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Home » Can You Learn the Hardest Language in the World? by Irina Pravet (Transcript)

Can You Learn the Hardest Language in the World? by Irina Pravet (Transcript)

Irina Pravet

Here is the full transcript of Irina Pravet’s talk: Can You Learn the Hardest Language in the World? @ TEDxOtaniemiED conference.


Listen to the MP3 Audio: Can you learn the hardest language in the world by Irina Pravet @ TEDxOtaniemiED


Irina Pravet – Finnish coach

So I’m going to do a little experiment. I’m going to ask you two questions and all you have to do is answer in your head. Are you ready?

Okay. First question, there it is. Can you learn? Just answer yes or no in your head.

And the second question: Can you learn the hardest language in the world?

Did you see what happened there? Maybe you weren’t as sure with that second one. Wasn’t as easy as the first.

Did you say no? Did you say maybe? Did you say probably, I don’t know, because if you did, then you’ve just experienced what the majority of foreigners feel when they come to Finland, excited, ready to learn Finnish. And then everyone tells them it’s really hard language. And the grammar is impossible. It’ll take you years.

And so what I want to do today is I want to deconstruct this question a little bit. And then I want to talk about three things that I think influence how we answer this question. Because I don’t really think the answer has anything to do with your ability.

And at the same time, I want to reassure the Finns in the room that this is also a discussion for you. So I’m going to go through a bit of a language coaching exercise. There’s going to be a lot of questions. For the Finns you can pretend it’s another language if you want or you could just try to empathize and see what it’s like for us.

At the same time I’m going to use some examples from gymnastics coaching, because that’s also something I do. And it puts learning in a bit more of a visual context.

So the first part of the question is why learn. Because sometimes we get so wrapped up in the subject that we’re learning that we forget all about the process. But luckily our speakers haven’t forgotten about that today. So we’ve talked a lot about that.

I wanted to show the process by asking people on Facebook what words do you associate with learning. And this is what they told me.

So the process in itself can be really really enriching as well, of understanding, commitment, dedication, motivation, knowledge, curiosity.

So then why learn the hardest language in the world? Why not do something else with our time is a fair question. But the short answer is because it will transform you. You might feel like you’re stuck in one personality, one language, one way of seeing the world.

But once you experience life and the world, your world, from a completely different side of yourself, you’ll see a side of yourself that’s not bound by social obligations or the well-rehearsed habits that you have in daily life. You’ll see more of who you really really are.

And language is just as universal concept as learning and just as unavoidable as breathing, sleeping, eating. As humans we all have a deep desire to be understood and to understand one another.

So let’s move on to these three factors that I told you about. First of which is Perspective and I guess my font changed from the previous slide. Got to adapt.

So what if I told you that your strengths don’t impact what you can or can’t do, they only focus how you’re going to do it so that you keep on doing what you like to do and then you keep on learning. Whether for you that means experimenting with a new recipe, doing science experiments in your garage, or playing the violin.

How do you love to learn? Because I’m willing to guess that whether you realize it or not you use progressions in your learning. And progressions can be thought of as the trees that make up this forest. It’s basically when you take one process and you break it down into little pieces and then you practice those little pieces on their own and then you put them back together and you’ve learned something new.

So let’s take a visual example. It’s going to get a little wild. So bear with me.

From my gymnastics background, so the cartwheel. I’ve been told to rearrange my shirt, yes. You hear me.

Okay. So the cartwheel is a really really cool skill because we use one word cartwheel to say arms up by your ears, keep your back in legs relatively straight as you lower your hands onto the ground, lift up your back leg, push off this other leg, split your legs and then square your hips. Don’t forget to point your toes and I skipped a couple steps.

So don’t forget — I mean don’t worry if that didn’t make any sense to you. It wasn’t supposed to. It just goes to show that there’s really no such thing as being talented at doing a cartwheel, because what people who are doing cartwheels are actually doing are a series of progressions all synchronized to look like one thing.

And when we ask — okay so what’s the first progression here and you might actually be interested to know — fun fact – about cartwheels. So the first step is just shifting your weight from your feet to your hands and back onto your feet again. So it has nothing to do with throwing your legs over your head and actually you don’t even have to do it in a straight line. That comes much later actually.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to do that cartwheel again. But I want you to see the trees that make up the forest. So if the cartwheel is the forest and this shifting of the weight is the trees, that’s the progression. So look for it, as I shift my weight from my feet to my hand, to my feet again. So I hope you never see the cartwheel the same way again and just realize that these principles also apply to language learning.

