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.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Little Children, Great Expectations

Back in August, my daughter started school. It has been an eye-opening experience for me. A lot has changed in the 30+ years since I started the first grade.

I still remember my first day of school. It was January, 1981. At going-home time, our teacher helped us make a “newspaper”. In her handwritten lettering that not a single one of us could read, she wrote, “Today we played with play-dough and puzzles.” Later that week, we learned to read and write the letter ‘A’ and the number ‘1’. Our school owned one Betamax video cassette player and two television sets, which were shared among 500+ students from grades one to seven. When I was 12 we took turns on the school's new computer (just the one).

Times have changed. Big Sister was taught to read last year at preschool, and was tackling chapter books before she started school. Her first grade class already does simple multiplication and division. The class uses online resources. We communicate with her teacher via email. It is a different world.

Something else that has changed is the parents. In my childhood neighbourhood, Helicopter Parents were few and far between. Thirty years on, I find myself having conversations with anxious expat parents whose children learned to read at age 2 and were counting to 10,000 by age 3 (only half joking). These parents are concerned that their child is not being pushed to the outer range of his/her competence and at this rate is not going to get into Harvard. Parents question me (politely, but with challenge in their eyes) about Big Sister's extra-curricular activities. 

Before the age of 8 I was involved in a total of zero extra-curricular pursuits. When I started school, I couldn't read, write, swim, catch a ball, play a musical instrument, or speak a foreign language. I was allowed to learn piano from age 8, but it was A Big Deal. Outside school hours, I ran wild with the neighbourhood children, barefoot and carefree (both literally and figuratively). I don’t remember homework until at least the third grade. 

Despite this slow start in life, I still qualified as a lawyer, and got a Decent Job that paid well. 

If my children decide that a Decent Job is what they want, I want them to be able to achieve that. I worry about my children lacking the necessary edge to succeed against stiff competition. And yet, I can't believe that my children should have to sacrifice their childhood for the sake of their future.

Already during her preschool year, Big Sister had often seemed hopelessly tired by the end of the week. I eventually realized that preschool was not to blame. We - her own parents - were the problem. We fairly bombarded her with “interesting” and “stimulating” extra-curricular activities – Japanese school, ice skating, swimming, kung fu, singing. She was being pushed to her full potential six days a week. She was frequently exhausted and tearful.

A Tiger Mom would have given her a brisk talking-to and driven her to her next commitment. My choice was to pull the plug on every extra-curricular activity she wasn't enjoying. I even let her quit Japanese Saturday school, knowing full well that this was the only thing keeping her from forgetting Japanese completely (we haven’t lived there in over two years). 

These days, she loves school. She does her homework efficiently and without complaint, and after that she plays tag in the park with her friends, draws creative pictures, reads The Famous Five, designs and sews clothes for her Barbies, and writes in her secret lockable diary. Sometimes she even has fits of generosity towards her little sister and deigns to play Guess Who or dress-ups with her. Sometimes they perform lavish concerts for me (Big Sister favors singing Diandra’s “Outta My Head”; Little Sister favors her infamous “bottom dancing”).

These days, with “only” school and a weekly singing class, my big girl seems so happy. Her life seems full of pursuits that are interesting and challenging and fun. It doesn’t feel like I’m preventing her from reaching her potential or ruining her future prospects. 

I still have lingering doubts - am I doing the wrong thing in not pushing this capable child beyond her comfort zone? But my gut feeling is that pushing our children overly hard has significant side-effects. It can stifle their creativity, their resourcefulness, and their feeling of freedom. It can leave them with insufficient time alone with their own thoughts. Worst of all, it can also make them unhappy.

Other families’ choices notwithstanding, I've decided to stop pushing my kids against their will to achieve adult-defined goals. Short-term, I'm not going to force Big Sister to study Japanese. Long-term, I'm not going to actively promote so-called "top" jobs (with six-figure salaries, long workdays, and necessary sacrifice of free time, sleep and health) as the Holy Grail.  

Here’s to children being children, and to adults allowing that to happen.