Skip past the parts about learning to babble, the first word (’auto’, I believe), speech, reading and writing Finnish. Move on to one of my first clear recollections of English. It was a conversation I had with a friend of mine when we were on first or second grade, comprehensive school. We were sitting in the breakfast table, drinking milk. Somehow we drifted into talking English. I would ask him what the carton on the table was and he would reply.
”What?” I would ask. ”Milk,” he would reply. We would go over our Q&A over and over again, enjoying our mastery of this foreign language.
Now, what I in fact was doing was that I kept repeating ”Excuse me?”. My English studies had not yet begun, and what little I know I had learned watching TV. This particular phrase came from Moonlighting, where the character portrayed by Cybill Shepherd had many times walked into a group of men, looked bedazzled and uttered ”Excuse me?”. Due to a free-from translation and my lack of contextual knowledge of why everyone in Moonlighting was flirting with Shepherd’s character, I had misinterpreted that one sentence quite fatally. Luckily that time the collateral damage was limited to me and my friend.
After that came the first real English lessons on the third grade. Our class was divided in two and because of my surname I was not among the first group. That led to many annoying situations. Like when the first group had already learnt to say ”my name is such and such” and we poor seconds did not know what it meant, let alone answer their witty remarks. ”My name is Kari Karhu,” my friend would say, over and over and over again. Then they were granted the holy knowledge of age. So next week it was ”I am ten years old” repeated ad nauseatum. There was nothing we could do, they always learnt thing before us.
It took me years to get my revenge. I had hoped our first mid-term report cards would grant me some prestige, but my plan failed miserably. For some reason our English teacher had decided that no one would get perfect marks the first year. She was the antithesis of those pedagogs who feel they have failed their kind if their student’s grades do not fit neatly on the bell curve. And yes, I did feel mistreated, but it soon passed.
Studying English was hard work for the first four years. I did my homework, studied for exams and so forth. It was mostly because of my teacher, who managed to instil fear in my heart just enough to keep me working, reading, listening and speaking. In retrospect it’s easy to say that it wasn’t an easy task. As I said, I worked for the first four years. From then on English lessons started to seem unnecessary. I don’t mean that I would’ve mastered everything (this essay alone should make it clear that I don’t), but that learning English in school got boring – it became almost trivial. I don’t blame the teachers for this, because it’s self-evident that the number of kids in class and their different abilities made it difficult to keep us – dare I say – advanced students interested.
However, English kept penetrating my life in other ways. First, at approximately third grade, I picked up roleplaying from my cousin Jussi. Some of the material I got was translated into Finnish, but the English supplements were easier to come by and much cheaper than their Finnish counterparts. So I spelled my way through Dungeons and Dragons, leafing my one-hundred page English-Finnish dictionary till the pages came off, and scribbled these silly translations into margins. I remember I did have a gut feeling that ”jokipankki” came out a little funny, but how was I to know better?
Fast forward a couple of years. In the last years of comprehensive school peer pressure had forced me to take on pop music. First it was just a careful venture, taping some songs I heard on the radio. Then Jussi started meddling with my life again by introducing me to Queen. They were the band I had been looking for. At first it was just an infatuation – copying some tapes, listening to the best songs every now and then.
But then I got caught. Soon I was knee-deep in Queen. I had combed through our city library’s music archives one record at a time. I would take the LP home, listen to it, tape it and write up all the lyrics (well, actually just copy them from the sleeve, but it was a lot of typing anyhow). As a result, I still know most Queen songs by heart, and my pronunciation has been greatly influenced by Freddie Mercury. Give some, take some, I guess.
This whole ’spoken English’ thing is a very interesting issue. I must admit that I do take some pride in my pronunciation. People often ask me where I have picked up my accent, and I really do not know. After all, I have never visited an English speaking country, so maybe Freddie and his band mates really are to blame.
After comprehensive school, I haven’t paid that much attention to studying English at school. Upper level comprehensive school and high school were mostly a breeze – I got reasonably good marks (well, tens most of the time) and took my English matriculation exam in the autumn of my third year in high school, in 1997. After that I laid English off for a while, and picked it up only in 2001, when I got my minor rights here at Jyväskylä University.
So far my English studies here at Jyväskylä University have been going just fine. I remember when back in high school teachers used to tell scary stories about learning English in the Uni, how it would get terribly difficult and how we would never be able to master it. They didn’t manage to put me off completely, though. I was pretty sure the problems would arise from English idioms and such, that there’d be too much stuff to memorize, too many obscure grammatical and syntatical rules to tackle, and that all Finns trying that would end up Lost Memory lane.
However, English philology has treated me kindly – thus far. I gather the problems our teachers forecasted were mainly due to the rather verbose natural of English (having a zillion synonyms of which none are really synonymous), therefore making it hard for a non-native speaker to ever achieve fluency and a sense of language.
In high school I viewed languages as a tool. I write ’in high school’ because at that time I was thinking of them from the viewpoint of university studies, and I thought that studying just language wouldn’t somehow be complete in itself. This view was based on a couple of misconceptions: first of all I thought that form and function could be separated (ie. an application of Cartesion dualism) and that English studies would be similar to what they’d been that far – limited grammar studies, limited syntax studies and whatnot. So I was pleasantly suprised to learn that cultural studies were a part of Jyväskylä’s repertoire.
As for the future … oh blimey. I’m majoring in journalism and at the moment it looks like writing, editing and all that might be what I’ll waste my life on. I can’t deny that one of my hopes for the future would be combining the two. Haven’t got it thought out further than that.
Generally speaking (no pun intended), I enjoy languages. I relish them for what they look like on the surface, I take pleasure in ambiguous wordplays and I delight in looking for similarities and differences between them.
I remember an autobiography I wrote in Finnish class about six and a half years ago. I described my attitude towards language as an extention of stereotypical Finnish economical thinking: if words are free, why not use them to your heart’s desire?
(Kirjoitettu maaliskuussa 2002. Herra jumala, siitä on tosiaan jo neljä vuotta.)