The Language of Pickled Cucumber and Honey

I’ve shared you earlier my story with English, Swedish and French. As Russian is my main learning language right now, I thought I could reflect a bit about why I started to learn it and how has it been for me so far.

Why Russian?

For some reason, as long as I’ve known I want to learn a lot of languages, Russian has been on my list. I’m not entirely sure how it found it’s way there. I recognize, in general, at least 5 different reasons to want to learn a language: exposure, need, practicality, social or cultural interest (I could write another blog post about my thoughts on this!).

To some extent, it’s probably the exposure: the more I listen to a language, the more intrigued I get. In Finland, there are 70 000 people whose first language is Russian, and in 2015 we had 53 000 Russian tourists visiting overnight. So it is likely to hear a bit of Russian in Finland.

In elementary school, I had some friends on my class whose mother tongue was Russian, and sometimes I’d secretly listen to them speaking on the phone with their parents and be intrigued about how the same person sounds so different when speaking another language. I can’t really remember what Russian sounded to me like back then.

In high school a classmate of mine, a girl originally from Russia, taught me some Russian. I learned the letters, and some numbers and colours and simple phrases. I guess after that I had the feeling I always get after learning a bit of a language: I wanted to learn more.

Partly, I guess, it’s also practical: I found it possibly useful for future career opportunities. Many Finnish companies do business with Russia, and Russian isn’t a language everybody learns, so it can help you stand out as a job applicant.

I definitely have a cultural interest for Russian. There are many similarities – generous hospitality, a certain kind of stubborn pride, and, I guess, liking vodka. But the differences often feel more distinct. Russian people are said to be more temperamental, living in the moment and open in their expression of feelings. Russian has an imperial history. When I think of Russian cuisine, I think of pickled cucumber and honey (I’m not sure if Russian people actually eat this or if it’s a Finnish misconception), which somehow sums up how I feel about the whole culture: surprising, perhaps even somewhat strange at first glance, but in fact extremely likeable and brilliantly original.

But there is, I think, a sixth reason to feel drawn to a language. It’s the mysterious appeal you sometimes feel about a language, alluring interest. I think it may be born from a combination of all the other reasons I mentioned, but you may feel it without really being able to recognize any logical reasons behind it.

There are two foreign languages that have this special appeal for me: Swedish and Russian. I could call it infatuation, because it feel a bit the same as thinking about that someone special you like! Haha. I’m just mysteriously drawn to these two languages, they are beautiful and intriguing to me. They are the two neighboring languages to Finnish, yet not related to it at all and not really closely to each other either. Two very different cultures surrounding us, having their own influence on the Finnish culture, and still feel like different worlds.

I can’t explain it any better. Have you ever had that kind of feeling about another language?

In St. Petersburgh in 2016

A patchy history of Russian courses

I finally got the chance to actually study Russian in university. There were a lot of languages to choose from, but for some reason I jumped straight on a Russian course without a second thought.

However, university studies were much more demanding than upper secondary school, where I had thrived learning four languages at the same time. I really didn’t usually do my Russian homework and because of that, the classes weren’t too useful, either. Every semester I couldn’t even fit the courses in my schedule. I also had a year off from university at one point.

So my Russian studies were really scattered: Course 1A in spring 2011, 1B in fall 2012, 2A and 2B in fall 2014(!) and 3A and 3B in fall 2015. Everytime I just stubbornly moved on to the next level even though I felt like I’d forgotten half of the previous courses (and maybe never learned the other half because I hadn’t really been concentrating on the courses).

So Russian was, after French, the language I most felt like I should have already learned more than I had. That’s why I’ve picked it up now again as my second project after having decided to really start learning languages again last year.

What’s difficult and what’s easy

I’d say Russian has been the most difficult for me to learn of all the languages I’ve studied.

Usually I learn really well by listening and back in school I could, for example, memorise entire course book chapters of French or Swedish just by listening to the recordings. Of course, I only recently started to feel like I can understand French speech at normal speed – the course book chapter recordings were simple and slow. But with Russian, even the simplest chapters just sounded like “lksdjladghksdlsdfhgsuadslkj” in the beginning, even after I had read and translated the text and learned the vocabulary. It took me ages to get the hang of how to listen to the language. There’s something entirely different about the rhythm, structure and sounds of it.

