Saturday, 24 January 2009

The Language Barrier

Being in Finland is a completely new experience for me, for it's not custom here for people to speak English. When I visited Thailand 2 years ago, I was immediately recognised as an English speaker and everyone spoke to me as such. Here it's different, every shop keeper and restaurant waitress so far have addressed me in Finnish. My Anglo appearance is not helping me this time, instead I stand there dumbstruck as a barrage of words I can't discern (much less attribute meaning to) come my way.

I feel really bad as I've been informed that most people can speak English, all it would take for me to do is ask them if they speak my language. It's their country and not mine so I would feel bad in asking, but so far I've been able to get away with nodding and deflecting to my partner. It's lucky they use decimal currency otherwise I'd really be screwed.

Last night I was sitting at my partner's parents place, and there they were walking me through the basics of the language - using children's toys. There letters were laid out on the ground and words were spelt out for me in big letters. To pronounce some of the letters is really different. Y's sound like U's. J's sound like Y's. And the way that combinations of vowels and consonants are put together is unlike anything in English.

Another thing that shocked me was the similarity of completely unrelated words. Take three words: kyllä, kylä and kyylä. Kyllä = yes, kylä = village, kyylä = a person who watches other people (negative). Now these three words sound almost identical to my English-tuned brain, and trying to pronounce the words is almost impossible for me. Language is just something I've never understood, give me mathematics or science any day.

What I've come to appreciate from this experience is the value of communication, and the difficulty that migration in a global context has for some people. I've come across plenty of people in Australia who haven't been able to speak English, and even those who could sometimes had problems with pronunciation or distinguishing between similar words.

So for now I'll persist in trying to learn the language, crudely mispronouncing even the most basic of words like kiitos (thank you), huomenta (morning), and even hyvä (good). Being around people talking in the language is helping me start to differentiate between similar words but it will be a long time until I can use the language in a meaningful way.

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