Taking the L

Here is a thing you should probably know about me, if you are going to be reading these e-mails: I am a creature of spite.

Most people who know me passing well would not ascribe to me that label—though probably my mother would—and at any rate I try not to let such feelings drive my actions all of the time, but nevertheless, "spite" explains why I am going to Finland this Wednesday.

I had for years an interest in heading off to Iceland, being that it was so close to New York and I had so loved tales of Norse mythology, the poetic and prose Eddas that, it is said,* can still be read in their original Old Norse by Icelanders thanks to a sort of calcification of their language. But then I noticed how many other people were going—people I knew—and so many of them returned and told me how much I would love it, and that was the end of that. Because: see above.

So Iceland was out, when I decided in the darkest of dark January nights that I needed something to look forward to or I was going to take a header off the Triborough Bridge. Luckily, there was another place that had been calling to me since age 15 or so, and I started looking at how much it might cost to go to Helsinki. Turns out, if you go at the nadir of the off-season—April, when the snow for cross-country skiing is melting and the daylight situation makes aurora-viewing impossible but the temperature does not allow for full summer activities—you can get a round-trip flight and six nights in a hotel keskusta for $900. I bought my ticket and pulled out the Beginner's Finnish textbooks I had bought seven years ago and re-started the lessons I had abandoned, because I will be damned if I go to another country without being able to speak at least some of the language.

Learning another language becomes exponentially more difficult as you creep into your 30s, which is why people who bitch about immigrants not speaking English send me into a frothing rage. English, in particular, is a nightmare of a language that is in definite need of a complete overhaul—not so much spoken English, but written, as our orthography seems deliberately cruel and unusual. Finnish, meanwhile, has beautifully simple sound and writing systems**...

...and a grammar so complex that even native speakers fuck up with some regularity. Most of us can understand the concepts of an accusative case (the way you change a word when it's the direct object in a sentence) and an instrumental case (the way you change a word when it's being used by the subject of the sentence, like writing with a pen) pretty easily, even if we don’t really use them in English outside of pronouns. But Finnish has something called the partitive case that is used all the time for a wide variety of reasons, like when you want to say you're drinking some milk. And that's just one use of this blighted case that, weeks after learning of its existence, I am still struggling to master.

There's also the problem of learning more than one language outside of childhood. In linguistics, your native language is your L1, and subsequently acquired languages are L2, L3, et cetera. Here's some twaddle about how having an L2 may or may not make it easier to learn an L3, but it doesn't really address one big problem I've had with speaking in an L3 (and now an L4).***

See, taking Russian in college, I experienced a funny little phenomenon: When I was speaking in Russian and crashed into a word I didn't know in Russian, my brain would automatically sub in the Spanish word. When I began learning Finnish, an even weirder thing happened: I would begin a sentence in Finnish, switch to Russian if I didn't know the Finnish word, and invariably end up using a Spanish word when I couldn't even find the Russian. I was convinced this was because my brain held my L1 and other L's in separate boxes, as though English were some massive labyrinthine building, and somewhere else there was a little box of non-native languages.

Yeah, I was wrong about this: The way you process one language is the way you process all language, whether all you know of one is how to ask how someone is or if you make your living writing in one. But! There is a difference in the ways your previously acquired languages interfere when you're speaking a fresher one. Your native language tends to interfere on a structural level—you're inclined to put words in the order that makes most sense in your L1. Meanwhile, your L2 and L3 interfere on a lexical level—i.e. lending words you haven't yet acquired in this new language. This is called "transfer." What is transferred and how depends on a whole bunch of factors, but how recently you've used your languages is a big one.

A weirder factor in this interference is how similar you think the language you're trying to speak is to the other languages you know. Russian and Finnish are not related at all and share only a few slightly similar words (Finnish's "oikein" and Russian's "ochyen" both mean "very")—yet my dumbass brain considers them more "similar," so it's always trying to pull from Russian when I'm just trying to ask a hypothetical Finn about ice cream. Don't ask me why my brain thinks Spanish is more similar to Finnish than English.

Anyway, you probably don't need this reminder if you signed up for this newsletter, but languages are hard, and we owe it to non-native speakers to chill the fuck out over their skills or perceived lack thereof. Maybe the next time you hear some one-lang jag bitching about people who don't speak English, or don't speak it properly, you can offer a rejoinder. The Finns are reportedly thrilled whenever foreigners make a good-faith attempt to speak suomenkieli, and they're the happiest people on earth.

FYI, "spite" is "ilkeys" (eel-ke-eus) in Finnish, "злость" (zlost) in Russian, and "despecho" in Spanish.

Hugs and puppies,


*By who? Absolutely no idea.

**The stress in Finnish is always, ALWAYS on the first syllable of a word, saving you from mispronunciation, and my goodness could any number of languages learn from the Finns.

***For me, L2 is Spanish and L3 is Russian—not a whole lot of Russian, mind you, but enough for a simple conversation or for me to think I could watch the Russian scenes in The Americans without subtitles (I absolutely could not).