Reading Russian is also kind of difficult for me. No, I actually had no trouble learning the alphabet, when it comes to recognizing the individual letters, but somehow I still read very slowly. Normally I’d say you read by just looking at a word or even the entire sentence, but I still read Russian kind of letter by letter. It’s all about lack of practice, of course.

Another problem with reading is, I can’t tell where the stress on longer words is. If there’s a new word I read and haven’t heard, it’s very difficult to imagine what the word is supposed to sound like, because the placement of the stress makes a huge difference. I’m not entirely sure if there are any rules for this or if you learn to place the stress only word by word.

The cases are so confusing. Yes, Finnish is notorious for them. I don’t know if being naturally familiar with the concept makes it easier or not. I suppose I learn the declension rules easily enough, they are logical enough. The biggest problem is when to use which case! That’s where having cases in my own language is mostly just a stumbling block. The genitive in Russian is used to state ownership, just like in Finnish, but it’s also used with amounts such as a lot or a little, which, in Finnish, is expressed with partitive, also the case used for partial objects, which are, then again expressed in accusative in Russian. Confused yet? I am. Argh!

What’s easy: Verb tenses!
But wait –

That reminds me of yet another difficult thing: verb aspects. They only came in on my last two courses of Russian and I certainly haven’t gotten my head around them yet.
And all the little movement verbs with their prefixes:

входить / войтиto go in, to enter
выходить / выйтиto go out, to leave, to exit
всходить / взoйтиto go up, to ascend
доходить / дойтиto get to, to get as far as, to reach
заходить / зайтиto drop in, to stop by
обходить / обойтиto walk around, to bypass
отходить / отойтиto walk away
переходить / перейтиto go across, to turn
подходить / подойтиto approach
приходить / прийтиto arrive, to come
проходить / пройтиto go by, to go past
сходить / сойтиto go down, decend
уходить / уйтиto go from, to leave, depart

Gahh… Send help.

So, not so many things I’d find easy in Russian, but I guess I enjoy the challenge! And all the more rewarding it will be when I make progress.

I’m still kind of searching my favourite methods to learn Russian. Any ideas are welcomed!

And I’d be happy to hear  about your experiences. Have you learned Russian? Why did you choose to learn it? What do you find difficult or easy? Or did you relate to any of these thoughts with another language you’re learning?

Kremlin of Nizhny Novgorod


A piece of baguette

My Project French is going quite well!

I’ve found a nice and efficient combo of learning methods which work for me.  For a couple of months now, I’ve been learning with

  • An online/mobile app course from Babbel
  • Goldlist
  • Audiobooks

I think I’ll blog in a bit more detail about each method soon!

This time, however, I wanted to share some thoughts about how I find learning French – which aspects of it are easy, which are difficult.

I can’t actually come up with too many easy things. As a whole, French just is not a piece of cake. More like a piece of baguette, with a tough crust you need to get through before it gets easier to chew. (Such a clever analogy, I know.)

A pretty nice share of the vocabulary is easy to memorize due to similarity to English. It also makes guessing the meaning of many words possible, and I find I can read even rather complicated texts, although my oral skills are not very advanced.

For instance, last summer I did an internship where I had to go through a lot of texts from the European Commission, and just for fun, I checked some of the reports in French. I was surprised to be able to actually read through several pages of “COMMUNICATION DE LA COMMISSION AU PARLEMENT EUROPÉEN, AU CONSEIL, AU COMITÉ ÉCONOMIQUE ET SOCIAL EUROPÉEN ET AU COMITÉ DES RÉGIONS: Feuille de route pour une Europe efficace dans l’utilisation des ressources” , and the like, quite effortlessly! Pretty awesome.

The most difficult aspects are related to verbs, I think.

Irregular verbs are a pain in the back, as in any language. I’m so happy my French teacher made us memorize a whole lot of them early on. That’s one of the few things I think have stuck in my head pretty well from those lessons (in addition to useful sentences like “Je détéste les olives.”).

And when to use imperfect and passé composé? Imperfect is for describing a state, or continuous or incomplete action in the past, and passé composé is for already completed or single events, right?

