Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hitting back at the demons within

Bad head-state last night.

I was doing well earlier in the day. Big Sister had a friend from Japanese school over for a playdate. At first I was speaking to them in Japanese, but Little Sister was getting annoyed (she was so young when we left Japan that she didn’t learn any Japanese at all). Big Sister finally admonished me, in Finnish, “You are going to Finnish school now, Mummy. You should speak to us in Finnish!”

She was right, of course. And so I did, and surprisingly, it wasn’t the unmitigated disaster I thought it would be. The kids understood me. I understood them. They corrected some of my more glaring errors. All good. My confidence levels were high.

That was, until later in the day, when we went to a friend’s house for dinner, and all the adults except me were Finns. I realised, yet again, how far I still have to go with Finnish. I can’t deny that I understand fractionally more than before, and these days I feel slightly braver than before about trying to say things in Finnish rather than jumping straight to the comfort of English. But still. I realised, with a pang, that there is just such a lot more I still have to learn just to survive basic conversations. Last night, feeling wrung out and demoralised, I couldn’t even bear to think about the long road I still have ahead of me.

Being unable to do something well used to hit me right in my sense of ambition. A poor performance would only spur me on to greater efforts. But lately, I seem to slip far too easily across the fine line between Stimulating Challenge and Overwhelming Burden. Too often lately, I don’t feel like I’m enjoying this journey; rather, I feel as though I’m getting my arse whipped by the Finnish language in no uncertain terms.

I spent last night feeling deeply and pathetically sorry for myself. I say “pathetically” because at the end of the day I really, really do want to learn this language, and therefore I just have to bite the bullet and move ahead, one word and one new grammatical structure at a time. Feeling sorry for myself is only going to make things that much more difficult.

This morning, in the bright light of a new day, I choose to push back against the mocking naysayers and the defeatist voices within my own head. Dammit, you guys, just shut up and let me get on with it. In an effort to cheer up and remember the fun side of language-learning, I am listening to one of my favourite Finnish songs of all time. I love this song, even if it is, strictly speaking, a kids’ song, because I can understand the words, and it makes me think, smilingly, of my children, and because some days this is who I secretly want to be – Kuningas (or, more accurately, Kuningatar) Ei!
Have a listen, even if you don’t speak Finnish. This song is catchy and irresistible, and transcends linguistic barriers! Just in case, below is a rough translation of the lyrics. Enjoy!

Finnish-speaking readers: comments on my translation are warmly welcomed! I think that the more correct translation of the title would be "King No", but somehow I like the sound of "The King of No" better in English :)

Mä en tahdo syödä muumilautaselta, '
I don’t wanna eat off a Moomin plate
Mä en tahdo syödä mitään. 

I don’t wanna eat anything!
Mä en tahdo istua ruokapöydässä, 

I don’t wanna sit at the dinner table
Mä en tahdo tehdä mitään. 

I don’t wanna do anything!

"Otatko sämpylää?" - Ei.
“Would you like some rolls?” NO!
"Otatko omenaa?" - Ei.

“Would you like some apple?” NO!
"Palanen juustoa?" - Ei.

“A piece of cheese?” - NO!
"Vai lasi maitoa?" - Ei.

“Or a glass of milk?” – NO!
En tahdo, eikä mun tarvitse. 

I don’t want to, and I don’t need to!

Olen kuningas,
I am the king
Suuri kuningas,

The great king¨
Kuningas E ja I.
The king of N and O

Täällä hallitsee Kuningas Ei.

Here rules the King of No!

Mä en tahdo laittaa sukkahousuja,

I don’t wanna put on my tights
Mä en tahdo laittaa mitään.
I don’t wanna put on anything!
Mä en tahdo laittaa kumppareitakaan,

I don’t wanna put on gumboots
Mä en tahdo tehdä mitään.

I don’t wanna do anything!

"Mennäänkö puistoon?" - Ei.

“Shall we go to the park?” NO!
"Saat ajaa polkupyörällä." - Ei.
“You can ride a bike.” – NO!
"Muutkin on ulkona." - Ei.

“Other kids are outside.” – NO!
"Puetaan päälle." - Ei.

“Let's get you dressed!” – NO!
En tahdo, eikä mun tarvitse.

I don’t want to, and I don’t need to!


Teitä hallitsee
You are ruled by him
Kuningas Ei.

The King of No

Ja mä voin soittaa rumpuja

And I can play the drums
Keskellä yötä puoli neljältä.

At 3:30 am in the middle of the night
Ja teidän riemuna

And what joy for you
On tehdä töitä pussit silmillä.
To work with bags under your eyes
Ja näin se käy,

And this is how it goes
Näin se käy.

