Fun conversation with Robert Brooks as he shares stories about moving to Finland and learning a language considered to be one of the most difficult to learn.
Here, Rob talks about:
– the first time realising a Mancunian accent might not be understood in other places
– learning Finnish words while working on a building site
– his preference for initially learning language through the grammatical rules
– and his appreciation for being alone in a dark, silent Finnish forest!
➤ Where are you right now – which part of the world?
I am in the county of Raseborg in southern Finland.
➤ When we first spoke a while back, when you realised that I was from Manchester, you said, ‘Oh nice and now I can talk proper!’
➤ So yeah, I was gonna ask you, how does it feel? What do you think about speaking English here in Finland?
Well nowadays I don’t speak that much English in the workplace. I’m now working with several customers in Finland and we communicate in Finnish virtually all the time. Obviously when I first came here I couldn’t speak a word of Finnish and actually had to communicate in English but I didn’t realise that I had as strong an accent as I actually did.
I first kind of noticed that I had an accent and that I used a dialect when I went to London – you probably experienced this yourself. I went down to London to study in 1996 at the ripe old age of 22 and you know, just talking to– basically meeting people from all different areas around the UK and also from abroad for the first time.
I’m from Warrington originally, which as you know is just outside Manchester but I’ve grown up and spent my entire life in that Northwest enclave you know. I didn’t go anywhere. Went to Blackpool for some holidays when I was a kid, went to North Wales, you know Llandudno, Rhyl, you know all the classic spots when I was a kid but basically never left the Northwest.
Didn’t really go anywhere, certainly didn’t spend any kind of extended periods of time anywhere and then I went down to London in ‘96 and suddenly I was this northern bloke and people pointed out, ‘Oh, don’t you talk funny?’ and ‘Listen to your accent!’ and you know it was the first time that I actually realised, ‘Oh I must have an accent then!’ and then the first time I realised that I had a spoken dialect I remember one occasion that sticks in my mind; I was working in Brighton and I was chatting to a bloke there I was working with. He was from the south somewhere and he said, ‘What have you got for dinner?’ and I had my butties with me — for everyone else out there that’s sandwiches!
‘So what have you got for dinner?’
I said, ‘Oh I’ve just got some cheese barms.’ And he looked at me and I thought to myself, ‘Ah! That’s too northern,’ so I tried to tone down the vowel.
I was like, ‘Cheese ba-rms,’ and he kept looking and I was like, ‘Oh god, here we go. I’ve got some cheese baarr-mss,’ and I really tried to turn on the southern. He was just looking at me like, ‘What the hell are you saying?’ and then I realised that it wasn’t the pronunciation, it was the word!
➤ What did they call it in London? Is it like muffins or?
Probably brunch or something! [Laughs] I think bread roll or maybe a bap or something. What I didn’t realise is that barm cake is a very kind of — it’s not Northwest — I think it’s kind of like there’s a band across the north starting at Warrington and going up to maybe Cumbria and going across that northern strip of the country. I think everyone there understands what barm cake is, in the same way they would probably understand ‘mard.’ You know if someone’s mard, like if a kid’s mard they’d probably know what that is but in the south they don’t know. Or ‘mither.’ You know, ‘Stop mithering me!’
So yeah, that was the first time I kind of realised about the dialect and the accent and that was kind of exacerbated when I came to Finland and had to communicate in English and people would struggle to understand me. I’d say to my wife, ‘What’s the problem?’ she said, ‘It’s your accent.’ I was like, ‘What accent?’
➤ What did you do when you first arrived? Did you have a job straight away?
No, no! We decided to come to Finland because my wife was pregnant and we were gonna have the baby over here so then we just moved over for that and then I thought that I’ll get a job doing something– and it wasn’t easy for a long time.
My first job in Finland was working on a building site in Espoo where the Nokia head office used to be, where Microsoft is — Keilaniemi. I worked there on a building site for the first summer that I was in Finland.
➤ I bet that’s a good place to pick up Finnish.
It’s a great place to pick up Finnish swear words, I can tell you. I remember coming home one day and saying, ‘Oh I learned a new word today!’ My wife’s like, ‘All right, great! What did you learn?’
I said, ‘petkele,’ and she started laughing. She was like, ‘Oh you daft sod! It’s ‘pirkele’! And I was like, ‘I’m sure they said petkele’. So you know, I went back the next day to the guys in work and I said, ‘What’s this thing here? This tool – what’s this called?’ They said, ‘petkele!’
So I went home, you know really proud, ‘Nope it’s petkele!’ [laughs]
➤ I know pirkele(common Finnish swear word) but I didn’t know petkele was a tool!
Petkele is like a kind of a flat metal, like a flat piece of metal on a on a shaft that you can use for scraping stuff like concrete off the floor or something.
➤ The way you described how you learned language is through books and reading and grammar. The common way to learn, the way these teachers talk about is through using it instead of reading it. You did it the other way!
Well it’s both of course. I mean, in order to really get good in the language you’ve got to use it absolutely. But what worked for me and what I often recommend is to get a basic understanding of the Finnish grammar because I firmly believe that if you don’t understand on a basic level how the grammar works then you’re probably not gonna be able to speak the language very well or rather it’s going to take you a long time. You’re going to struggle and during that struggle you might well lose the motivation and give up.
➤ So what do you think about the immersive, ‘learning like a baby’ technique, where you don’t question the grammar, you don’t question anything, you just repeat and mimic?
Well I’m sure that works for some people. That didn’t seem to work for me when I first came here I thought that I would just pick it up because I’d kind of done that with Spanish. I’d learned Spanish just by hearing it and kind of picked it up and figured it out and I got to a kind of a reasonable level without really reading much about the grammar. It just kind of clicked in my head but I suppose that’s because the Spanish grammar is not a million miles away you know.
If you look at Finnish grammar, it’s so different to English and I think the key thing here is, ‘What’s your native language?’ If your native language is Estonian, for example, then Finnish is not going to be that difficult because you know the grammar’s similar, the language is quite similar then you know, it’s not a big leap.
But for me as a native English speaker, Finnish was so different I couldn’t get my head around it. I tried to just pick it up by the immersive technique, by just being in the building site and listening to people speak and other people around me and it wasn’t working for me. I just couldn’t figure it out.
And that’s when I turned to the grammar books because I was kind of interested in the grammar as a sort of puzzle to be solved. And once I started to learn the grammar and get into it, I just became fascinated by it and I just thought, ‘This is so interesting and so cool,’ and it was complex and it frustrated the hell out of me for a long time but every time I kind of got something and I saw how it worked, I was like, ‘Wow, this is great!’
➤ Positive feedback loop.
And the way that these languages evolve over time and to think that this group of people have decided, over time, that this is the way to do things in that language. and how different it is from the language that I grew up speaking. We’re all heading towards the same goal, we just want to communicate with one another but one language does it one way, another language does it another way, a third does it another. And so I just got really fascinated by that and thought this is so cool that these Finnish people communicate this way and I communicate this way and I just wanted to bridge that gap. It took a long time to do it but I got there.
➤ So how long have you been here in total?
All together, it’s about 23 years.
➤ When would you classify yourself as ‘speaking Finnish’?
(Full conversation continues on the podcast)