Saturday, June 9, 2012

Puhutko suomea? (On the Finns' English)

Finnish, Swedish and English, in descending order of nonsense:


Have you ever tried to listen to your own native language as if it were foreign?  Next time you're walking down the street, try paying attention to just the sounds and the rhythm, but not the words, as if you're in a foreign country.  You'll find it's almost impossible - the mind makes sense of things if it can.  The same for print.  Try looking at this blog as if it's just a bunch of random symbols, like Russian or Greek might look to non-speakers.  It doesn't work - it always looks like language.  It's like watching a foreign movie with subtitles.  It's difficult, and irrational, not to read the subtitles.  You want to know what's going on, and you have the means to do it.

The reason I say this is because I was just at the grocery store, and I figured out why I'm not learning to speak Finnish.  I got to the counter, and put my items on the belt.  The cashier tallied them up - jarred herring filets, some cloudberry jam, a box of licorice, reindeer sausage and a couple of cabbage rolls - and told me the price.  Kaksikymmentäyksi euros, yhdeksänkymmentäviisi cents.  Got that?  Neither did I.  The Finns shorten all of their numbers in speech, so they end up sounding nothing like they do in grammar class.  But in that moment of hesitation, while I decoded the number in my head, the cashier caught my facial expression and said it in English.  And in an instant, my Finnish education was cut off.  The cashier turned the subtitles on.  But I couldn't get frustrated with her - it doesn't make sense to delay the people behind me in line, and her job is to take my money and send me off, not to teach me Finnish.

Contrast this with my first month in Russia.  I'd walk into a Russian grocery store, and put my items on the belt.  Cashier tallies them up - three packs of cigarettes, a liter of vodka, a sack of flour and a couple of cabbage rolls - and tells me the price.  Chetyresta piat'desiat'shest rubles, desiat' kopecks.  I hesitate, and start to ask the cashier to repeat it.  She hears my accent and repeats the price, slowly and condescendingly.  I don't catch it the second time either, and desperately try to explain that I'm just learning Russian, when the people behind me in line start yelling at me in all variety of Russian slang.  I give the cashier 500 rubles, and trust her to give me the change I'm due.  I gather my items as fast as I can, and red-faced, I run home repeating in my head all the things that were said to me.  My trembling hands finally get all three keys into all three locks, and I run to my room to rifle through the dictionary, learning as many words as I can before the tears cloud my vision.  That's how you learn a foreign language!

In Finland, my whole world has subtitles.  English is the lingua franca, every sign is aimed at English-speaking visitors, and every cashier is a professional translator.  For the Finns, it's an economic necessity that the whole country be bilingual.  But this has the unintended effect of actually obscuring Finland from those of us who want to know it, because I can't pretend I don't speak English.  So whether or not I like it, I occupy a surface-level, English speaking Finland, which is surprisingly disjoint from the Finnish-speaking Finland.  And because day-to-day functions all default to English if my Finnish is imperfect, it's proving very hard to improve my speech or comprehension, and thus make the jump.  I need to practice enough to reach some threshold, past which my Finnish is good enough not to trigger the Finns' English-mode.  But I get no practice because their triggers are so sensitive, their English is so good, and oftentimes they want to practice it anyway.  And in conversation, what Finn wants to talk about the price of cabbage rolls with me in halting Finnish, when they know they can talk about more interesting topics with me in English?  Like the Finnish economy, this language problem is a perfectly functioning, closed loop, and very frustrating for the rare foreign student of Finnish.  A host family was my best hope, but by the time I realized that, it was too late.  I wish Finland was as poorly-educated, self-obsessed, insulated and nationalistic as we are.  Then imagine what I'd learn!


