Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bad dreams

For years now I have had a recurring dream. I am back at high school. There is an exam tomorrow and I haven’t studied at all. Sometimes I haven’t been to a single class in that subject. Sometimes I hadn’t even realized I was enrolled in the subject.

I am enraged at my own subconscious when I wake up from this dream.

What are you trying to tell me? That I’m not trying hard enough?

When will I have convinced myself that I’ve put in a solid effort in life?  Just thinking about it makes me tired and sad.

I have spent most of my adult life living in countries where I didn’t grow up, trying to make it all work while being perpetually just outside my comfort zone. I am a parent to two little girls. This year I went back to work as a lawyer. I can read and write Japanese.  Last month I rang a car mechanic and in Finnish asked for an appointment to have the tyres on my car changed.

Why have I convinced myself that this, my life, is a poor effort?

I admit, sometimes I do aim for an “adequate” performance rather than a job well done. I am sloppy with my foreign languages. I don’t try as hard as I possibly could at all times with my kids or my husband. There is plenty of room for improvement in my work-related skill-set. I snack too much and don’t exercise enough. I should call my parents more often. I never put my dirty dishes straight into the dishwasher and my ironing pile continues to rage out of control.

The list is endless.

Yet, even if I were a serial perfectionist, it wouldn’t help. I’ve had this dream even at times in my life where I was trying my absolute best; aiming for excellence across the board.

At this point, I’m tired. I’m just so tired.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Arctic Man

It was the late 90s and, love-struck, I had moved to Turku, Finland to be with my then-boyfriend while he wrote his thesis.

Before I left Australia, an older lady I knew mentioned that her son Trevor was planning to visit Finland. Politely, I handed over my Finnish contact details, never for a moment imagining that Trevor would actually call me.

He did call me. Not only did he call me, but a matter of weeks later he turned up on our wintery Turku doorstep.

He was a sight to behold. Tall, padded out like the Michelin man, and with no part of his body visible except his eyes, he had dressed for the elements.

As he started peeling off layers in the warmth of our apartment, he proudly divulged the reason he was so thoroughly protected against the cold. When clothes shopping for his Finland trip, he hadn’t wanted to trust the people at North Face or Kathmandu who had tried to sell him GoreTex. He did not believe that any ordinary clothes could possibly withstand the extreme cold of a Finnish winter. He decided to take matters into his own hands. He ordered a tailor-made bodysuit made entirely of sheepskin, complete with slit-eyed balaclava, booties, and oven-mitt-type gloves. His idea was that at all times he would wear this under his normal clothes, rendering him impervious to the coldest of temperatures.

(I later wondered, had he worn all that stuff during the entire flight from Australia? or had he schlepped it all on board in a huge carry-on bag and effected his Trevor-to-Arctic-Man transformation within the cramped confines of a Finnair toilet cubicle?)

Sadly for Trevor, Finland had a pretty mild winter that year. It was barely below zero the day he landed. By the time he made it to our door, he was sweaty and breathless.

And so his stay in Finland began.

The second day, I offered to show him around Turku. He obligingly walked around with me, but seemed bored and distracted. The third day, when I again offered to be his tour guide, he flatly refused. “I’m not really interested in sight-seeing”, he said, and proceeded to spend the entire day sitting at our kitchen table, intermittently reading a manual on motorcycle repair, and expounding his theories on life (which included: why watch the news -- who needs to know what is going on in the rest of the world? And: never eat sugar, because it is evil. He was ahead of his time on that one). It turned out that he was a taxi driver. Somehow, this fitted perfectly. He struck me as someone who had spent an awful lot of time with his own thoughts.

My Finn and I asked each other in whispers why on earth he had come to Finland if not to take a look around? We were baffled, not to mention just a teensy bit worried at the thought of just how many days he might want to spend within the four corners of our apartment.

On the fourth day, we were relieved when Trevor announced that he was going to Helsinki. We were puzzled, though – he had, after all, confessed to a complete lack of interest in being a tourist.

And then, shyly, he revealed his big news. He had come to Finland to meet a woman. 
To be more specific, he had come to Finland to find a wife.

He had done some diligent groundwork: he had placed advertisements in a few major newspapers, and four or five Marjas and Katjas had actually expressed interest.

“Why Finland?” we asked him. 

He smiled with unmistakable satisfaction – clearly, he had thought carefully about this and was dying to share his rationale. 

“Because Finnish women are the only pure women left in this world.” 

Three weeks after embarking on his quest, Trevor phoned me – to invite us to his wedding. Another three weeks later, I watched him walk down the aisle with his new bride on his arm. It was all a bit surreal.

He told me after the ceremony that he’d worn long underwear under his wedding clothes. 

Disappointingly, though, not his sheepskin bodysuit.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

No Finnish line

When I first met my Finnish husband almost 17 years ago, I never planned to study his native language. In fact, he actively discouraged me from doing so, on the grounds that Finnish was such a minor and complicated language that it was hardly worth my while, and because English is widely spoken in Finland. 

And yet, after we finally moved here, I found that I couldn’t stand not knowing Finnish. I wanted so badly to understand and be understood, and being in the dark linguistically was frustrating and unsatisfying.

And so, here I am, nine months and three language courses into learning Finnish.

