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27 April 2009

We had a very good time in Hathersage last week. Some of us were asked to write something for the Finn Guild magazine Horisontti, and the following is my report. I don't know if they'll use it, if they do it'll most probably be edited right down, so I felt free to subject you to the full essay:

Hathersage is a picture postcard village in the Peak District; and on a recent weekend in April, it briefly gained a small Finnish speaking community, there for an 'Intensive Finnish Weekend'. We worked from midday Saturday to early afternoon Sunday, which might not sound very long, but with the overnight stay it was a whole order different from the normal two hours every other Saturday in Sale.

Intensive Finnish PubWhy Hathersage Youth Hostel? Truthfully, it was the best solution to the need to find somewhere a group could stay overnight at a reasonable price, with lots of spaces for our activities. However, while not too far from Manchester, it's a bit of a journey, by train or car. A good way to keep us from easy distractions or a quick escape! We took over the Hostel. I took a few pictures, which all seem to show people drinking, but I’m sure we did more than that...

How many went - was it about twenty students? Whatever, there were plenty of new faces, roughly evenly male and female, from around the North West and also from over the Pennines. To start with we were put into three ability groups, but later on someone said we were actually the Advanced group so I think that was pretty notional. We began that afternoon in those groups, in a 'pub' whose every type of drink looked and tasted suspiciously like water, and moving on to other situations. We went out to a real pub for our evening meal: it wasn't terrible, but it was too heavy for most of us, which could have had not a little to do with the mountain of delicious cakes produced by the Weekend's Food Committee. Our main evening activity was a quiz, with Finnish questions about Finland, for which we were mixed into random small groups, won by a team of highly intelligent and charismatic individuals, one of whom just happened to have Swedish Finnish heritage.

The weekend's highlight may have been the speed dating on Sunday morning. Five minutes with each person, this was the perfect way of putting pressure on our simple interaction skills, and you ended up talking to practically everyone you hadn't already chatted to. This is pre-watershed so I can't repeat certain startling questions which came up, using Finnish which had definitely never been taught in the Finnish School, but it was all good fun. Likewise our final activities, when we enjoyed the most advanced and practical role plays of all, moving between a variety of practical and social situations, with things to find out and problems to solve. I must commend Marja's efforts as a pharmacist in particular, I am sure her suggestions for coping with turistiripuli and the ever popular krapula will prove very useful in future.

I must be honest: I love the language, the sound of it, and its mad grammar; and the country, and Helsinki, and ice hockey and Suomipop and saunas and flying squirrels and everything. But I'm not a natural language learner. When it comes to speaking, it's hard. Especially when Finns tend to speak English so well. We love our Saturday lessons but of course a lot of things get discussed in English, and with only one teacher, you don't get to hear a variety of true Finnish voices around you. So this was brilliant, having so many of our friends and teachers around, plunging us into role play situations in which we could practise and extend what we knew, but without the real life pressures which so often mean a recourse to English.

I'd definitely go again. There's an intention to repeat the exercise next year, but for some of us that won't come quick enough. The teachers' efforts were hugely appreciated and for those of us who only really have an opportunity to engage with Finnish when we come to the School, this was a great way to open things up and show us that we were getting somewhere. And it was great good fun, and we made new friends. Mind you, I think I'd go again just for the cakes.


1 February 2009jaakaappirunous

This here (right) is Jääkaappirunous - Finnish fridge poetry. If you're wondering what's going in in that layout, I'll give you a clue: suu is mouth, and sydän is heart. Unfortunately, a lot of the relevant words aren't available in the three sets I have, even ones which you would think were quite obvious, like arm. But if you've ever bought a set of magnetic poetry yourself - in any language - you'll appreciate that this is how it has to be, the word sets will always feel limited. I broke it out after Christmas when I moved my fridge into my kitchen, and also got this portable magnetic board. I tried it out with a friend and we managed to form quite a lot of sentences; it's fine once you adjust to using what you have in front of you. It's a game really: 'what can you make out of these?'

I've enjoyed using English magnetic poetry, and I had an idea a Suomi version would be a useful addition to the armoury of Finnish learning tools, so last Summer I went looking to see if it existed at all. I wouldn't have been surprised if it hadn't, because words in the Finnish language morph so much, and can have so many different endings, that you wonder if anything can be achieved. But as you can see, it does exist. Here's the website of the company that makes it - they do indeed call themselves Jääkaappirunous. It's worth having a look because there's a fun little game on the site whereby you can move the tiles around virtually and make poems and stuff. They used to have a way of submitting your own work, but had to close it down because of spam. As far as I know there are these three sets; 'Original', 'Rakkaus' ('love'), and 'Lapsille' (for children). Between them there is a fair amount of repeated words, but not too much, and I don't mind getting all three.

