Perceptions of foreign languages by Prof. Göte Nyman

The world is full of foreign languages, about 6500 of them.  I came to think about this again, when receiving a message from Guardamar del Segura, a cozy small town in south-eastern Spain which I was preparing to visit, for a short holiday under the sun. I have stayed there before, in a nice, modest hotel, near to the sea and a wonderful park area running along the coast and its long white beaches. During my earlier visits, I have come to know the hotel personnel or at least so much that we recognize each other and I’ve felt welcome there. Not many speak English there.

A few days before the trip I had sent an email asking for confirmation to my reservation and received a polite, short mail: “You reservation is ok.” And then a friendly, comforting message after that “Don’t care.” signed by the receptionist who I had learned to know.

Google translator has interesting problems in translating this good wish I received, into proper Finnish or German and I guess into any other language as well. Certainly, someone who does not know the people sending the comforting message would have similar problems as Google has.

I understood the message perfectly, of course, and it made me happy. The reason is simple:  I remember the friendly, short meetings and discussions with the personnel, their easy and cheerful communication and presence. To me the “Don’t care” message means simply “We care.” “We take care of you.”

Finland is a bi-lingual country – we have a 5% minority which speaks Swedish as their native language. My father was one of them and often used funny Finnish expressions as a reaction to sudden or surprising incidents. Because he was our father, we could always make the most optimistic interpretation of his colorful expressions; we did not need to “translate” his words and could instead focus on his meanings. “Älä pamahda sitä ovea!”is something every Finn understands, and can smile at the funny expression. He would sometimes advise me: “Jos sun kaverit hyppätä kaivoon, pitääkö sun hyppätä myös?”You can try Google translator and have fun with it.

Political Finland is going through a strange phase just now, where part of our government and some other politicians have started to weaken the position of Swedish-speaking folk here. Teaching Swedish at schools is under pressure and the Swedish-speaking people in north-western Finland can be losing their right to healthcare by professionals who have mastered Swedish. There are more similar tendencies where, sadly enough, some Swedish-speaking teenagers mention that they ha∂ better not speak Swedish in the Friday-night metro, for example.

With my own 100% Swedish name, I have had my share of hassle, but it’s been less since Finnish is my native language and I speak it with my friends and acquaintances. When they don’t realize my family background, it feels strange to hear their stereotypical comments on the privileges of the Finnish-Swedes. I remember my father, his difficult life, five years at war fighting Stalin, being wounded and having his problematic family background. He could better express his angst in Swedish, but we spoke Finnish at home.

Language canbe used as a barrier to understanding.

Native language has strange powers among people, independent of their educational level. In 1950s I used to spend my summer holidays as a teenager, working on a ranch in north-western Finland, and got to know other boys from the neighboring farms of the small village. There was a rumor among them that the dialect they spoke was the purest form of the Finnish language. I had my own strong dialect from Helsinki, which was then a distant, exotic place for my friends there. I never got to know the origin of their curious belief. Today, no Finn listening to that dialect can remain serious, it is so much fun. Every Finn knows our famous skier, Juha Mieto and his way of talking. It’s his dialect…

Higher education does not always help. At the University of Helsinki in 1990’s, I was the Dean of the then Humanistic Faculty. Its program consisted of cultural studies, history and many other wonderful topics, but also the dominant languages of the world. Funny enough, there had been a tradition in everyday academic talk to use the term “rare languages”, by which was simply meant Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other languages from Asia and Africa!

At one of the Faculty meetings, unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the person who took it up, a faculty member stood up and exclaimed: “This notion of rare languages is strange, indeed, considering that there are barely 5 million people who speak Finnish, and it is not included among the rare ones.” A silence and a suspended murmur followed, and I believe that after that, I did not hear the “rare” word in this context any more. On the other hand, it is not mentioned about our Finnish language either.

This is the thesis of my short story here: paradoxically, our problems in understanding foreign languages can be a source of human understanding if we trust that there are people and persons behind the words and we can understand their meanings and the essence of their intentions. Most of us have learned this amazing phenomenon of smooth connection being built between people who barely understand each other’s languages. Learning languages is a way to become better in this, but it remains a question of understanding each other, not only words. Robots will have serious problems with this.

We all speak foreign languages, mostly imperfectly, and we have problems even with our own languages; that we share.  I make my own mistakes writing these FinnishNews’ columns and my books in English. Unlike to my editor Nicholas Anderson, English is not my native language, but I hope my readers, like Nicholas who edits them, can understand me over the text, when needed. Why do I write in English then?

It is the other side of this story and it’s about whom I want to learn to understand me. Don’t care!







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