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An Ode to Finnish, some thoughts on being a polyglot, and memories of the USSR

September 16, 2010

It’s not my goal to be a polyglot. A sports commentator doesn’t have to be a good footballer, car racer, weight-lifter, tennis player and ski jumper, all at the same time, in order to understand the sports and give thoughtful commentary. However, dabbling in a few of the sports will make one less of a theorist and add to one’s credibility. Likewise, I can’t ever hope to be fluent in many languages. I won’t have time to learn them and then constantly practice them to keep them alive. Not meaning to offend anybody, I also believe that learning languages simply for the sake of learning languages is pure self-indulgence. It’s enjoyable, it’s addictive, but unless you actually do something with your knowledge to help mankind, you’re just engaged in a non-stop self-pleasing exercise. It’s fine if you are a linguist studying the languages to analyze the ways they work and make global conclusions. It’s fine if you are a permanent traveler and use your skills interacting with people across the globe. Other than that, I don’t think the numbers matter. Knowing one foreign language well is sometimes more worthy of respect than knowing a dozen languages poorly, in my very humble opinion.

As for me, I’m a bit of a linguist and a bit of a traveler, and in this blog I am trying to be a sort of ‘linguistic commentator’. So I thought it would be great to learn a couple of tongues different from those I had known from birth or had studied before (i.e. Russian, English, French, Spanish and a bit of Italian).

So the other day I decided to study Finnish. Why? Lingustically, because it’s from another language family and, consequently, is unlike all the other languages I know. When I speak Spanish I sometimes get confused and insert French or Italian words. With Finnish, words as basic as ‘yes’ (‘kyllä’) and ‘no’ (‘ei’) are so different that there’s no risk of confusing them. Also, it would be intriguing to see how agglutination works where enormous words are created by joining morphemes together. It would be interesting to study a language with a complex system of inflection of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals and verbs.

To learn a language I also have to like the culture. For some reason I have only positive associations with Finnish culture.

It makes me think of The Snow Queen by Andersen, one of my favorite childhood books, where the Lapp woman and the Finn woman helped Gerda in her quest of Kai.

It makes me think about polar nights, Aurora Borealis, forests, lakes, reindeer, Santa Claus…

I’ve always supported the Finnish ice-hockey team (of course unless they played against Russians), I don’t really know why. Maybe because I want them to match the Swedish team’s record. They always seem to have been a little behind. Maybe I just like their colors.

I prefer Finnish butter. It’s the best you can buy here. Finnish tiles are good. Finnish copying paper is good. Both my son and I have Nokia phones, and they are good.

The Finns’ proverbial liking of vodka should have struck a chord with me as a representative of the vodka nation, however the only two ways I use vodka is to disinfect the injection spot when my wife shoots some prescribed stuff into my buttocks and to please my father-in-law when he comes over for a visit. I don’t drink it.

I traveled to Finland as a foetus. My mother was pregnant with me when her trade union (the organization responsible for distributing tours in the USSR) granted her and my father a much desired tour to a capitalist country. It was not terribly easy to get a tour even to a socialist country in 1971. But Finland had friendly relationships with the Soviet Union, so my parents were allowed to go. Of course, they were first grilled in the local Communist Party office about the political situation in the world, the advantages of the Soviet way of living, etc. They were not allowed to wander away from the group while in Finland or mix with locals. One member of the group was a KGB agent, as it always happened at that time, and my father says it was pretty easy to figure out who it was. Anyway, they enjoyed the visit and were even able to take a few snapshots of half-naked models on posters in window shops, something you couldn’t see in the Soviet Union. So I have something Finnish in my blood because my mother breathed Finnish air and ate Finnish food even as some of my vitally important organs were formed.

After I thus justified my choice of the language to immerse myself into, I needed to find someone to help me learn how to speak it. That’s where the snag was. In the city of Perm, with its one million population, located in the Urals, where the pro-Uralic language originated, with the Komi and Komi-Permyak languages (relatives of Finnish) spoken in nearby regions, there doesn’t seem to be a single Finnish speaker, let alone teacher. I’ve phoned all language centers, asked friends, searched on the internet. No use.

I know it’s possible to learn a language all by yourself if you have plenty of motivation. Maybe you can even find someone to communicate with via skype. But for me, that takes away all the fun of learning languages. I need to have a living person next to me with whom I can speak the language.

Now I’ve got the dilemma: should I go out of my way and try to learn Finnish without a teacher? Or should I settle for a language available in Perm, such as Czech, Portuguese, Turkish, Hebrew or Arabic, all of which are wonderful and intriguing each in its own way? There are quite a few of them taught here – you can even learn spoken Sanskrit but not Finnish!

Something to think about in the next few days…

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 18, 2010 2:05 am

    Hello! I came across your post whilst looking out for info about multilingualism. Thanks for the interesting read, all the best with Finnish!

    • September 18, 2010 8:29 am

      Thanks j! 🙂 I’m glad you found this post interesting. Hope to see you again in my blog as there are new posts ahead!

  2. Yenlit permalink
    September 19, 2010 2:19 am

    That’s a lot of time and effort for you to learn inflection heavy Finnish based on some hazy sentimental notions of the county – wouldn’t Chinese be easy for you to learn?

  3. September 19, 2010 8:35 am

    I actually forgot to mention one practical reason behind this choice too: If I find time to go to the language-speaking country to practice, it won’t be far to travel to Finland. China is farther away and so are most other countries. Also, you might know something about Chinese that I don’t but I doubt it would be easy to learn all the hieroglyphs and the tones. At least the alphabet is Latin in Finland. Last but not least, I don’t have any sentimental notions of China whatsoever (with all respect to that wonderful nation). I would need a few after all. Thanks for your advice anyway. 🙂

    • jacobtullos permalink
      September 21, 2010 3:54 pm

      Actually, I think that sentimental notions are much more important than ease or convenience. You are always much more likely to become fluent in a language that you’re excited about, since motivation is the key to language learning. The best of luck with Finnish.

      It’s interesting what you say about polyglots and self-indulgence. I study languages because I love them, because I want to understand them enough to really enjoy them. I also study for a much more practical reason: I live in Mexico as a missionary, and I may one day have the opportunity to help others in the languages that I learn. I don’t have the patience to just learn languages so I can put them on my trophy shelf, or place them on my mat like a butterfly collector.

  4. September 23, 2010 8:15 am

    Yes, Jacob, it seems that your reasons are practical and I couldn’t agree more with the following statement: ‘You are always much more likely to become fluent in a language that you’re excited about, since motivation is the key to language learning. ‘
    As for my Finnish, I’ve taken a few days to think it over and will write about my decision in my post later today. (Jumping ahead, I opted for studying another language with a tutor in the end rather than doing Finnish on my own).

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