29 April, 2013

Every now and then

...I find an article that has me nodding, and nodding, and o-my-godding. This is one I shared on Google+ a while back, but it deserves revisiting.

The article is here: http://ogodsendhelp.blogspot.fi/2012/05/kielipaa-on-finnish-language.html (you can go read it now. Don't worry, I'll wait until you come back.)

In particular, this is one of the first real parts that resonates with me:
"At the moment, I've taken a year's worth of Finnish, and I'm at the awkward transitional stage where I can ask questions, but I never understand the answers."
You betcha. I'm still at that point after three and a half years. I (usually) have time to rehearse what I'm going to say, for example at the newsagent's. I announce what I need, silently congratulating myself on asking correctly, and then all my poise is undone in an instant as the sales assistant asks me a question in return. I haven't a clue what they asked; even if it's a six-word question, not a single word sounds like anything familiar. Were it written down, it's possible I'd have identified four words of the six, but in another slap to my pride, they will always be words which are unhelpful at deciphering the sentence (of course, however something or something).

I discovered early in my residence here that it's no use telling people that I don't understand Finnish. I am blessed (cursed?) with not having any discernible accent, so they hear my announcement in fluent Finnish and don't believe it, ignoring me as if I'd begun to small-talk about the weather. I resolved to be more specific and switched to, "I don't speak Finnish well," but since it's an opening line, it's having a similar effect, and is sometimes treated as an invitation to speak freely at top speed. To their credit, most people at least forgive me being slow or not understanding. They can't say they weren't warned, after all.

It's been in evidence many times since I started my volunteer work at the library. They approach me and begin to ask something complicated, and if I can manage to interject and apologise before they finish their request, my declaration cuts them off dead. I'm not even 100% sure how to correctly tell them they should ask someone at the front desk, but they get the idea when I mumble "ask, table" and motion in that direction.

But the older people in particular are not intimidated by a dirty furriner. Maybe it's because I'm female; maybe it's because I smile as I apologise; maybe it's because I don't "look foreign". I'm keeping score. So far I've successfully helped two people find books in the library while not understanding a dang thing they babbled at me about the books they wanted. They both had their titles written down. The second one, today, had a long list of classics - Moliere, Voltaire, T.S. Eliot. We found about half of them, and I managed to explain that the others weren't at this branch, which she had apparently expected. She was evidently very pleased with me, although I haven't a clue what she said beyond "good help" and "I can't work the computer, myself".

Now as for words and vocabularies, I was reminded of this today. I am conducting inventory of the entire collection's reference books, pulling out anything that is marked "lost" in the database, or hasn't been borrowed since 2009, or has had less than 10 uses in the past 10 years. Today I pulled unwanted enormous Finnish translation dictionaries from the shelf one by one.
"...dictionaries are just an inside joke played on foreigners by Finnish publishers."
Oh yes. In so many ways. Finns even know how ridiculous the language is - wait, that's unfair, let's call it "unique" instead. They are unanimously impressed when someone tries to learn, no matter how stupid I know I must sound. They are also unanimously incredulous that anyone would want to come from Australia to live in Finland. Most of them (being Finns) have nothing more to say on the matter beyond a vague wow-type gesture, but the friendlier ones will then describe Australia as being warm, sunny and filled with wonderful beach-going. Australia is, I am assured, a dream destination for many Finns. Left unsaid is that I must be an idiot. It is an ironic thing, because Finns consider their culture and nature infinitely valuable and precious, yet can't understand how any of it could appeal to anyone else. Perhaps this is why Finland has never had a tourism industry. Those in the game will be upset (hey! We've got the Northern Lights and Helsinki's got beautiful architecture, and there's Santa's post office and there's reindeer and fantastic fashion and design) but it's part of an all-pervading idea that nobody else will ever be interested in what Finns have. Especially the language. Why bother, when everyone under 50 can get by in English?

Why bother indeed. I guess it's hard for anyone to understand if they haven't been there. But it gets old, really fast, to always be perceived as stupid because you have to constantly explain to the checkout operator (or the bank, or the doctor) that you don't understand the language. The thing is, being Finnish and all, they don't always switch to English. They think their excellent English isn't perfect enough, so they don't want to use it. They just fall into silence and don't bother, leaving me feeling abandoned.

And it really sucks to get home and discover what they had tried to tell me - that my yoghurt has been opened, or the cheese is expired, or the coffee was full price because only the other type was on special. That's why I want to learn the language...