This is how it goes

Mä en tahdo pestä hampaita,

I don’t wanna brush my teeth
Mä en tahdo pestä mitään.

I don’t wanna brush anything!
Mä en tahdo mennä nukkumaan,
I don’t wanna go to sleep

Mä en tahdo tehdä mitään.
I don’t wanna do anything!
"Pää tyynyyn." - Ei.
"Put your head on the pillow." No!

"Hyvää yötä." - Ei.
"Good night." No!
En tahdo, eikä mun tarvitse.

I don’t want to, and I don’t need to.

Olen kuningas,
I am the king

Suuri kuningas,
The great king
Kuningas Ei, kuningas Ei.

The King of No, The King of No


  1. I sympathise. I feel I have made no progress at all in Finnish, even though I know more and more in theory. It's soooooo frustrating!

    Out of interest, do you find it harder to than Japanese?

    PS: Love the song!

    1. Olli, it's heartening to hear that I'm not the only one who finds this challenge a particularly difficult one. I think spoken Japanese is far, far easier than Finnish - verbs don't have first/second person (etc.) conjugations, nouns don't have conjugations, and overall it is a reasonably "mathematical" language that follows easily-understood rules. While there are definite points of difficulty (especially mastery of the written language, which takes literally years of concerted effort) I progressed much more quickly with Japanese than with Finnish.

      Then again, perhaps I also need to keep in mind that I learnt the bulk of my Japanese in my late teens and early 20s, when my brain was fresher and when my mind was less focused on other things... :)

    2. Theory only gets you so far. At some point you have to take the plunge, if you want to get further. The same is true for everything.

  2. Oh,'s REALLY REALLY overwhelming to be in a group of Finnish-speaking people. Even now I fare better in a one-on-one conversation. When you're in a group of Finnish-speaking people, it takes A HUGE AMOUNT of effort to try to listen and understand and it won't leave you enough time to try to think of what you want to say in response and how to say it.

    I experienced this overwhelming feeling when I had my training in the library - during coffee breaks the workers there sat down in the kitchen with me and they'd talk about so many different topics and if I had tried to think of what to say, I'd miss everything else they were saying to one another in the course of time it took me to think of the response. So in the end I just tried to listen to what they were saying (and trying to understand them - with my limited vocabulary) instead of thinking of my responses. However, on the rare occasions when there were only 2/3 of us in the kitchen table and where one of them asked me questions directly and gave me time to think of my responses, I fared better. :-)

    Katriina, a few years from now things will be better, I promise. :-))))

    I think you can relate to what I wrote a few years ago:

    Thin Threads of Glories

    1. Amel, thank you so much for the kind encouragement, and for sharing your blog post. I identified so much with your feelings at that time, and the fact that since you wrote that you've moved on to being a confident and fluent Finnish speaker is something that gives me real hope! Just have to hold on to a positive attitude. This morning I caught up with two Finnish friends while our kids were in their ice-skating lesson; we spoke Finnish for only half the time we were talking, but I have to remind myself that this time last year we NEVER spoke Finnish together. I also have to laugh at the wide variety of words you need to learn in order to understand everyday conversations. Today I learned "oksennustauti"...!

    2. That's the spirittttt!!! Go enjoy those glorious Finnish moments any time you can! :-D :-D :-D Yeah, you shouldn't always look ahead and shudder at the high "Finnish" mountains you have to climb, but also every now and then look back and see how far you've gone and pat yourself in the back and "enjoy the view". :-D

      Oksennustauti is a word that makes me shudder - just thinking about what it entails...ouchhhh he he...

  3. OK I really must find out now what Oksennustauti means....!! Katriina - have you considered changing the way you learn Finnish? Is it possible to try for an intense week somehow or finding a way to have an hour a day conversation with someone who will correct you. (in return for something?!) You clearly have the ability to learn Finnish, and I am sure that you are doing really well at it, but you have written about your frustrations before, so I am just wondering if there is something you can do about it that you are not doing already? If there isn't then perhaps you can just change the way you think about your progress. I liked the earlier comment about looking behind you at what you've achieved rather than looking ahead and feeling overwhelmed....

    1. Aspirecoaching, thanks for your encouragement! I do think it's about attitude more than anything else. I am studying Finnish 3-4 hours 4 times a week (and about half of that is class time) so I think exposure is not the issue; partly it's frustration that I have more trouble retaining new information than I used to (!) and partly it's just that sense of the goal being so far away that it's hard to imagine ever reaching it. You're quite right that reflecting on small successes would be a much more positive approach. I'm also going to try setting myself smaller goals, e.g. over the space of a week try to read a magazine article that really interests me; watch a particular tv show every week and try to understand as much as I can. I also just have to reign in my impatience. As my sister in law reminded me on Saturday, "We have all been learning English since we were 8 or 10 years old. That's a long time!" Language learning does take time.

