Name: Dr. Anna Parikka
Nationality or Ethnicity: Finnish
Where do you live?: United States
Languages: Finnish (native), Swedish, English, French, Russian, Spanish, German, and Italian. Learning: Basque (somewhat conversational) and Japanese (very simple conversations)
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
My first foreign language was Swedish at the age of nine, when I could choose between English and Swedish. At the time in Finland there were less languages offered than now, so I officially started English in school when I was 12. However, I was really keen to learn English, because it was a key to so many things. I tried a children’s English course before, but I didn’t really follow it, but then there was Muzzy in Gondoland in tv, which was BBC’s English course for kids. That got me started. I later found out from friends who started English at the age of 9 that there was a way to get penpals from all over the world, by paying a small fee. This is where my weekly allowance went to. My traveling was still limited in the 90s, but by learning English, I could write letters with girls smy age in Philippines or Brazil. I was hooked.
Year after English I started French and then Russian in high school. I studied Spanish during my exchange year in Texas when I was 16, and few courses were also offered in my high school. In university I continued all my languages and also studied a bit of German. During my studies I also spent a year in Moscow and my Russian improved hugely. Later, when I was already working, I started Japanese in the summer university. So, basically, I studied any language that was available for me. I went on to study another university degree and I tried to continue Japanese, but I just had too much with my major and working at the same time.
I went on to do my PhD in France, which made my “book French” (as in I was very fluent in reading, but less in speaking) to a fluent language. After my PhD, I got a postdoc position in Germany. My German was very basic at the time and I wanted to learn more, but I was traveling a lot for work and couldn’t take a “normal” language course. I started googling for solutions and found iTalki and there was no turning back. After my German improved, I restarted Japanese and started a bit of Persian, but then I got a job in US and this international move caused a break. Finally, when coronavirus changed my job to a dayjob, I started learning Italian, which was super easy, because I knew French and Spanish, and then I got a bit over-excited and restarted Japanese again and also a completely new language: Basque. Italian got to very high level very quickly, but I’m still currently studying Japanese and Basque.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
Basque, at the moment. It’s a bit hard, although I found great teachers, but there are some course books, but most of them are based on Spanish, which brings another level to it. While my Spanish is good, it’s not as good as my English (and I would totally learn from Finnish if that was possible).
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
All of them!!! Well, I get that’s not really realistic. Some that I’ve already bought material for, so hopefully are not in too distant future are: Northern Sami, Estonian, Maori, Klingon, Hindi, Mongolian, and Swahili. I would like to get back to Persian also, I didn’t learn enough of it and I dabbled a bit in Igbo and Welsh and they also interest me a lot.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
This is kind of a hard question for me to answer because I’ve never thought of languages as sexy. And I don’t tend to rank them in any way. I like different things about different languages and while I might call a language beautiful, sexy isn’t really an adjective I associate with languages or a particular language. I think you can use a language in a way that is sexy, but that’s not dependent on the language.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
I’ve always been interested in different cultures and people from those cultures. I love reading, so it has a huge part in my language learning. By necessity speaking wasn’t the main thing for me for long, because I only had a few chances to use my languages even in the 90s. But I got my kicks from reading books in the original language and writing letters all over the world.
When I was 16 I went to Texas as an exchange student and I kept in touch with some other exchange students who were there the same time through the same organization. Especially with one Japanese friend, but through facebook I found most of these people again and it’s been great. Also when working in science you meet people from everywhere which is a huge richness in my life. However, I do speak mostly English with my colleagues. But I love when I get to talk to people who don’t speak English.
So, communicating with people (either speaking or writing letters) and consuming the cultural products: reading books or blogs, listening to podcasts, and watching tv and films that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
6. Some people say the world is really just going to have a few languages left in a 100 years, do you think this is really true?
Obviously, it’s hard to say anything about what the world is like in 100 years, however, I don’t think this is true. It might seem like that to people whose native language is one of the big languages that many people seem to speak, like English or Spanish for example. On the other hand I see a lot of effort to revitalize minority languages like Sami languages and Welsh and Basque and in the case of Basque, it’s actually doing pretty well, my teacher is of the first generation that could do her whole schooling (also university) in Basque. And this from the situation during Franco’s reign when kids were punished in school for speaking Basque.
So, I think that maybe we can’t save all the languages there are now, but I don’t see for example Finnish people getting rid of their language. And my daily language is English, but I feel that makes it even more important for me to find other Finnish people who live near me, so I can speak my language. In Swedish and Finnish, it’s called “feeling language”. While I can express myself in English on any occasion, I still “feel” in Finnish. I don’t think that is going anywhere.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Concentrate on the one of the few languages you are learning at the moment and don’t worry about the number of how many you can speak. I would also not care too much about the official levels (unless you need them for a job for example), think about what you want to be able to do and aim for that. Learn whatever language you want to learn, whether it’s “useful” or not or “hard” or not, your own motivation will help you and with any new language you will learn to see the world differently and this will make your life richer. Don’t try to do everything at the same time, take your time. And finally, have fun learning a language!