Sunday, January 29, 2012


“Every day you speak Finnish better and better!”

Yesterday, after listening to my laborious efforts to talk to his 4 year old in Finnish, my neighbour offered this kind comment. He knows that I started an intensive language course earlier this month, and (like all my Finnish friends) he has been hugely supportive of my efforts to learn his language.

If it’s true, though, that my Finnish is improving, I wish I’d start feeling it myself.

The other morning I got a phone call from an unknown number. The woman’s first sentence was completely incomprehensible to me. She was unable or unwilling to speak in English. She powered on in Finnish, her tone firm and insistent – urgent, even. I strained to pick up some clue – anything – that might enlighten me as to who she was or why she was calling me. Was someone trying to deliver a package to our apartment? Had my younger daughter (at Finnish daycare) had some kind of dreadful accident? Was I in trouble with the police? Had I forgotten to return my library books? The possibilities were endless, and anxiety froze my brain and blocked all comprehension. I was spooked, too, because this woman knew my surname and had my phone number, and at some point she revealed that she knew my husband’s name, too.

Finally, she asked me a question that I understood: “How often do you recharge the credit on your [prepaid] cell phone?” And then it dawned on me, with angry relief – this was a bloody sales call.

It is times like this that I’m furious with myself – furious that I haven’t managed to learn better Finnish in the two years we have lived here; furious because whether or not I learn Finnish is completely up to me, and I wouldn’t still be in this state of frustration had I tried harder to study and learn; furious because I’ve been LAZY and have caused myself stress as a result. For years (even before we moved here) I have wanted to speak and understand Finnish, and yet for years I’ve managed to find other ways to occupy my time.

I do have moments that give me hope. Last weekend, I took my daughter to see a movie that was dubbed in Finnish. I fully expected to be lost within the first 5 minutes, but was happily surprised when I managed (more or less) to follow the story of Alvin and his chipmunk friends. Yes, I was able to get the basic gist of a movie intended for 7 year olds. 

Positive feelings were heavily overlaid with the realisation of just how far I still have to go.

I really should take a leaf out of my daughter’s book. Talking to her after the movie (hoping to get her to explain some bits of dialogue I hadn’t grasped) I realised, with interest, that she hadn’t caught everything either. In fact, in some ways she had missed more than I had, because not only was she unclear on the language in places, she didn’t have the life experience to give her extra clues. When I pointed out that perhaps she, too, was not quite sure what happened in places, she shrugged and said, completely unconcerned and unapologetic, “I don’t know ALL the Finnish words yet, Mummy.”

Her calm words spoke volumes, implying complete confidence that one day she would, in fact, know “all the Finnish words”, proclaiming that in the meantime she could manage perfectly well, and gently chastising me for being unnecessarily impatient about the organic process of language-learning.

The trouble is, though, that it’s harder for adults, because it’s assumed that we are not clueless; it’s assumed that grown human beings can handle a given range of tasks and situations without assistance. Yet, when not just the language but the whole way of life of a country and its people are new to you, there is going to be a lot that you don’t know and have to learn. You are in the weird situation of trying to act like a knowledgeable, responsible, socially-adept adult, even though in many situations you know less than a 7 year old. For instance:

* In Helsinki, if you are traveling on a bus with a baby in a stroller, you are permitted to enter via the back door, without paying. However (as I now know) this is not so if you’re traveling with a baby who is not in a stroller, or if it’s winter and the baby is in a sled. In my experience, if you try to enter via the back door in one of the latter situations, the bus driver comes and yells at you in front of your children, or simply drives off and leaves you standing in the snow.

* Some swimming pools have specific days on which bathing suits are not obligatory. If you use the pool at such times, you will find yourself doing 50m laps alongside (or worse - behind) people who are completely in the buff. You have been warned.

* When my daughter started Finnish daycare, in accordance with their guidelines I stayed there with her for several days. My daughter couldn’t speak Finnish, and the teachers expected me to guide her through the various routines. Talk about the blind leading the blind. At the time, I barely understood words like “eat” or “nap”. I half-guessed at what the teachers were saying. I couldn’t communicate with the other children. My kid cried a lot, confused and overwhelmed. I felt like doing the same.