So what can I say about Finland?  Every night I listen to recordings from Finnish talk radio, but I may as well just read the tags under each link - I'll listen for thirty minutes and hear the word 'Finland' fifty times, then maybe 'sports' or 'Russia' or  'good, yes, true', with long expanses of sisävesiristeilylaivojen in between.  90% of my day I spend asking my teacher about the plural partitive case, so that I can spend the remaining 10% at the smoked fish stand, asking how much I have to pay for plural partitive quantities of smoked fish.   I try to interact with people, but usually it ends with them speaking English, or me smiling and giving the international 'nevermind, it's not important' gesture.  A few days ago I decided I'd meet people via their dogs - dogs are even worse at Finnish than I am, and I figured I could pet them while I prepared perfectly grammatical sentences in my head.  So I approached a pretty Finnish girl with a pretty Finnish dog, confident in my new plan, but it turned out I lacked the requisite vocabulary - I started to ask, "can I..." and realized I didn't know how to say 'pet your dog,' or 'take a photograph of your dog.'  So I settled on "can I meet with your dog?"  That was the only time, thus far, that a Finn has laughed in my face.  And of course she answered in English.  It was rock-bottom, but at least I got to meet with the dog.

So in these circumstances, I've retreated in my Finnish ambitions.  At first I was trying to read Finnish newspapers, but that was too hard, so I moved to Finnish Wikipedia articles on topics that interest me, like astronomy and Finnish history.  Those were too hard, so I switched to articles on things I already know everything about, like the Simpsons and the Beatles, or American culture and cuisine.  That was too hard.  So finally, I've settled on a giant book of Finnish-language Donald Duck comics.


And you wouldn't believe the crazy trouble those ducks get into!  But even those are difficult, at least for now.

So in place of cultural insight, of which I have little, the next post will buy time and reintroduce another favorite from my Russia blog - a photo collection and visual tour of Turku.  I'll try to post that in the next few days.

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One last, important thing - I want to extend a warm American tervetuloa to my Finnish readers!  For those who didn't notice, over the last week my blog was visited by over ten thousand Finns, or perhaps by one Finn ten thousand times.  Thanks to these efforts, the Finland blog, after three posts, is considerably more popular than the Russia blog, into which I poured my heart and soul for well over a year.  I'm even on Google!  Simply type in "Finland blog," and then click "next ten results" eight hundred times, it's near the bottom.  Or, if you type in "finland blog cabbage roll dogsbody," it's the first hit!  And for those who have already found it, don't be shy - there are Facebook and Google+ (read: Facebook) share-buttons below each post.

At first I was nervous, because it's much easier to caricature a country, and garner American readers at the expense of its culture and people, when the subjects themselves don't read it.  But your overwhelmingly positive response has reassured me.  If you Finns promise to keep boosting my pageview counter, I promise to keep the blog in good taste, and to not take any cheap shots or easy laughs at the expense of your country.   


I also would like to exploit this to my own personal ends.  If any readers happen to be in Turku, feel very, very welcome to drop by the pääkirjasto and introduce yourself.*  And bring your cool Finnish friends, and take me to Finnish places.  I live alone in student housing, so I'm not seeing nearly as much of the area, or meeting as many of you Finns, as I would like to.  Come by any day around 3:30 - I'm almost always there, on the second floor, in the yellow-orange seats along the window overlooking Linnankatu.  No murderers please.  This is what I'll look like, except it'll be at the library:


And a week into July, I'm moving up to Oulu.  Nähdään!

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*Update:  All my problems are solved!  Kiitos to all of the friendly Finns/Turkulaisia who have visited and written (and even written in Finnish!).  I'm no longer at the library every day at 3:30, because I'm super cool and making plans with people.  But if you're in Turku, do leave a comment on the blog!  I still want to see and do things, and I've got a phone.

33 comments:

  1. Aku Ankat voivat olla aika haastavaa luettavaa suomea opiskelevalle - ne ovat kyllä tunnustettua erinomaista yleiskieltä, mutta ovat samalla täynnä nokkelia sanaleikkejä. Oletko löytänyt jo radiosta "Selkokieliset uutiset"?

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    1. Joo, kuuntelen YLEn selkouutisia joka päivä - on ihan hyvä, koska voi lukea tekstia. Mutta on vielä passiivinen, se eroaa todellisesta puheesta.

