That time of the year when the evenings feel darker by the day and when you have to look for gloves to put on before you go out came about surprisingly quickly. The return to routine is imminent and the brain and the body relaxed by summer need a little boost to take on the darkness of the autumn. An excellent remedy for this is, of course, an institute of adult education with its hundreds of hobby opportunities. I have tried to fit a language course in my schedule along with my dance and sports courses every year, so that also the brain could enjoy some exercise. Last year the language I chose was Russian, the basics of which I had already studied some years ago, but I saw fit to sign up for the beginners’ class again. So this year I continued my studies with an advanced beginners’ class.
Russia has interested me for a long time first and foremost because it is geographically close to us, but also for its unfathomably rich culture. After a few trips to Russia my motivation for studying the language has increased more after I have noticed that the other languages I know are not of mentionable help especially when travelling outside the more touristy places. The inability to speak and understand the local language has made communications and moving around clumsy and awkward. And contrary to the situation in Finland, the Russians don’t seem to fret about their inadequate English, but rather they are astonished about the poor language skills of the clueless tourist. When travelling in Russia the most vexing thing has been the fact that even though I feel a closer cultural cohesion with the Russians than, for example, Spaniards, my inadequate language skills inevitably make me an outsider. At the end of the day language is the crucial key to understanding cultural identity and it also opens up a new way of thinking. For example the absence of the copula (linking verb, most often ’be’) inevitably skews our conventional way of perceiving language.
It seems it is high time that this fine language would gain more respect here in Finland as well, not least for the fact that we share a border. We travel to Sweden and Estonia all the time, but Russia is still quite an unknown country for many Finns. On the other hand, there are more and more people with a dual citizenship living in Finland, and Russian tourism to Finland has recently picked up after the rate of the ruble became stronger. Russian culture has and will always have a lasting influence on Finnish culture, language and society.
Moving Forward Letter by Letter, Word by Word
Even though I master the Cyrllic alphabet on a rudimentary level, it seems that fluent reading and writing is lightyears away. The slow spelling of the alphabet and intently writing word by word makes one ponder on the whole concept of being able to read and write. Us western Europeans quite often become fixated on the concept that one measures reading ability by mastering the Latin alphabet, and only by taking basic Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean, Arabic or Hindi do we appreciate that when it comes to reading and writing we are in an equal position with the immigrants who we consider illiterate. Adopting Russian has undoubtedly been slower than any other language I have studied so far, but it also rewards with small insights from time to time. That feeling when you can write multiple words in a row without mistakes! And how wonderful it is to realise that you can single out familiar words from the streams of conversation that flow past you on the street! Not to mention loanwords! Of course I have always known that the traditional Helsinki dialect has an abundance of Russian loanwords (sontsa = umbrella, kohmelo = hangover, lafka = firm, murju = dump, etc.), but I was pleased to find that in addition to the Helsinki dialect there were loanwords in the vocabulary of my late, totally Finnish-speaking Karelian grandmother (a vot = so there, koussikka = ladle, tsaiju or saijju*= tea). And how often do we really come to think that everyday words, such as ikkuna (= window), lusikka (= spoon), kuljeskella (= wander about), tuumailla (= ponder) and tavara (= thing) emanated into our language from our eastern neighbour. The attitude towards the Russian language may be sour in certain circles because of historical reasons, the Russian political situation and human rights violations or just because of general stupidity and racism, so one can only hope that the language and the culture could be seen as separate from Putinism, religious fanaticism and nationalism. My short-term goals regarding the Russian language are, for now, quite moderate and practical, but in the long term my goal is, of course, to be able to read Pushkin in its original language, during enjoying my retirement at the latest!
* Saijju, tsaiju and tsaikka mean tea in the eastern Finland dialects (Russian чай [tšaj]). The picture above is cabbage soup, though (editor’s note).
Text and pictures: Venla, The Institute of Adult Education in Helsinki