* I come from a city where (to my knowledge) it has never snowed, and where we drive on the left-hand side of the road. When we left our Helsinki home this morning, it was 15 below zero with snow everywhere. Imagine you are me, and then try to (a) liberate your car from a cocoon of snow and ice with sufficient competence to enable you to drive the damn thing out of its parking spot; (b) on your return home, do a reverse (parallel) park on the “wrong” side of the road into a space bearing a car-shaped imprint bordered all around with half a metre of banked-up snow. With your two children whining in the back seat and your neighbour laughing at you from the side of the road.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m up for this, really. I want to make this Helsinki adventure work. Most days I see my cluelessness as a challenge – my chance to extend myself. Most days I can even laugh at myself if these things – which, in the end, are just minutiae after all - don’t work out perfectly.

On days of lower optimism, though, I just feel humiliated in my cluelessness. I wonder if this steep learning curve will ever taper off. Some days I long to feel capable; confident I can tackle daily life with some degree of basic competence.

I have spent 36 years learning to be an adult, only to find myself, constantly, in situations which make me feel like a child. Some days I just want to be a grown up again.


  1. Are you being a bit hard on yourself? Are you also forgetting how much you have learnt....I mean take all those facts about life in Helsinki for example....I don't even know one of those things! Learning a language is tough...and often there are plateauing stages where you seem to almost go backwards..but if you keep working there is later a sudden surge upwards again. The sense of achievement you will enjoy eventually will be worth the struggle, challenge and frustrations along the way. Well done you for learning something new in your late my blog on this theme!!

  2. Thanks so much for your encouragement. Yes, I admit that I wrote this in a low moment, when suddenly it just all seemed a bit overwhelming. If I reflect on my life, it's clear to me that I just can't resist a challenge. This is why I chose to live in Tokyo, and now in Helsinki. This is why I've chosen to tackle other languages and cultural challenges. This is who I am, and most days I am totally up for the challenge... except, of course, for those days on which I wish I'd chosen an easier road!

    I really enjoyed your blog post. I think one reason why I mentally put off learning Finnish in any serious way is because I'd convinced myself I couldn't do it. At some point I realised that yes, it's a hard language I might not ever become truly fluent, but it would be ridiculous to let that stop me even trying! The best that could happen is that I do make it to fluency one day. The worst that could happen is that I improve a bit. I'll take those odds.

  3. Wonderful post Katriina. Not only a window into your Finnish experience - but a true window into the wisdom of our children...
    We adults can learn so much from them if we find time to listen, don't we.
    You are fantastically energetic and I am certain that your determination and intelligence will see you get to your goal in the end. Just cut yourself some slack... be kind to you.
    I'm just realising that life isn't a race or a competition nor even a series of challenges that I need to complete - I've found that it really is good to take time to savour the journey. And just think what amazing writing material your "journey" is giving you! x

    1. As usual, la mujer libre, you are so kind!
      You are also too right about life not being a race/competition/series of challenges. At last I've managed to get the best of the competitiveness that drove me for many years, but I have to admit that I still thrive on challenge. Maybe we all do, in a way - it's empowering to try new things and to expand our horizons - and I think it's just a question of giving ourselves enough leeway and breathing space to tackle challenges in our own time and on our own terms - and, as you say, to stand back sometimes and just savour the experience. It's days when I feel too much new information hitting me too quickly that I feel overwhelmed.
      And yes, we really can learn so much from our children, especially the way they aren't focused so much on end-goals but more on the pleasure they get from the actual "doing" process. We adults so often forget to enjoy the journey, even though life really is all about the journey...

  4. I feel compelled to comment in regards to the salesperson. They have to talk fast. I've noticed this with our calls here - obviously in English. They need to get as much out before you hang up on them. They try not to let you get in a word edgeways. So don't feel too bad about it. And also contrast it to the movie. You kept up with it, because it was spoken normally. :)

    1. I really didn't think of it that way, but you're right about the salesperson! Wow, that makes me feel so much better - thank you! I have to admire her tenacity, i.e. she hung in there despite the high likelihood that she would get zero reaction from me. I have to mention, by the way, that once I realised why she was calling, I actually didn't hang up immediately, because from what I could grasp she was actually offering a pretty good deal. I asked her to call my (Finnish) husband and explain it all to him. Now I have a better phone contract and she got her commission! :)

    2. You are so right, they just ramble on. I half the time don't understand them in the UK when they are from some place up North and mange everything. I then think, hey, I am the foreigner here but your english, boy...