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  2. I was speaking to an American friend of mine who lives in Turku and is trying to learn Finnish and isn't you, and suggested Aku Ankka. She also commented that they're tough; and indeed, they are known for their great vocabulary and inventive use of language. This makes them something Finnish teachers recommend to school children, and probably a lot tougher to understand than one might expect. The upshoot is that when you DO manage to read them you're off to a really good start, especially the classic stories are pretty good, and there's a ridiculous amount of material available.

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    1. Yeah, that picture isn't an exaggeration, it really does take some effort to understand. But it's very, very good practice, and a lot more rewarding, more often, than struggling through harder texts that don't have funny ducks.

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  3. Kun suomalainen Aku Ankka perustettiin 1950-luvulla, toimitus päätti tietoisesti käyttää puhekielen sijasta hyvää ja monipuolista kieltä. Siksi lehdestä kai tulikin kansallinen instituutio täällä. Alkuperäiset käsikirjoitukset saattavat olla aika yksinkertaisia, joten Aku Ankan kääntäjät lisäävät niihin vanhanaikaisia sanoja, alliteraatiota ja muuta mielenkiintoista.

    Btw, Finland IS officially bilingual: Finnish and Swedish. That's why English is jokingly known as "kolmas kotimainen". (Although if you want to talk to a random person, you'll be better off knowing English than Swedish.)

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  4. Yepp we know the problem you're describing. People are very eager to change to English whenever possible. In some situations it happens because they want things to be done, in other situations because they want to practice their English. At my workplace there are a couple of people whose mother tongue is English. One of them speaks excellent Finnish, one not yet but is willing to learn more. She often asks us to speak Finnish in important board meetings which we will do something like 20 minutes and then we go automatically back in English because all things must be clear for this one person too. So... even if we try, it just happens.

    I can tell you that I _always_ remain in Finnish-only channel if someone comes to me and shows that s/he wants to speak Finnish with me. I understand that now we are not going to deep discussions on rocket science, I speak clearly enough etc. all stuff needed. At my workplace, I sometimes even force people to understand Finnish and speak Finnish with me because they live here and they must use their Finnish anyways at some point.

    (But I'm not in Turku)

    Maybe, if you can pretend that you don't speak English? Our English teacher did that hundred years ago. He just said that he really does not speak Finnish at all (except in shops and cafes as we later saw..) so we must communicate with him in English. You'll do the contrary.

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  5. Nice blog -- I'm studying Finnish also, but very slowly from here in the USA (Berkeley California).

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    1. Hey, far out. I'm a graduate student at Cal, also studying Finnish in the USA in Berkeley California, usually. Are you in Sirpa Tuomainen's class, or studying on your own?

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  6. When I was in Russia in the late 90s they still didn't have (or had very few) supermarkets, so you got the language practice 3 times per shopping. First you had to tell what you want (surprisingly I often bought what I knew I can pronounce), then you had to pay and only after that you got the items you bought. It was interesting lottery to see if you had made yourself understandable, you only found it out when you went to pick up your shopping at the 3rd counter. So you could practise both speaking and listening.

    In Prague it took me a month until I dared to buy salad at the counter. While waiting for my turn, I noticed that the salesgirl has a speaking defect and I wanted to walk away, not because of her speaking problem but because of my poor knowledge of Czech. Of course the line was fast this time, usually you have to wait for ages and I couldn't run away without looking stupid.

    So I took a deep breath and tried to buy 200 grams (20 decas as they say) of "Parisian salad", italiansalaatti in Finnish. I got something completely different and only 10 decas but I was still happy I had been brave enough to open my mouth.

    Thanks for the nice blog, by the way. I really like it that you write humorously but at the same time respectfully. There are too many ex-pat blogs with no cultural sensitivity.

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    1. 20 decas? I have never in my life heard that. Even hekto (for 100g) is something I've only ever encountered in Sweden and never in Finland. Pray tell, where did you encounter this use of obscure SI-prefixes?