My Finnish studies thus far have caused me immense frustration and self-doubt. I still make several mistakes per sentence when I venture out of my comfort zone (read: when I try to have a *normal* conversation with any Finnish person). Sometimes when I try to read a newspaper or magazine article, I feel myself spiralling into panic and despair when word after word is unknown to me and must be painstakingly looked up. Yesterday, my daughter’s friend (aged 7) innocently asked me, “Why do you speak Finnish so badly?” Ouch.

Frequently, I have felt like a failure, and have caught myself wondering if this is a task that’s beyond my capacity.

But I'm not, and it isn't, and dammit, I will not give up! For years I’ve wanted so badly to know this language, and hard though it is, quitting now would only make me feel worse. And so, when I feel overwhelmed and oppressed and even slightly tearful about it all, I force myself to take a deep breath and reflect on some basic truths about mastering a new language:

1. It won’t happen overnight 
I started studying Finnish in January of this year. I don’t know why I expected to see dramatic results within weeks or months. I started studying Japanese in high school and 20+ years later I’m still not perfect at it. I started learning English at birth, and even now I still make grammatical mistakes and come across unfamiliar words. 

Languages are vast and complex. They have tens of thousands of essential words, and each one has to be committed to memory, along with the grammatical rules governing its use. No wonder language-learning takes time.

A lot of time, in fact, since: 

2. The task is never-ending 
Language-learning is a lifelong, cumulative pursuit. There is no finishing line – no “last” milestone that marks the perfect mastery of a language. You are forever either learning more, or reinforcing (and trying not to forget) what you have already learned. 

The news is not all bad, though. Every so often you will feel a sense of achievement – after constructing a grammatically-correct sentence for the first time, understanding the gist of a tv program, surviving a shopping trip, or managing to talk on the phone with someone. It is important to embrace and inwardly celebrate each of these moments, as they are validation that you are making progress. The sense of pride and accomplishment they bring are your reward for sticking with the task. While your journey has no end, each language-learning milestone opens up the path to bigger and greater milestones, and the further you go the easier and more rewarding your journey becomes.

You do need to accept, though, that:

3. Some days it will be two steps forward, one step back 
Sometimes it takes a while for new information to sink in. The older I get, the longer it seems to take! I find myself going over the same vocabulary and the same grammatical rules multiple times because they didn’t stick in my head on the first, second or even third try. There is no point in getting stressed or frustrated about this (or so I keep telling myself). You really can only try to keep calm and have another go. The main thing to remember is – the information will stick eventually, even if it takes three or ten or twenty repetitions. Some days, your brain will seem curiously resistant to new information. These are the days you should put down your textbook and go for a long walk. And then, on other days, inexplicably it all somehow gels. 

Some people (especially your children) will remember new information instantly and forever. Salute them and acknowledge their rare and enviable talent. Remember, though, that most adults simply do not have this talent, and have to work a bit harder to learn new things.

Which leads me to my next point:

4. Don’t compare yourself with others!
Language-learning is not a race – how could it be, when there isn’t even a definite finishing line! We all learn languages for different reasons, at different paces, and with different styles. Some of us are natural chatterboxes; others have beautiful pronunciation; others are naturals at reading and writing. You yourself know whether you’re trying hard or not. If you feel you could realistically try harder, do it! If you’re trying as hard as you can, congratulate yourself, and keep going - at your own pace and on your own terms. Force yourself not to think about that incredible Chinese girl you sit next to in class who has a prodigious memory for new vocab and progresses much faster than you. Try not to feel bad when a seven year old corrects your grammar. Being a beginner in another language, and being severely constrained in your ability to understand or communicate even the simplest ideas, can feel humiliating enough at the best of times. Don’t fuel that internal fire of self-doubt and low self-esteem. This is your own journey.

5. Practice Practice Practice
When I was about 15, my high school French teacher gave us a definitive how-to guide to learning a language:

1. Listen
2. Read
3. Write
4. Speak
5. Repeat steps 1-4 many, many times 

This is far and away the best advice I have ever received in connection with language learning. 

The only way you can progress and maintain your language skills is to USE that language, every single day, as much as possible (without doing your head in through over-immersion!) Talk to people. If you hate talking to people, try to write a diary. Read something – anything. Pay attention when people are speaking (in real life or on tv/radio) and try to decipher what they’re saying.

It’s always easier when you have a good teacher to help you learn to do steps 1-4. In the case of Finnish, unless you’re a child (or an adult with a brain that absorbs everything and magically figures out linguistic patterns all on its own), I think it’s virtually impossible to learn correct grammar without the help of an experienced teacher, or else a really good textbook and extremely high self-discipline.

6. Try to enjoy yourself!
Language learning unlocks linguistic and cultural doors, and bridges divides between people of different countries. It is also said that learning another language has powerful effects on the mind, creating new neural pathways and warding off Alzheimer’s disease. For all these reasons, language learning should be something positive – hopefully something that’s even fun and uplifting. Whenever you are feeling low or frustrated about your learning, go back to the stuff that truly interests you and fuels your passion for language, whether it’s talking with a friend, watching a particular tv show, or reading things that intrigue or entertain you. Lately, when I feel like throwing my Finnish textbook across the room in frustration, I’ve taken to swapping it for my daughter’s Risto Räppääjä books. The language is clear and the grammar straightforward, and to my great joy I can follow the stories, even though I can’t understand every word.

In the end, this is what we language learners need to hold on to in times of trial – those moments of great joy. Those moments when we know what it is to transcend the limits of our own nationality and our own native language. Those moments when the puzzle pieces come together in our head and we see, breathtakingly, glimpses of a whole new world that was hidden from us before.