Pitäisköhän sanoa jotain suomeksi tässä alussa? No kai se on parempi etta vaan käytän Englantia että kaikki ymmärtää sen.
Writing those words in Finnish feels foreign but achingly familiar at the same time. Like walking through your old neighbourhood that has since filled with new people and new developments, but always feels like a part of you nevertheless.
I haven’t been surrounded by Finnish since I was 11 and I haven’t spoken it regularly since I was about 15 or 16. But the more fundamental shift was silent, gradually happening inside the little folds of my brain as I shifted from thinking in Finnish to thinking in English. They say that the language you speak, the words you have available to you, alter the way you think. I always wonder how my thinking shifted when my primary language changed. I feel like it did but I couldn’t tell you how.
I thought it was impossible for another language to ever overtake my mother tongue, the language I was born into. The concept of ‘mother tongue’ is important in Finland, perhaps because Finnish is a lonely island in the world of languages, completely unlike those of the neighbouring countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, who can at least vaguely understand each other. The only language even remotely like Finnish is Estonian. In the face of that, you might think it surprising that the language survived at all, until you meet a Finn: quiet and reserved, but proud to the point of obstinacy. The country was swapped between Sweden and Russia for most of its existence, but clung to the language with utter determination. Never underestimate the power of a language: it gives the voice and shape of a culture.
It used to be that I would just forget words, simple vocabulary. That wasn’t a big deal, that’s just a matter of hearing the language for a bit, of letting the Finnish words float to the top again. But now, even when I find them, the words feel foreign in my mouth. When I try and wrap my tongue around the endless hard consonants, it feels as though my mouth is full of molasses.
Writing has become a challenge too (but one I proudly struggled through for my thank-you cards). Finnish has a strange construction, with a lot of compound words: words stacked upon words stacked upon words. The example I always give is of simple locations – ‘in the box’ becomes ‘laatikossa’ while ‘on the box’ becomes ‘laatikolla’ and so on. It gets a lot more complicated. It is incredibly difficult to become fully fluent in Finnish past the magical age of about 10 or 11, when your brain still has the elasticity to handle absorbing such a screwed up language.
People tell me it’s understandable that I would be losing my Finnish; I’ve spent many more years now speaking English. They raise their eyebrows in admiration when I say I can still read the language. They are impressed because they hear my essentially* un-accented English and lump me in with them. They don’t understand.
I wish I could take comfort in these rationalizations, but I know better. I should be able to speak it without trouble, but I gave up. I hate doing things that are difficult for me, so I chose the easy road instead. Most significantly, I gave myself permission a long time ago to speak to my mom in English. I struggled with this decision for many years, but eventually decided it was better to communicate with my mom than not. Finnish had became a barrier to expressing myself freely because it wasn’t the language my life was lived in. The struggle of feeling like I couldn’t share my life with my mom was an obstacle I didn’t want to grapple with any more.
John and I are going to visit my mom in Finland in about a month, which means I have already spent the last two or three months feeling the guilt and shame pile up. Going to Finland always fills me with a mix of happiness and dread; happiness for seeing my mom and reuniting with a place that will always hold a piece of me, and dread for having to hold my inadequacy up to the light. It’s hard enough with strangers – I’m not supposed to stand out in my own country, speaking my own language – but it’s by far the hardest with people who knew me before, who knew me when Finnish was the only language that gave voice to my thoughts. A few years ago when one of my old friends from Finland said I ‘spoke funny’, I disintegrated into hot shame-filled tears for hours. They don’t understand.
I spend my time in Finland avoiding everything but the most basic conversation, lest I stumble onto words I can’t find and give myself away. There are entire spheres of my life that I can’t talk about at all, like my work; I never learned environmental health researcher or air pollution health effects in Finnish. I am there, but observing from behind a barrier that I don’t have the guts to crawl over. I could probably chat a lot more if only I allowed myself to make mistakes, if I was willing to just use whatever words will get the point across. But I can’t do that. I am supposed to be better.
I am trying. Or at least trying to try. I keep meaning to pick up one of the Finnish books I asked my mom to bring me last summer, but I still haven’t. Well I picked one up, but I haven’t read the first page, so I don’t think it counts. Reading a Finnish book is akin to reading a textbook; it takes time, patience, and concentration, none of which I have at 10pm. But I’m going to try harder. I have to, for my mother and her mother, and even for the mother I might become myself.
*97% of people don’t seem to notice an accent at all and are very surprised to hear English is not my first language, but very occasionally someone with a sharp ear will surprise me by asking ‘where is that accent from?’