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  7. Suomi ei ole ainoa Euroopan maa, missä Aku Ankka nauttii suurta suosiota. Saksassakin suosio on hyvinkin paljon juuri käännöksen ansiota. Linkki Wall Street Journalin juttuun: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203771904574181722075062290.html

    Aku Ankka on niin kiinteä osa suomalaista yhteiskuntaa, että sen lukeminen on oikeasti hyödyllistä. Poliisin erikoisryhmän lempinimi - epäloogisesti - on Karhukopla ( Beagle Boys ), onnekkaat ruotsalaiset ovat Hannu Hanhia (Gladstone Gander), jääkiekkomaajoukkueen (sorry) tunnetuimpia ketjuja on Hupu, Tupu ja Lupu -ketju jne.

    Your strategy of finding willing Finns sounds good. You're totally correct in your observation that for an English speaker, this land is on constant Cheat Mode. Maybe also us Finns are so unused to people wanting to learn Finnish, that it takes a moment for us to adapt to the mindset of only speaking clear Finnish. So you have to kinda force that too.

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  8. Jos haluat vastaantulijoiden puhuvan sinulle suomea, se kannattaa kertoa. Paikalliset vaihto-opiskelijat keksivät varsin hyvän niksin: Pidä rintapielessä pinssiä, jossa lukee "puhu minulle suomea!"

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  9. Tsemppiä! Yllä jo suositeltu selkokieli tuntuu parhaalta tavalta aloittaa. Sillä kirjoitettuja sivustoja on linkitetty tänne. Kirjastossa käydessäsi voisit kirjastonhoitajilta kysyä sopivaa luettavaa, heillä voi olla (hyviäkin) ideoita. Ehkäpä Suomen matkaoppaat olisivat yhtä aikaa mielenkiintoisia ja tarpeeksi yksinkertaisia kieleltään?

    Summary in English. Linking to a link page of selkokieli. Suggesting asking for help from the library staff. Thinking that travel guides might be both interesting and simple enough in terms of language.

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    1. This looks great, thank you. I'll browse through it.

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  10. Heippa! Tulen etsimään sinut kirjastosta jonakin päivänä. Voimme keskustella kaalista ja Aku Ankan vauhdikkaimmista seikkailuista. Mielelläni myös näytän sinulle paikkoja, sillä Turussa on paljon kaikkea kokemisen arvoista. Nähdään!

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    1. Tule! Kaksi lukijoita löysi minut eilen, oli ihan hauskaa.

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  11. Onnea vain opintoihin!

    Oletan että valitsit ne kaupungit jotka valitsit sen perustella että ne ovat yliopistokaupunkeja. (Salapoliisitaidoillani sain selville että vedät Small Talk -kurssia ainakin Turussa.) Samalla onnistuit valitsemaan kaksi toisistaan hyvin paljon poikkeavaa murrealuetta. Turussa (tai oikeastaan koko Varsinais-Suomessa) sanoja pyritään pätkimään, kun taas Oulussa (ja kai Pohjanmaalla ylipäätään, en ole murreasiantuntija - armoa kanssakommentoijat) sanat usein pitenevät ja täyttyvät "ylimääräisistä" kirjaimista, tai vähintään muuttavat huomattavasti muotoaan. Eikä sovi unohtaa kummallekin murrealueelle ominaiset ilmaisut ja sanat.

    On tietysti täysin mahdollista että teit valinnan tietoisesti, jossa tapauksessa ansaitset vähän vielä enemmän rispektiä, jota sinulle kyllä muutenkin kuuluu.


    Spoiler alert, translation follows.

    Best of luck in your studies!

    I'm assuming your choice of cities is based upon that both are university cities. (Using my superb sleuthing skills I found out you're teaching a Small Talk class at least in Turku.) Incidentally, you managed to land yourself in two completely different dialects; while in Turku (or really all of Varsinais-Suomi) words tend to be shortened, in Oulu (and I suppose in the entire Pohjanmaa region, mind you, I'm no expert in dialects) words are often elongated or mutated. And one mustn't forget the regional words and expressions either, you surely are in for a treat!

    It is of course entirely possible that your choice of cities is deliberate, in which case you in mind deserve even more respect in your efforts, which you certainly do anyway, too.