That’s strange to me – in Finnish, the imperfect describes something that happened not too long ago and is somehow new information, whereas the perfect describes something that happened maybe longer ago, but is somehow related to something that is currently happening…

Err, wait. Now that I tried explaining the Finnish tenses, I started to feel that maybe the French way actually makes more sense. Well, I never said Finnish was easy, did I?? Maybe this is not one of the difficult things in French, after all, at least now that I know how it works. But I remember it used to be confusing!

Finally, I have to admit I have no idea what the subjunctive is used for, I just vaguely remember from my French lessons back in school, that there is such a thing, and that it is weird. Brr.

In addition to verbs being tricky in many ways, I feel that the French way to build sentences takes some effort to grasp. It’s hard to explain, but I take an example from a book, originally in English:

“The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear if anyone found out about the Potters.”

And the French translation goes:

“Les Dursley avaient tout ce qu’ils voulaient. La seule chose indésirable qu’ils possédaient, c’était un secret dont ils craignaient plus que tout qu’on le découvre un jour. Si jamais quiconque venait à entendre parler des Potter, ils étaient convaincus qu’ils ne s’en remettraient pas.”
The Dursleys had everything they wanted. The only unwanted thing they had, it was a secret of which they were afraid more than anything that would be found out one day. If ever anyone would hear about the Potters, they were certain they could not bear it.”

(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling)

Of course, it’s a book, and spoken language is different, but I think that particular something is there in spoken language, too.

Somehow the sentences seem more complicated, there’s always an additional curlicue.
I actually kind of like that. It’s like making every sentence a carefully, lovingly wrapped and decorated gift.

I guess that is something you can pick up through just hearing and reading a lot of French. After all, anything can become easy, with enough practice.

When the language of ‘amour’ did not seem to love me

I started learning French in upper secondary, at the age of 16. I was so happy to finally be able to start an additional language at school (I tried to pick German in high school but there were not enough people interested to form a class).

The picture I had of France back then consisted pretty much of the Eiffel tower, baguette, the French revolution and the three musketeers.

I had also heard, that many French people  don’t like to speak English. A friend of mine had already studied a bit of French and she’s told me that French people don’t want to understand bad French either (I think her expertise was based on an experience where she’d been in Paris and tried to ask in French where the loo was, and got spoken to like she was dim-witted). So when learning French, you’d better learn it well. I didn’t worry about this too much – I did well in the exams and got nice grades. Clearly I was learning well enough?!

The first time I had to test my skills was in 2010, the summer after graduation from upper secondary, when I went backpacking around Europe with a friend. We stayed in Paris for several days and also visited Brussels, and I’m sure we tried to speak a bit of French every now and then. Oddly enough, I don’t remember too many situations… Maybe my brain tries to save me from remembering the painful moments of realizing that three years of work have been fruitless, when it came to real life situations.

I think there was a moment when I tried to buy stamps and the lady in the post office switched to English when I didn’t know the word for stamp. And maybe a guy on a night train who spoke French and whom I was unable to understand unless he almost spelled each word for me.

Oh, well.

I decided that French is difficult; maybe the language of amour just didn’t love anyone non-French that much. I wrote “good written and oral skills” on my CV anyway, and didn’t think about it much for a couple of years.

Three years later I was hiking in Belgium with my boyfriend. We were doing this scouting challenge called Explorer Belt, where the idea is to hike 200 km through a foreign country with no phone or GPS, and not much money, and you rely on the help of local people and try to learn as much as you can about the culture.

I noticed that if I started by asking a French-speaking person if they spoke English, the answer was no, and I didn’t get much help. But if I started with French, people would try to help. They would also soon switch to English, realizing, I guess, that they could better help me that way, my French being what it was. Anyway, at least trying seemed to make people friendlier and more helpful.

That time, I had a lot of lovely experiences trying to speak French. There was an old lady, who let us have a glass of water and sit in her garden for a while. A guy who owned a bakery told us about his work and showed us how he makes buns. An old couple let us stay in their home and explained us about Belgian cuisine.

Having a cookie at the Belgian bakery

Magical moments, when you see a glimpse of someone else’s life. I wasn’t able to speak much, but I managed to explain the purpose of our trip and ask for the way, for a place to stay and for some stories, and I understood mostly what people said, and that already felt like a lot. I thought, ‘ok, I’m far from fluent, hardly even conversational, but I can get along if I need to’.