In fact, I'd like more sets if possible, or at least one more if they could improve the vocabulary available in certain areas. Like food and the household. There are some words for each, but not really enough for any extended metaphors or indulgence in descriptive detail. And I was surprised at the paucity of words for animals, very few indeed, no hirvi, poro, let alone the famous liito-orava. You'd think they'd be dead certs for the kids' set, but not so. But other areas are strong, eg. words for members of the family, including the separate words which exist in Finnish but not in English for your father's father and your mother's father. Finns you know may dispute some words - one told me it's not 'korvanlehti' but 'korvalehti'. The fleshy part of the ear, so yes it should have been in this picture.

So: is it useful as an aid to learning? Although I've said the vocab is limited, there's still easily enough to boost your knowledge. I went through them all to sort them out, and probably will again when they get mixed up, as they will, and that reinforces them. And you do get a good selection of case endings, and some words are provided in more than one stem form, so you can express a lot, even if anything complicated isn't really possible. The main drawbacks are to do with the difficulty of finding it (try the stationery department of Stockmann); and only really being suitable for short poems or single statements. But it's fun, and that aids learning. It's a recreational alternative to book work; and maybe it'll inspire my inner poet.


10 September 2008

Brilliant. So glad I did that. I'd better quickly say that no, the course at Harjattula didn't make me magically fluent, but it pushed me on in all areas; of basic grammar, consonants and vowels, reading, writing, speaking and listening. All of those got a workout at some point during the five/six days. Here below is the main building, where we ate and did most of our classes, some also in the manor house which you can just see up the hill behind. It's in the middle of a golf course, surrounded by forest, and on the edge of the sea. There are a number of houses in the trees and up the slopes all around, providing accommodation, and a number of saunas. To the right of this viewpoint is a fire/rescue station, and then the golf course's clubhouse. My very comfortable room was in a house up the hill behind here. You had to be alert when coming down the road in the morning for breakfast, because with little warning the grass cutters would pop over the rise and speed down, cutting machinery spanning the whole width of the track, and they weren't taking any prisoners.


Anyway, this is supposed to be about the language learning. The first point is that it's obviously better to actually be in the native environment, ie. Finland, hearing it all around; and to have expert teachers on hand. Even without trying, you get more accustomed to the sounds, and all that context is just what you want in order to learn vocabulary. There were fewer on the course than in previous years. Maybe it had something to do with the Olympics, which I was very happy to avoid. I didn't entirely because there were screens up in lots of public places, but the focus was more modestly on Finnish athletes so it was never too histrionic. Anyway, we were split into only three groups; I was in an intermediate group with five others. It was very good. Our teacher worked us with thoroughness and great expertise, constantly teasing us into little leaps of understanding. I think she lives in England, so she had a good idea of the English and our sense of humour.

And despite being 'intermediate', we pretty much went back to basics, and were none the worse for it. The main thing she did which led to a major rethink of what I thought I understood was to teach the object case. Which meant dealing with the accusative case and the partitive together. I think I'd been a bit glib in thinking I'd grasped what the partitive was about, and in not paying attention to the accusative. The thing is, when you look in a Finnish grammar book, you quickly notice there isn't a separate case ending for the accusative, and if your past experience is, as in my case, of Latin, you end up thinking it doesn't really exist. Worse, I had somehow persuaded myself that the partitive was basically about giving the sense of the indefinite article as opposed to the definite ie. 'a' and 'the'. No, when they say Finnish doesn't have articles, that's what they mean. I'd better say no more, because now I need to reread certain chapters and my notes. And to get rid of my preconceptions when I study the accusative.

What else... one afternoon we had an excellent session on pronunciation. Without living there, it's hard to keep up with Finnish pronunciation. There's nothing clever about it: you simply have to keep going over all the vowels, the consonants, especially the double consonants, and the dipthongs. Getting the voice right is probably a lifetime mission; it was striking that though the members of the advanced group spoke correct Finnish, some of them still sounded English. Apart from anything else, I think sounding English is one of the reasons Finns eg. in stores will quickly switch into English if you stumble. If I was disappointed, it was about the fact that I still can't manage much conversation. When we did our grand excursion into Turku, armed with lots of tasks from our teachers designed to make us talk, I did struggle, and was glad I wasn't on my own. If I'd been brave and gone solo, I think I'd have failed to achieve some of the tasks. If I return on the next year or so, I might have a proper go, but for now it was best to enjoy it, I think, and share the experience.

And later on, in my last few days in Helsinki, either through laziness or simply going off the boil, I didn't achieve anything in the way of a proper chat with anyone. I would tend to start off making an enquiry in Finnish, but then apologise and lapse into English. On a social level it was good, but I have a way to go. However, there's every reason to be positive. Learning a language is a slow process, when you don't live there. Magically, I did find I could pick up more of what I heard, in all sorts of situations. It isn't enough yet, but a whole lot more than I used to. I can make statements, and my vocabulary has certainly grown. My fascination with Finnish is just as great as it ever was. The thing now is to do my homework, work over the basics, get my vocab to a truly useful level, and practise talking. Well, there are Finns there at the school in Manchester; I can start by seeing if I can get away with saying a few things in Finnish to them :) If I can manage all that, then I may feel like turning up again to Finn Guild's course in Harjattula next year.


Badly learnt languages - Earlier Finnish entries