    P.S. If you're interested, there is a really interesting program about how the letter D landed and evolved in Finland. Although, admittedly it is perhaps an advanced topic, the program is spoken very clearly and in an unhurried fashion.

    Listen to the program at http://areena.yle.fi/radio/107453

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    1. Oh no... if I could have chosen a city where everybody spoke textbook-Finnish, I'd be there in an instant. Your link doesn't seem to work... but judging from your description, I think I'd be terribly lost.

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    2. Whoops! I left out a character from the URL http://areena.yle.fi/radio/1074539

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    3. The correct answer is: Jyväskylä

      The dialect has no own words (well, fewer than 10) and is relatively mild one even in tone. It is essentially pure colloquial Finnish. Admittedly, it differs from text-book Finnish but in the least possible way found in this country of thousand lakes.

      With Turku you basically chose/had to choose (depending how free your options were) the exact opposite end of the scale. :D

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    4. Both Jyväskylä and Savonlinna are "sekamurteiden alueita" areas with mixed dialects, no characteristic dialect. So they might be quite easy places to learn everyday-Finnish :-)
      http://www.kotus.fi/?l=en&s=368

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  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  13. Hei! Olen lukenut blogiasi ja se on erittäin hauska! Luen sitä myös jatkossa mielenkiinnolla, sillä asun itse Oulussa. Jos aiot täällä olla tietyssä paikassa tiettyyn aikaan, niin ilmoita, saattaisin tulla moikkaamaan! :)

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    1. Hei! Tulen Ouluun todenäköisesti 7 heinäkuuttä. En tiedä millainen on ohjelmä siella, mutta jos on vapaa aika, heti kirjoitan sinulle. Kurssi on Oulun kesäyliopistossa, ja käy 3 viikoa.

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  14. Täällä on jotain sinulle - katso linkit joissa numerot 1-4 :-))
    http://kantapoyta.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/finnish-a-world-language/

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    1. Katsoin tämän! On tosi hauskaa. A friend sent it to me to mock me before I left.

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  15. It just struck me: you have the perfect chance to knock out Berkeley's elusive third language requirement. Jettison the French and learn Swedish. You probably know more than you realize, it's a co-official language, and you may as well make it a twofer. Start with jackets and work up to street signs.

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    1. They only accept French or German, but once I can more or less read Swedish street signs, I can't imagine German will be too hard.

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  16. Hi! I'm Elena, also an American, and I moved to Lappeenranta last August. Your blog is pretty excellent. Check mine if you like.

    One comment: yes, it can sometimes be difficult when, in trying to practice Finnish, English always seems to interfere. I think you might be able to use this to your advantage, though, in that you'll find quite a few native speakers who are willing to provide translations, to explain the meaning of phrases, as well as other language oddities. As you can see, your blog comments are already inundated with well-meaning and bright Finns willing to lend a hand. And who knows, perhaps if you learn more or less consciously (rather than through forced, awkward situations), you'll learn to use the language in a deeper, more grammatical way. I suppose it works differently for everyone, though. Plus, you already seem to write quite well! (Not that I'm an especially great judge...)

    I think you'll find yourself feeling a bit more comfortable with the language very soon. :)

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  17. Donald Duck comics contain surprisingly difficult language. Children's books in the library are better.

    The best way to get your speaking and listening responses fast enough to avoid the English filter is to practise with other Finnish language students and a few very patient friends first. It took me 4 years, but I was working in an international English-speaking environment. As a student of languages, you can at least cut that time in half. Probably.

    I and some friends will be in Turku for Ruisrock soon, assuming we manage to work out places to stay and transport... we have no clue about any of that yet. I hope to look around Turku in the mornings, as I will be fresh as a daisy (read: no hangovers for me) and I have never been to Turku before. So if anyone's about, do let me know :)

    indieinfinland . wordpress

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    1. Good advice... I kinda suspected as much, and luckily my next program in Oulu will be with many other foreign students of Finnish. I'll be out of here before Ruisrock, but I get the impression there will be tons of people drifting around.

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  18. Does that mean you're not reading about duck antics anymore?! The horror!!!

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