But the frost keeps building (as Alex Rawlings writes) and a year ago I was totally unable to keep up a conversation with a Brazilian guy at my summer job, who’d studied in France and spoke French fluently.

Last spring, I did an exchange semester in Sweden, and met so many great people from all around the world. The time there woke up my language passion again, stronger than ever before. I felt the urge to start studying German, Chinese, Dutch and Czech right away. Maybe someday I will, but there’s something to do before that. I feel like I’ve done learning French completely wrong for all this time. It somehow feels like a friendship gone bad that I’d like to fix things with. Maybe French would love me after all. (Hence the Carla Bruni song.)

That’s why I’ve been trying to focus on French for now!

Where do I stand?

A year ago I had a spark to wake up my language-learning. I’d never really stopped of course, but for a few years, I hadn’t really been going anywhere either. That’s when I created this blog.

Where have I come since then?

I listened to an audio course of Russian while driving to work in the summer. Attempted chatting a bit in French with a Brazilian guy at my summer job, and felt really awkward when I was unable to form any sentence at all.

Tried to brush up my French vocabulary with the Goldlist method I discovered – and actually really liked. Scrambled through another course of Russian at uni.

Stayed in Sweden for 5 months, to discover my Swedish has been getting rusty as well. But practiced it a lot anyway.

Lately, I’ve realized my language-learning project is a mess, really. To see why, I’ve had to look back a bit and think about what I have been doing.

I have started to think it is not the best idea to try studying multiple languages at the same time. I was interested in learning languages since I was a kid, and when at upper secondary school I got the chance, I picked first one, then another, and then a third additional language. So then I had English, Swedish, French, German, and Japanese classes.

People asked, don’t you mix the languages in your head. I never felt that, it was quite easy for me to keep the chat, cat, katt and Katze well organized in my head.

But I certainly wasn’t proceeding as much as would have been possible in three years of studying a language. And then it felt frustrating, when after three years of learning French and just half a year of German, I went backpacking around Europe, and was hardly able to ask how much are the stamps in French, but managed to buy train tickets in German.
So I think I’ll try to start an intensive learning project on just one language, to see how it works. And I’ve actually decided to pick French as my project. Because it is the language I most feel I have so far failed learning.

Time to start afresh! Allons-y!


The language of campfires and storytelling days

Swedish. The language so disliked by so many Finns, because they cannot see the point of learning it, but still they have to. It is obligatory, because there is a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland and it is the second official language. A compulsory suffering.

Of course, I disagree. Swedish is one of my favorites. It is beautiful, song-like and intriguing, and brings to my mind stories and fairytales. I’m rather attracted to Sweden as a country, too – it is a bit like Finland with its four seasons and pure nature, but in Sweden, they have a more beautiful capital, perhaps more jovial people, higher mountains, a king and princesses.

I am almost certain that somewhere in their forests, Ronia the Robber’s daughter and her friends still live, and there, the campfires’ and storytelling days aren’t over  – “Där är det ännu lägereldarnas och sagornas tid.” (The Brothers Lionheart, Astrid Lindgren).

“Där är det ännu lägereldarnas och sagornas tid.”

Swedish is my personal victory in language learning. English I just sort of automatically learned, little by little, because you just hear it everywhere, and I can’t remember when I started to get fluent. In the case of Swedish, I can remember not always being good at it, and then, within a quite short timeframe, noticing how I started to improve.

And that’s why it’s the language which has taught me a lot about how to master a language. There are two important reasons, why I now find Swedish almost as easy as English. Those are the two things I think learning to speak a language truly require: Learning loads of vocabulary, and learning to dare open your mouth and speak.

Me in Stockholm in 2011
Me in Stockholm in 2011

I started learning Swedish in elementary school, when I was 13. In high school I changed to a more advanced Swedish class, where most of the other students had studied the language since they were 9 or 7. I realized I need to work hard to catch their level. Our teacher gave us a lot of vocabulary homework and made us write a lot of texts. I studied all the vocab by heart and tried to use it as much as I could. It was in writing skills that I first noticed my  progress. The texts I wrote were often praised by the teacher.

