“If you could learn any language for no practical reason other than just finding it stimulating and fun, which would you choose?”
Aristocrats in Europe typically used to speak a number of very varied languages as part of their education. Tolstoy was fluent in English, French and German. Apparently, he could also read Greek and Latin, along with Bulgarian, Italian, Turkish and Ukrainian. Three hundred years earlier, Lady Jane Grey, who was de facto Queen of England for nine days in 1553 before being beheaded in 1554, learned Greek, Latin, Spanish and French at the age of six and was also fluent in Italian. Before she was executed at the age of 17, she had also learned Hebrew, Chaldean (an ancient Aramaic language) and Arabic.
Clearly, Lady Jane Grey wasn’t merely preparing herself for the world of diplomacy in her imagined future as a long-reigning monarch, and Tolstoy didn’t need to know so many languages. It may have been the done thing in their social circles and a way to get some kudos, but to some extent, both of them seem to have been learning languages just for the fun of it.
I am Russian. In 2018 I wanted to learn a totally new language from scratch. I was teaching English in St. Petersburg and I realized that I couldn’t get into my learners’ shoes or heads. I couldn’t fully understand what it was that they fail to understand And it was affecting my performance as a tutor, so I wanted to remember what it was like to be a complete beginner.
I was interested in something preferably non-Germanic and non-Romance. I’ve spoken English and Spanish since childhood, as my parents took me to a high-school where foreign languages were extensively taught. So I felt French or Italian would not (or wouldn’t) be enough of a challenge.
I think I can somehow feel the music of languages, so I opted for either Gaelic, or Breton, or Finnish because I like the way they sound. I still very much like the sound of the traditional Breton song Son Ar Chistr sung by Alan Stivell. But I equally love the sound of the Finnish ensemble MeNaiset singing Kuulin Äänen.
As it happens, I used to travel to Finland a lot, as it was only a 3-hour-drive from St. Petersburg. I liked the nature, I liked the architecture, and I liked the businesslike, sustainable, and pragmatic approach of Finns to education. I was also thinking more and more of lower buildings, less traffic, less rush – so Finland seemed to combine my need for a challenging language and would also offer a change in lifestyle.
Compared to English, the most challenging thing in Finnish is to get even the most banal things right. Imagine there is a cake at the coffee counter. I’d like to check if they just sell it whole or in individual slices as well. I build a grammatically correct phrase with all the words and cases in their places (which is not straightforward in this sentence, and I’m proud of being able to manage that), but alas, it doesn’t work. What I produce is a rough equivalent of the equivalent English phrase, which often works as a tolerable workaround, but this time it doesn’t. You never know. It turns out that I just had to say two words: ‘Saanko palan?’ That roughly translates as ‘Do I get a piece?’ As I said no, he didn’t, on other occasions calques (i.e. word-for-word translations) seem to work well.
Consequently, my main dilemma now is this: ‘How much Finnish should I creatively reinvent using the rules of grammar’ vs ‘How much Finnish should I just copy from the existing stocks of phrases?’
I think the aim of a good language learner, and indeed language teacher, is to find the right balance between the two.
Mikhail Demidov has five years of experience as an external translator and terminologist with International Organizations. He has also worked as a freelance conference interpreter (Human and Veterinary Medicine) for 13 years, taught English to medical students, and trained postgraduate students in Consecutive Interpretation for about 2 years. Apart from CELTA certificate and degrees in Conference Interpreting and Human Medicine, Michael holds an MA in Education Entrepreneurship from Oulu University of Applied Sciences, which reflects his interest in interdisciplinary communication and practical tools for learning. In his free time, he builds prototypes of apps for learning and runs a website called virheellinen.com about the specific difficulties of early-stage learners of Finnish.