Recently a Finnish friend mentioned that he been to see a film about an English spelling competition. The need for such activities intrigued him; ‘In Finnish it simply makes no sense!’ Finnish spelling is regular, so if you know how to say the words ‘Nokia’ or ‘Hyvää päivää’ (Good day), you know how to spell them – and vice versa. The spelling system must give Finnish children a certain advantage in learning to read and write. It is also good for adult learners of Finnish language, but I know only too well that this is counterbalanced by other challenges.
Some years ago I spent a summer fortnight in an beginner Finnish language class, in a university not far from the town of Nokia. Finns seem proud of the fact that their language is hard to learn. It has many more inflectional word endings than in English, and learners need to get to grips with both formal and colloquial forms. Finnish has few other related languages, which means that for most learners it is harder to guess the meaning of new words than in other European languages.
Therefore, it might have appeared that the dozen or so students in our class from European, Asian and African backgrounds were all in the same language learning boat. However, differences soon emerged. Most of the others had already learnt one or two other languages (including the English that the class was taught in) and had no problems with the grammar terms used by our teacher. The one notable exception was a young Australian. At one point he asked, ‘Could you remind me again, what exactly is the difference between a verb and an adverb?’ There was a puzzled silence, and I was probably the only one who understood that he was not joking. He had been to school during the grammar-free approach to literacy and language that held sway for a time in our part of the world.
I had a different disadvantage. The others in my class all had local Finnish girlfriends/boyfriends/partners/wives/husbands. This obviously gave them the motivation to learn, as well as someone to practise with at home, although I do not think that the sentences we learnt in class would be particularly useful for ‘pillow talk’; the textbook had the usual slightly stilted set of language learning dialogues, with Useful Phrases such as ‘Minä hoidan valuutta-asioita’ (I deal with foreign currency) and ‘Minä olen pappina Turussa’ (I am a priest in Turku).
The two weeks went quickly and now my main memory of the class is the teacher’s tongue piercing, flashing as she demonstrated the Finnish vowel sounds. Not long beforehand Finland had won the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time with a heavy metal song entry, and grunge seemed very much in style – even among young academics. I sometimes wonder whether those demonstrations caused any lasting damage to her teeth, and whether my classmates eventually became successful enough in Finnish to take advantage of that wonderfully regular spelling system.