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by Jan Sand
2006-11-28 10:43:10
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Although my parents assured me that I started my indoctrination into speaking English well before reaching my first year and I progressed rapidly into fluency, whatever linguistic centers that reside in my CNS have evidently decided that these initial efforts should be quite sufficient. The tools it utilized in this effort have been subsequently hidden away in the dusty closets of my brain in its most inaccessible places.

When I was put through the required three year regiment of learning French during my stay at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, I became convinced that the language had nothing whatsoever to do with communication. It was merely a diversion of the educational system into torture. We never engaged in French conversation and merely spent our times memorizing various peculiar codes to tell people similarly instructed that this was the pen of my aunt. And, of course, that Vercingetorix was a force in my historical heritage.

The little packaged gifts that the educational system insisted that I accept frequently resembled the kitsch that daft old ladies place on corner shelves in their living rooms, like plastic imitation ivory elephants and odd brass objects from India. As a graphic artist, I have always found geometry useful, but I have never utilized the skills developed in manipulating the binomial theorem or determinants. French fell into that category until I lived in Paris for a few months, but as nobody was curious about my aunt’s pen, I found myself driven towards elaborate gestures to get my points across. I have never done well with terpsichorean efforts (which was not a school discipline) so I fell easily into the classification of an American nut with muscular problems.

My Finnish wife never was enthusiastic about teaching me Finnish and my immune system, which had remained in high alert from my experience with high school French, insulated me from permitting a second language to slip easily into my repertoire. When my two kids started picking up Finnish while we lived in New York, their first words, which they used incessantly to the distress of my wife, were 'paskat', 'vittu' and 'satana perkele'. I made up a nonsense pseudo Finnish word 'quensiko makkara', which I told my kids was the worst and most disgusting word in the Finnish language, so they latched onto that immediately, much to the relief of my wife.

I grew up in New York City, which is about as close as you can get to the ancient city of Babel, post the fury of heaven. Casual street conversation takes place in multitudes of different languages. Therefore, living in a country where I had no concept about what was being said was normal and comfortable. I suppose I also suffer from the subconscious peculiarity of most Americans that really, underneath, everybody understands and speaks English. Surprisingly, here in Helsinki, these schizophrenic suspicions are frequently confirmed.

So, the familiarity with English of a great many Finns forestalled any intense efforts on my part to become fluent. As it turns out, my final impatience with being totally out of local communication spurred me to attend formal classes with hopes that being totally immersed in the culture should tumble me out of ignorant isolation in reasonably short order. Hah!

The first year of classes seemed to move me along bumpily, but, as with Galileo, it did move. My second year introduced me the insidious variations in which p's transform to v's, t's and d's dance around, while k's disappear altogether. And, of course, some letters twin under some mysterious circumstances and not others. There is, also, the strange preference in Finnish wherein flat o's and a's are assumed to be easier to pronounce with y's and not with long versions of the vowels; a difficulty that does not faze me at all.

Currently, I am having difficulty with how to split up words. The big glass building near Helsinki's main railroad station declares itself 'Sanomatalo', which seemed to break into 'San', 'oma', and 'talo' and should mean 'Sa’s own house'. It seems not.

My vocabulary grows exceedingly slowly and attempting to read any page in Finnish is somewhat like reading it through a lightly perforated slice of Swiss cheese – only a word here and there evokes comprehension and the total remains pure cipher.

And now I'm still insecure about my aunt and her pen in Finnish.

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