  4. that is what it means - and it sounded such a lovely word until I found the definition.....oksennustauti...YUK

  5. how about cutting yourself a little slack. You've been there less than 2 years. No one expects you to be fluent. It will come in time.

    1. You're right on all counts. Finns are kind about language ability and everyone I know is full of encouragement for my efforts. It's all inside my own head. I am my own worst enemy!! :)

  6. Nice job, but since you asked specifically..
    I mean there's a very slight difference in meaning in a couple of places, but stylistically your translation is obviously much better than these. I'd change want to to wanna to match the colloquial/child-like form.
    So, here goes:
    Get dressed! should be more like Let's get (you) dressed,
    He rules you all may be content-wise You are ruled by and
    And what joy for you is literally a bit more like Your joy will be.

    1. Thanks, Anonymous! This was really helpful, especially "puetaan päälle" and "Teitä hallitsee" - I realise now that I didn't quite understand these correctly (in those spots I wasn't just exercising artistic license in my translation!) I did use "what joy for you" instead of "your joy will be" on purpose, as it sounded a bit awkward in English, but quite right that it's not exactly correct. Using "wanna" is a great idea as it does capture the whole spirit of the song more accurately.

      what a great song it is, too :)

      Thanks so much for your input. It's always great to get help in my continuing efforts to learn Finnish.

    2. np. Based on this you seem to be doing fine.

      Of course you are ruled by is still somewhat incorrect in that it is in passive rather than active voice. Then again it mimics the word order O P S (rather than the usual S P O) more accurately, which might capture the mood better. Maybe that was what threw you off. (AFAIK it's the first word that is emphasized.)

      I suppose puetaan päälle isn't let's get (you) dressed up either. It is in passive voice and (you) is only implied. Although, come to think of it, isn't let's get (you) dressed up in passive voice too? So, I guess it is then!

  7. I guess it's not until we are lost in the midst of learning a new language that we realize just how much launguage surrounds and fills us... and to struggle with it is exhausting.

    1. Steve, you really hit the nail on the head. Language really is all around, and it takes years to learn enough to feel as though you are a master of most basic life situations. Until then, it is pretty much a long, uphill battle. Must remember to stop regularly and acknowledge one's progress...

  8. What a great song!
    I find being in a large group speaking a language you don't know that well so much harder than one on one. And it is more than language, it is also culture. When I first moved to the UK my english was fluent but I could still feel lost... all the slang, inside jokes and bantering I did not get...

  9. Ahhhhh Katriina - you have just no idea how much I admire you! In truth, I am daunted by your linguistic achievements - the same ones which you despair of...
    From the perspective of this linguistic sloth you are a linguistic goddess!
    I occasionally lament my sloth. I have a couple of languages - Scots and reasonably passable (but heavily accented!) English. I pretend to speak some Spanish (but really, I've been too lazy to develop my knowledge). I have school girl French. I've often reflected that there is so much of the world which is closed to me - just because I haven't bothered to extend my language knowledge. But even that hasn't made me "try harder"...
    I do recognise the demons in your head though. We share that. The whip we use to beat ourselves when we fall short of what are all too often and in all honesty, inhuman and impossible standards. Maybe those voices do spur us to achieve. But as I get older I also recognise that achievement does not always need to come as the result of a war we have fought with ourselves.
    Go easy. Take some time to enjoy the journey to fluency. I have every faith that you will get there...

    1. Thank you THANK YOU, LML, for your words of real wisdom. "Achievement does not always need to come as the result of a war we have fought with ourselves". Oh, how true this is. I spent years working so hard, and pushing myself so far beyond what I had thought were my limits, that I feel like I am in a period of intense self-reform at the moment. The problem is, I don't know any more what kind of standards I should set for myself. I want to slow down and not push myself the way I did before, and to stop feeling overwhelmed by life, and yet I don't want to crawl along without feeling like I'll never make it to realising any of my personal goals. Also, knowing what I've been capable of achieving in the past, it is easy to look at my life right now and say that, comparatively, I'm not moving forward any more. I hope I can get all this to fall into place within my own mind - to learn to set achievable goals - things I truly want to achieve - and work at them with quiet and measured energy, and to allow myself to observe my progress rather than berate myself for what has not yet been completed or mastered. And, to remind myself that life really is about enjoying the journey. Even if the Finnish language is a bitch sometimes :)