Name: Eero Huhtanen
Nationality or Ethnicity: Finnish
Where do you live?: Finland (moving into Japan in 2023)
Languages: Finnish, English, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Danish, French, German, Portuguese.
1. What’s your story? How did you get into all these languages?
In my generation, everyone used to start their first foreign language at the age of ~9 years, in the 3rd year of primary school (However, since 2020 the first foreign language will start from Grade 1). Some of my classmates started with Swedish or German as their first foreign language, but about 80% – including myself – chose English at that time. However, since in today’s world English is seen more as a default setting and less a choice to learn a new language, I’d say that my language learning began when I entered my 5th year when we were free to choose whether or not to start a second foreign language. I was not free to choose, because my parents decided – despite my protests – that I should learn German. To my surprise, I quickly realised that I was picking up German with relative ease. I hadn’t expected this since I really had been struggling with learning English, especially with its anything but straightforward writing and pronunciation. To get some further boost for my language learning journey, at Grade 7 I started to learn Swedish, which is the second national language and therefore an obligatory subject in Finnish schools.
A huge turning point happened as I entered high school and decided to do an exchange year abroad. I chose Spain because I had positive memories from our family trips to Costa del Sol, Andalucía, and because I had a utilitarian mindset about languages at that time: “if you have no idea what to learn, learn a language that’s widely used.” I had heard some amazing testimonies from former exchange students who convinced me that it is possible to learn a new language from scratch and be conversationally fluent after one year. And the fruit of the 9 months I ended up living in Asturias, Spain, was that Spanish became my Love #1 in languages, and also the first language in which I became conversationally fluent. This lasted for surprisingly long: only after 6 years my spoken English overtook my spoken Spanish. Additionally, I grew confident in learning language independently, without needing to trust language teachers in most things.
After my high school I decided to learn Italian and French through self-study and through the courses that were offered at my university’s language centre. This worked wonders with Italian (my Love #2), but less so with French, which is a language I’ve been taking up again and again. There were several reasons to this, but shortly: I wasn’t having fun with French as I was with Italian. However, now I’m at ease that there will be a time and place for French, too, somewhere in the future, and there’s no need to rush it.
My self-studying of languages got onto an entirely different level when I found the language I was most impressed by and became hugely passionate about, my Love #3 in languages: Japanese. This was preceded by a relatively short interval of time when I was finishing up my Italian and French learning at that time and had rediscovered my fluency in Spanish and – for the first time – identifying myself as a polyglot. However, when Japanese entered the picture, I cold bloodedly kissed my other languages goodbye without having any plans to come back to them in the near future. I was all in for learning Japanese! And not just becoming conversationally fluent in it – I was aiming for a fluent business level – and ultimately a native-like fluency. This was something new, something I had done never before nor had I been motivated by it with any of my languages. It all made sense to me because I had started to aim for a live and a future in Japan.
After learning Japanese for 5 full years, I finally entered a season in my life where my passion for my other languages was rekindled: I started to work for an international school and for a European school. It made all the sense in the world to revive those languages to be able to use them in my work and lift the level up. Incidentally, as I also felt like doing something new, I came up with the idea to learn Danish, and only then discovered that two of my Finnish co-workers spoke it fluently (which is not a usual thing in Finland!). So, I started to experiment with “language juggling” which was quite of a contrast to the full immersion techniques I had grown accustomed to using. This has continued to the current spring 2023, and also led into starting my latest language, Portuguese.
As I have been relearning some of the languages that grew dusty and further training those skills, I have become more and more conscious about the vast amount of work that multiple languages require. It will take me many years to get my current languages to the level where I’d like them to be in the long run so that I’m comfortable using them without the immediate need to improve them further. Now I hope to keep calm and master these languages before any new advances with new languages.
2. Which language(s) do you wish you could spend more time practising?
I’d hope to do more of French and Swedish: French because it would be very practical and I’m constantly coming across people who speak it. Swedish because I’ll soon be away from the exposure than I’m having with it at the moment and it would be nice to get my Swedish onto a comfortable level before that happens.
3. What are some languages you’d like to learn in the future?
As stated above, in the near future I hope not to start any new language, because with skills as a speaker of languages I prefer depth to width. But if I had the chance, I could learn Swiss-German or Korean.
4. So let’s be honest, what’s the sexiest language?
This is easy – Japanese, of course! I love the way Japanese is pronounced and how it can be used in an extremely casual way and in a way that to me feels very natural.
5. What’s the greatest pleasure you get from speaking so many languages?
Those experiences where I unexpectedly hear a language that I understand and am reminded of the potential that lies in having learned the language (even though I wasn’t currently using it). The positive reactions from people whose language I speak. The fact that I’ve been able to use some of my languages at work in settings that require highly professional communication.
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?
I believe that, as a cost of making the world global, it is inevitable that some of the current language diversity will be lost. Looking at today’s world, I feel that not much can be done to artificially prevent this kind of change. However, there’s no saying how long this kind of development will continue. In the past we’ve also had moments when most people have had to speak Aramaic or Latin or some other widely spoken language, but afterwards the linguistic diversity has become revitalized again.
7. What is your message to young (and not so young) people out there who are interested in studying multiple languages?
Make sure to learn at least some of your languages really well before jumping into several new ones. For us polyglots I feel it’s so much easier to switch into learning a new language than sticking to one, two or three that you already feel you know quite well but realise that you still have work to do before reaching the advanced levels. To me the most rewarding moments have been those when me and the other party were carried away in a meaningful (and deep) conversation and forgotten that I’m actually not a native speaker yet. These moments happen more often in the advanced levels.