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It’s all Finnish to me

Most of my tutorial students – adults included – have two things in common: they seem unaware just how much they can learn, and yet they are capable of learning what they need to know. When friends bet me I couldn’t learn a language from zero to A-level standard in one month, I decided to pick the hardest language a filmmaker would agree to record me learning, and we set off to Helsinki on an energetic linguistic journey into Finnish (whilst making a documentary about the challenge).

The programme sees me arrive in the airport, marvelling at basic first words like ‘Hissi’, which means a lift, and then not knowing the word for Finland when the taxi driver asked if I’d ever been to ‘Suomi’.  Actually, he probably said ‘Suomen’, because that’s to Finland. In case you are curious, In Finland is Suomessa; from Finland is Suomesta etc. There are 15 cases for every noun and adjective. The word often morphs: war is ‘sota’, to war is ‘sodan’. Even with names of people: a favourite Finnish film director is Aki Kaurismaki. Of Aki Kaurismaki is Aki Kaurism:aen. (Sorry, my keyboard couldn’t handle a diaeresis.)

Getting started was hard because until you can string a sentence together, you are like an actor learning lines (into a void) and motivation has to come strictly from inside. But the Finnish are friendlier than their (partly self-generated) reputation suggests, and a few ‘hyv:a:a paiv:a:a’s later, it was obvious how rewarding it would be to be able to speak. I had a pressured but lovely emergence via a wonderful road and train trip north into the vast lake areas: taking saunas, jumping into quiet lakes, chatting as many hours as I could persuade my musician hosts to bare my emerging (lousy) Finnish. The best thing about learning a language is that you can have lots of fun at the same time.

My first full conversation occurred after two weeks with an exceptionally patient old man, who was fond of speaking even simple Finnish because he’d just returned from 30 years in Australia. He was a lucky find, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have managed to meet the rigours of the immigration test and documentary tasks, at the end of the month, if he hadn’t been happy to re-live his Helsinki guide days.

It was a strangely frustrating experience when I banned myself from speaking English at all for 24 hours. I was reduced to a child-like state. I am known as a patient person, but I have redoubled my sympathy for anyone learning anything at all at any pace. I can also report that I feel as if my mental health (which seemed fine anyway) has received a significant boost. My plan to learn 100 words a day (to have an active vocabulary of around 3000) did my imagination and memory the world of good.

David Lebor

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