My first Finnish textbook tried to impress upon me the importance of adequately pronouncing double letters. The example the author used was the phrase tapaan sinut illalla – I`ll see you tonight – and how one letter could dramatically change the message: tapan sinut illalla, I`ll kill you tonight.
I knew then that a language in which one vowel constituted the difference between an invitation to dinner and a death threat would make an interesting learning experience.
During my first semester in Helsinki I immediately enrolled into the mandatory Finnish course, ready and eager to be integrated into Finnish society. On our first lesson, the teacher informed us she would only be speaking Finnish during the course. This was the very basic level course. None of us spoke a word of Finnish. And she wasn`t trying to teach us elementary vocabulary. It was an intensive three months course in which we were mostly taught inane grammar rules about how to form the pluskvamperfekti, all in Finnish.
It was like taking a class to learn self-defence and the teacher deciding the best tactic would be to physically assault you.
Unless she genuinely thought we could all secretly speak Finnish but refused to out of spite, to this day this innovative pedagogical method baffles me. The only thing that class succeeded in doing was to frustrate me beyond belief and make me resent the language in a way only a bad teacher can truly make you resent a subject at school.
One always hears about the story of Manuel, the exceptionally gifted exchange student from Barcelona, who was fluent in Finnish after just three months. That makes the rest of us sound lazy or obstinate. The truth is, people talk about Manuel because he is exceptional. This language is hard. It is, literally, like nothing you`ve ever heard before. Every single international student I know is actively trying to improve their Finnish in spite of the painfully slow process.
Being able to speak the language would make our lives infinitely easier. Like that time when I could not change my major because there was no information in English on the University website, so I did not know the specific criteria and thus entirely compromised what I had envisaged my academic future to be.
The reason we can`t speak the language is not because we don`t try to learn it, but quite simply because it`s hard. And in the meantime we feel isolated, impaired, handicapped, powerless. We cannot conduct our studies with the same ease the Finnish students do because information in English is lacking. We cannot look after the interests of our student societies because the Union refuses to use the only language in which we could uphold our rights.
One of my favourite political philosophers, Sir Isaiah Berlin, asked: “What is freedom to those who cannot make use of it?”
If we accept that a right is only as valuable to an individual as his possibility to uphold it, then in Helsinki, international students are second class citizens.