All the Languages of My Life

Jul 11, 2023 | Blog, News

Eppu, Our Head of Administration, Unveils Her Journey of Becoming Multilingual

 

Learning and using different languages has been an essential part of my life. As a native speaker of a small language, Finnish, you need other languages every time you step outside the borders of Finland. Every Finn learns Finnish and Swedish at school – we are a bi-lingual country after all. And usually, your basic education includes at least one other language, most often English. I also added German and a tiny bit of French to my languages during high school.

I probably did not expect to have to read quite so many books in foreign languages when I started to study Finnish archaeology at university. However, most of the classic works of Finnish archaeology were written in German and Swedish in the 20th century. When I switched to classical archaeology and Roman era Italy, my needs for learning new languages grew almost exponentially: Latin, ancient Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish, just to name a few. An international discipline produces studies in almost every language you can think of.

 Luckily, I pick up languages fairly easily, but I must confess I was not too busy with language studies. I did enough to be able to explain what we were doing in our excavation areas to Italian workers – and to discuss football with them. I was amused that the evaluation of my dissertation praised the little bits of linguistic analyses of Latin texts that were included (a major bluffing success?). Somehow, I also ended up working with Latin inscriptions which might have amused my teachers.

Moving on to my current position at the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux was also a linguistic leap. We are in Brussels which is mostly French speaking and the official language of the Institute is Dutch (the Institute was started in Antwerp after all). Two almost completely new languages for me, even though I had read research literature in both. Back to the classroom then!

I started with French as it was easier to find classes in Finland at a relatively short notice. I managed four online courses from May to August, from beginner to intermediate level. The basics were relatively easy as I had Italian and Latin to help me. The classes were online, which was a first for me.

I learned not only French, but also something about myself as a student of languages. I am an old school learner: I like grammar and being drilled again and again and again on irregular verbs, pronouns, numerals… I also like an active teacher who bothers to correct your mistakes. I had three different teachers and one of them was a native speaker whose teaching was all in French, so I was slightly prepared for the real world coming to Brussels last fall. In this respect, French and Finnish are a bit alike: the basics get taught in official and correct language, which really does not prepare you for colloquial conversation in rapid-fire exchanges and shorter than short language.

What about Dutch then, you may ask. Well, I have now started with that as well. Another online course with a native speaker who also speaks perfect Finnish. After all that French with its complicated grammar and vocabulary, basic Dutch was like a walk in the park! Hardly any verb forms, fairly simple pronouns, most things are pronounced. But listening exercises showed that trying to understand spoken language is a bit of a challenge. My aims were slightly different than with French as I wanted to learn the basics to be able to read all the official documents that I encounter in my work. And it was utterly delightful to realise that even a two-week intensive course helped a lot.

My work has also given me a new perspective to my own language. I coordinate the Institute’s Finnish as a second language courses. Last fall, I was getting to know our brilliant teachers and courageous students and attended one class in all five levels we teach. And I never would have thought Finnish could be learned like that.

As a native speaker, I have been gifted the skills to conjugate verbs and nouns and to use the endless cases, so I had no idea how they were approached when you have to learn them from scratch. Not an easy task! Our students are usually very motivated to learn our strange and rather difficult language, often because of love, friendship, and/or work. They very often continue through every level we offer and even attend classes at other institutions. The motivation was audible in the classes I listened in on: the students have acquired really amazing skill sets.

Languages are also part of my leisure time. I love reading and try to read books in at least my four best languages: Finnish, English, Italian, and Swedish. I have even managed a book in French – my French teacher predicted that vocabulary would be troublesome. But after having read lots in many languages, I have learned to guess the meanings from the context. French grammar was the tough part! I wonder if I would be ready to tackle a book in Dutch after the second course in August.

The best part about languages is that they allow you to enter different cultures and get to know people in those cultures. Speaking a third language − probably most commonly English? − is not quite the same. Don’t be afraid to immerse yourselves into different languages! You can always learn new languages: I am now in my fifties and it is still possible.

Photo: Eppu Excavating in Pompeii in 2006. Photography: EPUH/Matti Mustonen

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