Captainness Kirk: English, Kusipää, Do You Speak It?

By Kathleen S. Kirk

A few days ago, I was watching Burn Notice, one of my favorite shows. It’s about a famous spy, Michael Weston, who gets blacklisted and effectively booted from the CIA. He’s made out to be this brilliant linguist, fluent in Russian, and his name was known all over Russia.

Before I started learning Russian, I could’ve believed this. Now, not so much. I’m quite certain any and all Russians who heard him would’ve laughed him out of Russia, possibly even out of Europe.

It came down to one simple word, спасибо (pronounced spa-si-buh). And he was pronouncing it like it was spelled cпасибва (spa-si-bva). The subtitled translation simply said, “Thank you.”

No, this could not be.

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t know much Russian. I just started learning it recently and it’ll be my fourth language. I also know French, Finnish, and, obviously, English. Because I’m exposed to Russian regularly now, I figured now would be a good time to start learning it. I haven’t had any huge failures yet in Russian, like I did in Finnish, which tells me I haven’t really delved into Russian as I should. There was one beautiful moment right when I was starting to learn Finnish that I proudly declared myself a ‘shovel’ when I was trying to say that I ‘possessed a shovel.’

I speak Finnish now with varying degrees of competency, depending on the topic. For example, I still have issues on basic groceries, but I can talk in-depth about narcolepsy. This is because I learned Finnish from real, live Finns via immersion and initial vocabulary was very situation-dependent. It was my first language experience outside of a classroom environment and it had its pros and cons. I spoke the most with an Ostrobotnian Finn, Patient Nordic Surfer Ville. Ostrobotnia is the name of an administrative district and its accompanying dialect.

I have heard the Ostrobotnian dialect labeled as the hick dialect of Finland, but I haven’t had enough experience to confirm or deny this. I have also heard that I myself speak with a slight Ostrobotnian edge, which is generally met with mild surprise because, of the few people that are actually taught Finnish, next to no one learns this dialect.

Since it’s likely that next to nobody reading this has any understanding of Finnish, let me show you how difficult Finnish is. There’s a famous language post circulating Tumblr about the anthropomorphous English and Swedish languages talking about their language’s simple ways of saying “dog” in singular and plural forms. Swedish is just slightly more complicated than English, apparently. They’re joined by the German language, despite Swedish and English’s protests, who goes through eight ways of saying “dog(s).” Then Finnish comes along, to everybody’s protest, and promptly goes through no less than sixteen forms of “dog.” The other languages are stunned into silence, when Finland adds, “And now the plural forms.”

Finnish is an incredibly agglutinated language. Agglutination is the process of using multiple suffixes and linked words to convey meaning. The longest word in the language is lentokonesuihkuturbiinimooottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas, according to the Finnish Guinness Book of Records. This is actually a functional word, containing 61 letters, that’s used by the Finnish Air Force to describe something similar to a tech warrant officer recruit trained in jet engines. Yes, they actually describe that entire concept in that massive word that’s actually a string of smaller words linked together. Yes, I excel at learning ridiculously hard things. By choice.

After I started learning Finnish, three things happened practically simultaneously. My French accent took a direct, one-way flight to hell and I started thinking in Finnish. Also, I lost fluency in English.

The former was not especially terrible, except it got me a lot of weird looks amongst my French friends. I used to have a metropolitan French accent that made my French professors very happy.  It didn’t bother me as much as when I started thinking in Finnish. Albeit the fact I was proud of this, it caused me to periodically lapse into Finnish while in conversation and get stuck there. Friends of mine now recognize my oh-crap-I’m-stuck-in-Finnish face. I’ll then proceed to ramble aimlessly in Finnish for a while, sometimes for hours, until some random thing snaps me out of it.

I remember one particularly bad experience when I spent a considerable amount of time perched on my kitchen counter, making wild hand gestures as I attempted to explain the weird Finish attempting to percolate on my lips and overstay its welcome not unlike burnt coffee. The weird, confused looks and sighs of taxed patience as I attempt to explain a wide variety of things to no avail have become commonplace.

As for the latter, this is the only genuinely frightening thing that’s come out of learning Finnish. I will drop articles because Finnish has no articles. I will stumble around a word in English with its Finnish equivalent. Sometimes I’ll need to use Google Translate to understand my thoughts in English again. This isn’t to say that I can’t comprehend English or I am no longer proficient and articulate in English. I can write this without the help of a translator and only twice did I have to pause and actually think about a word’s equivalent.

So now here I am, with Scandinavian French and narcoleptic Finnish under my belt, engaging in another suicide mission to learn Russian.

Is it worth it? Yes, if only for that eye-opening moment when you realize your hot protagonist really is terrible with languages.

Captainess Kirk a column on that runs every other Thursday at 10:30 am. It is written by the fascinating Kathleen Kirk. For more of her adventures, follow her on Twitter here and check in for future columns.

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6 thoughts on “Captainness Kirk: English, Kusipää, Do You Speak It?

  1. Catherine says:

    Haha, this made me smile. Also, it made me want to study up on my Spanish…ahora!

  2. Kate R-Z says:

    I took Latin in high school and college… not helpful in real life. I envy people who have the ability to learn new languages, especially if things like this happen:

    “it caused me to periodically lapse into Finnish while in conversation and get stuck there. Friends of mine now recognize my oh-crap-I’m-stuck-in-Finnish face. I’ll then proceed to ramble aimlessly in Finnish for a while, sometimes for hours, until some random thing snaps me out of it.”

    I would love to see the look on everyone’s face while you’re rambling in Finnish.

  3. Kaitertot says:

    I think it’s so easy to get stuck in one language, that you really do start thinking in it. After spending 7 months straight in Costa Rica, I flew to Orlando, Florida to visit my family in Dinsey World. While in the airport, asking for directions and ordering food, it was so easy to snap back into Spanish. Even though it’s Florida (and they have a WAY higher percentage of Spanish speakers than my native Indiana), I still confused a LOT of people. :)

  4. Kate S, says:

    Wowzers! If only I could snap so far into another language that I couldn’t snap out but for Google translation. That’s what I call immersion! May I borrow that ability for a few months? I’m sure that’s all the time I’ll need to learn Spanish. (And I’m not at all surprised that Michael Weston isn’t the linguist we are led to believe. They fake a lot of things extremely well in Burn Notice, but it’s enough fun to suspend that disbelief.)

  5. expliKate says:

    My last name is Hakala! My ancestry is Finnish first and foremost. I’d love to know how you properly pronounce my last name!

    • Kathleen Kirk says:

      I think that would be “hah-kah-lah,” with short As. It’s kind of hard to spell it phonetically… It’s hard to translate. The suffix “-la” has to do with a specific place in Finland and “haka” is like a kind of area, like a field or pasture. It’s a beautiful name. I’m a huge nerd about the etymology of names!

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