court of the French king and Bach writing grand fugues for huge organs, Monteverdi choirs in impressive stone churches that echo for minutes after the sound. At every level it’s both raw and grandiose, simple and complex, structural and decorative. Like many things in life.
I have a theory about learning to speak another language efficiently. I think you need two out of three possible resources: content, confidence, and necessity. If you have the content and the confidence, you can strike up conversations and be understood. If you have confidence and necessity, you’ll eventually learn the content. And if you have necessity and content, there’s no need for confidence; you just gotta do it in order to get by. My problem, I think, is that while I do lack a lot of content, what I lack more is both confidence and necessity. When everyone speaks perfect English, I feel like I’m wasting their time stuttering by in broken child-level Finnish, and just keeps breaking down my confidence further.
It bothers me that there is a sense of morality or character attached to how many languages you speak. Of course it bothers me on a personal level, because I get the “stupid selfish American” stereotype put on me. But it bothers me for everyone who has had to learn another language to survive, everyone who has been ashamed of their first language or had to hide it, everyone who has never had the chance to learn another language, and everyone who fears encountering someone who does not speak the same language. I recently saw a post on Facebook by an expat group, a quote that was probably misattributed and now will go unattributed and paraphrased: “Never look down on someone for making mistakes in your language, because they have two languages.” I think we should never look down on someone for making mistakes in any language, and I don’t really think we should be holding up our mastery of languages as some kind of contest prize. I don’t think it’s useful to categorize people into “fluent” and non-speakers (and if you’re going to argue that there are “functional” speakers, please, ask any expat who has had a conversation in their second language, made one small mistake, and been told “oh, you don’t speak this language”).
I think it’s like music–we are all musicians in some sense, and some of us have been rigorously trained. Some of us are not very good at music, either because we just don’t get it naturally, or because of lack of training. Some of us don’t need music and thus aren’t interested in it. Some of us have been forced to learn, usually to fit into a society. Language is the same way. I don’t agree with holding up naturally talented, intrinsically motivated children as musical prodigies, and in the same sense I don’t agree with these articles you see about “self taught polyglots” who are “fluent” in sixteen languages. The fluency myth is behind the biggest block to using language as it should be used–communication. We are not fluent even in our native languages; one glance at any social media account should confirm this, but there’s a more scientific way to put it, too.
There’s also the issue that harkens back to Professor Henry Higgins and his painfully prescriptive linguistics, which is that some linguists (and most of the public) believe that there is a right and a wrong way to speak any language. This is why we have rules, after all–this is what grammar and pronunciation are for. But those of us who study language on a larger level–in the mind, through time, across culture and history–we realize that language is a crazy rough-edged dynamic thing that is constantly both molding and being molded by our culture. What is “right” is simply what is understood best by the population, and what kinds of words best suit the population’s needs. And as those needs change, language changes.
Part of the problem, I think, is how we think about what it means to speak another language–not consciously, but how we treat the phenomenon in society. I’ve always wished I grew up bilingual, but it was sort of an extra thing, the way I wished I had hair like Rapunzel or a pasture for horses in my backyard. I chose to study Latin in high school, which was a good choice for standardized testing, and I enjoyed reading Latin poetry. In college I took a few semesters of French, and while I loved the professor, who was from Montreal and brought us petit écoliers for good luck on exam days, I had a kind of realization that languages are not taught seriously in the US. We all take some sort of language course, but no one actually expects us to function in another language, even, believe it or not, people who major in languages. The catalyst for this revelation was the observation that my French professor, intelligent and actually French-speaking as he was, would fail to correct the painfully terrible pronunciation of my classmates. Eventually nearly everyone was pronouncing things terribly, and I could either join them and cringe inside, pronounce things the best I could and sound like an insufferable pedant, or avoid speaking in class at all. Nonconfrontational as I am, I chose the latter, my grades suffered, and I decided I could not learn a second language in the US, at least not like this.