In the end of my second year, the teacher sent me to a scholarship language course where students from different high schools all around Finland visited Stockholm and studied the language intensely for one week. The course included all sorts of speaking activities, where we had to just go and talk to the local people.

During that week, I completely got over any nervousness to speak Swedish, and noticed that even if I don’t get everything correct, people will understand what I say. After that, I felt like I can rate my Swedish “fluent” in my CV.

However, I haven’t needed to use the language very often during the last five years. I’m sure much of the vocabulary gathered with hard work is already forgotten. Luckily, there’s a chance to refresh and use my skills in sight: I’ll be doing an exchange semester in Sweden next year!

The everyday language

To begin with, I want to introduce how I learned some of the languages I already can call myself rather fluent in. Each language I started to learn has a different story and place in my heart.

To begin with: English, the everyday language.

Everyone in Finland starts to learn English in elementary school, so I’ve been studying it since the age of 9, all the way through high school and upper secondary school. But obviously, I didn’t only learn it in school, since English is everywhere: the TV, internet, movies and music make sure you adopt some of it almost automatically.

In university, I’ve had just one English course, but I need the language on a daily basis: for reading study materials, writing reports, doing group assignments with international students. Even most employers expect you to have professional proficiency.

So English, above all, is a language I need. But you could also say it is a language I trust. It’s like a good old friend.  Or like a cup of tea with a scone. Speaking it comes quite naturally to me, I don’t hesitate to switch into it whenever necessary. Even my thoughts seem to slip into English from time to time.

You could also say it is a language I trust. It’s like a good old friend. Or like a cup of tea with a scone.

At some point in learning a language, there’s not much to learn from books anymore, and the only way to learn more is by using the language in as many different ways as possible. My English is past that point. It’s far from perfect, but it feels difficult to make an active effort to learn more.

I would still like to improve it. Firstly, one can never have a vocabulary too rich. Speaking a language fluently is not about nuances of grammar. The more words you know, the easier it is to speak.

Secondly, I would very much like to improve my pronunciation, to sound like a native speaker. Preferably to speak a lovely, sophisticated Queen’s English.

At least I wouldn’t want to sound like this:

Well, I don’t, exactly, but it is still hard to get completely rid of a Finnish accent. Not that it’s entirely a bad thing! At least most Finns speak English quite well, so nevermind the accent.

And the English pronunciation isn’t exactly simple!

As Gerard Nolst Trenité brilliantly put it in his poem, The Chaos:

“Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!”

A dream just twenty thousand words away

Whenever I listen to a language that is strange to me, I’m dying of curiosity. What are they saying? How does this language work? Does it resemble any other language I know? What does the world look and sound like, through the words of this language?

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

This blog is about my love for languages. To be honest, I would like to learn all the languages in the world. But at least, to begin with, it would be cool to one day have mastered the seven languages I have given a go so far. A general rule of thumb says that you need to know 2000–3000 words of a language to be able to express and understand most of things. So I have just around twenty thousand words to learn. Not that much, is it? (Yeah, grammar and all that… minor details, eh?)

The seven languages I’ve learnt or attempted to learn so far are:

IMG_3318Finnish, my mother tongue; English, Swedish, French, German, Japanese and Russian. Some of these I can actually speak and understand, some have been just short acquaintances of which I’ve already forgotten most.

It is my dream to really learn all of these – if not fluently, at least so that I could actually communicate. The problem is, it takes a lot of work to learn a language, and the project is easily forgotten under other tasks. What I need is goals and a way to track my progress.

So I ended up creating a blog. It might not help me learn the languages, but I hope telling others about my project will help me set the goals and motivate me to work towards them. I’m also hoping to find other language lovers all over the world. It’s also the first step towards better skills in one of my six foreign languages. English is perhaps the strongest one for me, but it’s far from perfect, so writing a blog in English can’t do any harm!

If you are also interested in learning languages, please feel free to leave a comment.

This blog will contain my experiences with different learning methods and my feelings and thoughts about the languages, share some real-life experiences of actually using them – and, hopefully, it will also follow my progress. Maybe a year from now, I will be just a bit more fluent in Russian or French, or perhaps German or Japanese…

May the journey begin!

belgiaI want to be able to travel the world and speak with people in their own language. Me in Belgium, 2010