Puhun vähän

A year and a half or so ago, my mother-in-law announced that she’d always wanted to visit Finnish Lapland, but that she didn’t know anyone who’d want to go with her. It’s too cold there, everyone around her in Milwaukee kept saying, and anyway, why Finland?

Good news, we told her. We want to go to Finnish Lapland.

So we started planning a trip. We bought guidebooks and read magazines and started researching the far north online. It turns out there are many, many reasons why Finland, not the least of which was that we could do things like cruise around the Gulf of Bothnia on an icebreaker ship or cross the Arctic Circle on a reindeer-drawn sleigh, both of which we did.

The last time I’d traveled internationally, I was embarrassed by my rusty, decade-old high school Spanish as I tried to communicate with my hosts in a remote village in the Mexican countryside. Determined not to fulfill the ugly American stereotype and undeterred by reports that Finnish was notoriously difficult to learn, I downloaded a Pimsleur Finnish course and set to work.

Bix and I did our first lesson on the way to ski one Saturday.

“Pimsleur is great,” he told me, “It’s how I learned Romanian!” Buoyed by his confidence, I hit the play button and listened to a conversation in which an American man asks a Finnish woman whether she speaks any English, and she responds that she doesn’t but that his Finnish is very good. It was, as they say, Greek to me. From the outset, I could tell I’d bitten off more than I could really chew.

Eight weeks later, I can say a few phrases confidently, such as “I speak a little Finnish, but not very well” and “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.” This is mostly alright because everyone I’ve met speaks at least a little English, though their versions of “a little English” include the ability to explain the difference between a gulf and a bay, whereas my “a little Finnish” is mostly limited to the ability to say “a little Finnish.”

Still, the Finns I encountered seemed to appreciate my terrible attempts at a little Finnish, even patiently correcting my pronunciations and adding a sprinkle of the local flavor to my vocabulary. I also love the Finnish accent, which reminds me of my dear friend and graduate advisor, who I hope to one day emulate right down to her language.

I have a long way to go, but I imagine I’ll be back to practice my Finnish again. In the meantime, I tell myself, I speak a little: Puhun vähän.


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