I don’t believe that all “wrong” pronunciation is wrong, though. And I don’t believe that all “wrong” grammar is wrong. But I do believe that it should be the goal of a language class to have a functional speaking knowledge of that language. Things I might actually say. Somehow, even with topically divided chapters and basic conversation exercises, basic language courses just don’t cut it.
Because the conversation is essentially one-sided. You learn a script, and if the real-life person you try to speak to deviates from the script at all, in intonation or vocabulary, even the style of speaking or a regional dialect, your ship is sunk. Even more so if, for example in Finnish, the courses teach the written language when what you need to practise is the spoken language, a sort of shorthand with dialect slang thrown in. It’s not useful, and you (well, I) develop a block about communicating at all.
I had my first real xenophobia experience a few weeks ago, when I was invited to a “dinner under the sky” with friends in a beautiful park in an old and classy area in the south of the city. There was lots of food and some classy summer cocktails, and I made mustikkapiirakka for the first time, with about a gallon of blueberries I had picked myself, and it turned out perfect (extra tasty with vanilla bean white chocolate ice cream!). We were a mix of Finns, German and Luxembourgish, a couple of UK (both English and Scottish), and me representing North America. At least for the language I was glad there was such a mix: I always tell people not to change to English for me, and I’ll follow along as best I can, but people usually do switch, and I feel guilty about it. Though once you get to know people they have a feeling for what you can and can’t understand, and they’ll either say it simpler, or translate it, or use a kind of Finnglish that is easier to understand. And actually, the vast majority of my Finnish friends here speak perfect English and are quite happy to use it with me. But the guilt remains, and anyway there’s always a feeling of solidarity with other foreigners.
We were about halfway through dinner and a local drunk woman came and was asking us about the party (there were a few other parties in the same park). Being nice, we gave her some bread and a cup of wine, and thought nothing else. But she came back a few times, and finally tried to steal things off the table. When the men of the group, who speak English, insisted that she leave us alone, she started yelling about how she’s entitled to our things because this is her country, and if we don’t like it then we should go back to our own country. Luckily things de-escalated from there, and one of the other party must have made a call, because soon there were police rounding up and questioning this woman and her two compatriots. All in all, we didn’t let it ruin our dinner.
I still feel foreign a lot, especially in Finnish-only situations. There were only a few non-Finns in the Karjaa workshop, so it got a bit lonely and guilty at times. But they say that music is the universal language, and although that isn’t strictly true, it makes sense. Music is communicative, and I was able to understand even in the Finnish-led orchestra rehearsals. It’s mostly numbers, and the same kind of simple words we use in yoga–faster, slower, up, down, heavy, light, more, less. At one point though, the director was saying something I was sure I heard wrong. It sounded like fish. I had to ask my standmate, why was the director rhapsodizing about fish? She looked at me and started laughing. She was talking to the violins about F#, or fis, which with the Finnish sibilant /s/, sounds like /sh/.
I cant really help what I hear though. None of us can. And I couldn’t help but laugh later at the director’s final words about the gigue, a lively French dance movement. In Finnish, the elegant szsh sound replaced unceremoniously with a crude /k/, further Finned by the addition of the terminal /i/ à la loan words like filmi and baari, and summarily desecrated with the plural /t/ ending. The whole situation perfectly completed by the fact that at the last moment of rehearsal, the director made a show of reminding everyone to use their F#s in this, which she called the fish kiksit.
I’m also coming to terms with the fact that it takes a long time to get established. I still don’t understand the healthcare system here, and after living in this apartment for
three four FIVE months I still haven’t made the call to get the nameplate changed. I was explaining to someone that it’s just one of those things that probably isn’t as difficult as I feel like it is, but it gets put on the back burner until I have the extra time and energy to talk to someone who may or may not understand me, and may or may not be rude or awkward. I hate cold-calling anyway, and being foreign makes it especially stressful.
But in the meantime I kind of like the irony of my current nameplate: it says Ruotsalainen, which is one of these surnames that translates easily into real words. It means “Swedish” in Finnish, and although I have no Swedish ancestry, it kind of suits me. It reminds me each evening when I come home that I’m a foreigner in a foreign land, and that’s okay.