  5. Love the fail when you didn't understand about the different days at the pool. Thank goodness we don't get any of THAT in the UK. Thanks for linking up. SJ

    1. There really are some major cultural differences among the various European countries!
      Always a pleasure to link up to your site :)

    2. "In Helsinki, if you are traveling on a bus with a baby in a stroller, you are permitted to enter via the back door, without paying. However (as I now know) this is not so if you’re traveling with a baby who is not in a stroller, or if it’s winter and the baby is in a sled."

      The logic is that you they don't make you leave your child alone. A stroller doesn't fit via the front door whereas a sled you can carry. Children without such a mode of transportation can obviously walk themselves or are carried.

      By the way, the only swimming pool I know of allowing nude swimming is Yrjönkadun uimahalli in Helsinki but I think there are a couple of others around the country as well. Looks like you just got unlucky.

      Children, mothers (parents), students and pensioners get all sorts of benefits all around. And by framing it that way, it's easy to ask about it (instead of something like "is there something I should know about?", which, I suppose, might also get some interesting answers).

    3. Anonymous, thanks so very much for your helpful explanation of the logic behind the "stroller rule"! It makes so much more sense now. The thing is, in Australia (where I'm from) if you bring a stroller on public transport you're expected to fold it and carry it in through the front door (along with your child!) so until now I hadn't understood Helsinki's distinction between strollers and sleds - though I really should have worked out that if you have neither you are expected to pay normally, baby or no baby! It's true that families, students, etc. do get all kinds of amazing concessions in Helsinki (and probably elsewhere in Finland), and it's too easy to fall into the habit of expecting to get just about everything for free...

  6. But finnish is a really hard language too, isn't it? I speak 5, but european ones that are not too dissimilar. I started on arabic, but boy, that is a totally different game...
    I think it is great that you try!

    1. Thanks for your kind encouragement! Yes, Finnish is a pretty tricky language (not many languages have something like 17 different forms of nouns - yes, NOUNS!) and its uniqueness as a language means that you really do have to learn it from scratch and can't get much help from other languages. Still, Finnish people are incredibly tolerant of foreigners' poor attempts to master their language, and it makes the learning process a whole lot easier.

      You know five languages? wow! I'm constantly in awe of you Dutch and Nordic types. And don't try to be humble with this talk of how similar they all are... they are still all unique languages and it's awesome that you have managed to learn them all!

  7. (((HUGS))) THANKS for your comment on my blog, Katriina. Don't'll get there's a long and winding road, moving abroad to Finland and starting life all over again.

    My Finnish course teacher said to us: "Learning Finnish is like one step forward, two steps back." And it's very true for me. Learning Finnish is one huge adventure. :-D Lots of potholes during the way ha ha...but as long as you get back up again, you'll be fine. :-D

    I learnt other "skills" when moving to Finland: to be kind to myself, to laugh at my own mistakes, to be my own best friend. It sure ain't easyyyy...but I know you'll learn other skills in your life journey in Finland that you wouldn't have learnt otherwise. :-D

    Anyway, even after 5 years in Finland and being able to speak decent Finnish, I still HATE HATE HATE speaking on the phone and making phone calls 'coz sometimes the line isn't that good and I can't use body language.

    Btw, are you in Facebook? There's a group in Facebook that offers Finnish for foreigners where you can ask basically anything to the teacher in the group (starting from grammar to asking about the meanings of a certain word etc). The teacher also offers free online lessons via Oulu University (if I remember correctly once a week there's a session where you can ask about anything you want to the teacher - another session happens on a different day where you have to use a book, though). The group is called First Steps and the teacher is EXCELLENT. She's given me insight towards so many different things about Finnish grammar that I haven't found anywhere else.

    Here's the link:

    1. Amel, thanks so much for commenting, and for your (very infectious) enthusiasm and encouragement! I agree, living in another country does teach you valuable skills you wouldn't otherwise have learned, not to mention lots about yourself... definitely a very worthwhile experience on so many levels.

      I'm excited about the Facebook group you mentioned - thanks, I hadn't heard about it - it sounds really great and I will join up immediately! :)

    2. I've decided that even if I do understand a little of what the salesperson is going on about in Finnish, answering in English is absolutely the best tactic. Often it's magazines, which I can't/don't want to read anyway - and on saying "sorry I don't speak Finnish", they abruptly apologize for bothering me and say "have a nice day". My Finnish speaking wife can never extract herself from sales calls that quickly! It's a blessing honest. If it's something important they'll speak English!

    3. Toby, you're absolutely right! Thanks so much for your comment. I had a look at your blog, and I must say, you are certainly making the most of living in a very, very cold part of the world! Looking forward to reading more.