We all need a tongue: without it we could neither eat, nor speak. In Finnish we use the same word to refer both to our physical tongue and to the language that we speak.
Human language was initially spoken language. The skills of writing and reading developed later. This may be why it seems easier to learn foreign words in practical situations than by reading textbooks. It is certainly useful to grind away at glossaries, but words only come to life when they are used. I found this when talking to the au pairs we had many years ago. I gradually began to see how words were used in certain situations. It was quite different from the textbooks.
My wife and I are again spending the winter as ”snowbirds” in Nice, and we are making gradual progress with our French. We only meet French people while shopping or doing other errands. If we were working or studying, we would be much more exposed to this language.
Here are some examples of our ”learning by doing” language program.
We were shopping for clothes in a store with several floors. I was wondering how I could say “up” in French. I checked the word from my mobile phone and listened to how it was pronounced. We then took the elevator. We were followed by a lady who was wandering which way the elevator was going. En haut, I said, and she understood right away. I am quite sure I could not have pronounced that correctly if I had not heard it from my phone a few minutes previously. The pronunciation got firmly rooted in my brain. Now I only need to try to remember the spelling.
One day I was about to share the elevator with a young man on the ground floor of our home condominium. We managed to understand in French that he was going to the sixth floor, while I was going to the third floor – though I must admit we did some supportive communication in English. He therefore entered the elevator first and I followed. While traveling up the two stories, I let him teach me one more word of French. There was a text on the wall that said En cas de panne appuyer sur le bouton sonnerie. I indicated the word appuyer, and he pushed with his finger. I was able to add one more word to my solid memory list: “In case of dysfunction, push the alarm button.”
When we were recently returning to our temporary home, we met on the street an elderly man who suddenly stopped and sighed. Fatigué, he said and looked at us kindly. We could not say anything in response, but the word was familiar. He was tired. I remained to wonder if we should have helped him. Maybe I could have offered him help if I had really made an effort with the words. The situation was over quickly, but I had had another small lesson. It now takes me less time to call up fatigué from my memory.
Some things are very abstract. They may be difficult to grasp even in one’s native language. We cannot practise such words in our daily encounters. Even the French, who so patiently wait in the checkout lines in grocery stores, might not appreciate my efforts to discuss politics with the cashier.
It has been said that it is actually impossible to translate between languages, because the nuances of a given language cannot be perfectly expressed in another language. A good teacher, however, can make even complicated matters comprehensible. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, was a master in this. He used parables and examples drawn from everyday life. That also helps us when we try to explain faith in a non-native language. Faith is ultimately such a simple matter that is best understood in the language of children.
Text: Heikki Honkala
Translation: Sirkka-Liisa Leinonen
You will find the original Finnish blog post here.
Monet suunnitelmat ovat tänä poikkeuksellisena keväänä muuttuneet. Muun muassa perhejuhlien järjestelyjä on pitänyt miettiä uudelleen. Tämä on koskenut myös avioliittoon vihkimisiä. Nyt vihkimisiä on toimitettu niin, että koolla on ollut vain joitakin läheisiä, ja muu juhlaväki on seurannut tilaisuutta ehkä virtuaalisesti.