Yes, we have cartwheel and then we have language learning. That’s a really big concept. But at the same time the bigger the concept the more flexibility you have in terms of how you break that down, how you choose your progressions based on how you love to learn.

There’s a lot of talk in language learning that motivation is the key to doing anything, and that’s been mentioned tonight as well. But motivation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and I actually think that the true source of your motivation is your belief about whether or not you can actually do that thing.

So do you believe you can learn? Do you believe you can learn Finnish or the hardest language in the world? Because whether you think you can or can’t, either way you’re right. And that’s what Henry Ford said. And what I think he was talking about is that if we don’t control our beliefs or find a way to control them, then they’re going to control us. So we need to bring awareness; we need to break down this question further, because I warned you there would be lots of questions and figure out what is it that we really believe and how can we influence those beliefs.

So let’s go. Do past experiences show me that I can, so as a gymnastics coach if my girls don’t believe that they can cartwheel they’re not even going to try. It happens every week. So it’s up to me to cook up experiences to show to them that they can and most of the time it works out really well with progressions, because they don’t even realize that they’re learning cartwheels, they just think they’re jumping over blocks or doing some weird kind of break dancing thing in a circle which is what that cartwheel looks like that I was talking about earlier.

So how do I feel when I try, because even if I’m super super motivated, I have all the reason in the world to learn Finnish, if I get stuck in that uncomfortable feeling, the beginning steps of learning where everything feels really hard and you just realize how clumsy and bad you are, you might give up right then and there.

And when it comes to this specific task in Finland, learning Finnish everyone speaks English anyway right. So I know this because I also started out in 2010 learning Finnish right here – well, not right here — right here in [thompetic] and you know I realized that the words that were coming out of my mouth were not what other people were saying. They sounded clumsy and I got in this really weird habit of speaking with a really high-pitched voice and everyone would ask me why I would speak that way when I was speaking in Finnish.

So I get really embarrassed and then I would start whispering or mumbling and then people couldn’t even hear what I was saying. And as embarrassing as these experiences were in the beginning and it took me a while to overcome that, it paled in comparison to how I would feel when I would go to a party, hang out with some friends and say okay, look I’m having this normal life in Finland; things are coming together. And all of a sudden, the language would switch from English to Finnish and I had no idea what was going on.

So studies have actually shown that if we feel socially rejected or socially isolated, the same areas are active in our brains as when we feel physical pain. Think about that for a second, because for me that was a huge light bulb moment and I realized that the reason that I kept trying to learn Finnish was because the alternative was so much worse than that short term discomfort. It just kept pushing me even when I didn’t know if I actually could or how I would be doing that.

A lot of those things we have to figure out as we go. Now are others doing it successfully? This is a great question because ultimately we want to know if that thing we set out to do is possible at all, right.

And then once we start seeing that people are indeed doing it, you’ve probably heard myths about foreigners or not myths but like tales of foreigners learning Finnish right. Then we want to know if it’s possible for us. So you want to watch out for that little voice in your head that goes oh it’s easy for her, it’s easy for her to do cartwheels because she was probably born in Romania and she’s really short, and flexible — born flexible, I don’t know.

So it’s okay to have those thoughts because we all have them; I do and I’m really — I’m sure that most of you do too, all of you. But the problem is when we start believing them, because remember that your strengths determine how you’re going to do something, not whether or not you could do it. And you’d actually be right about two out of three of those things and none of them had anything to do with why you can’t cartwheel for the record.

So are others encouraging me to do it? And this is where we start to see with this question and the previous one as well about people doing it successfully — that the beliefs are not only individual, we also have collective beliefs and it’s good to ask how much of these conversations happening around the Finnish language and it being really difficult, how much of them are based on the objective reality that for you learning this will be really hard. And how much of them are just a self-fulfilling prophecy from being told from the very beginning this is going to be so hard, because remember your own hesitations with that second question, right? Can you learn the hardest language in the world?

So as much as I like to compare cartwheels and learning Finnish, I have to say that there is no environment right now or we have to kind of question and look at the environment for learning Finnish, because there is no gym where we can put up some building blocks and just learn Finnish in the same way that we do with gymnastics.

And yes there are language courses and they will give you basic knowledge that you definitely definitely need. But to get to the kind of ease and comfort that we can only dream of having in Finnish one day that requires more than individual effort. That requires community and basically a life in Finland at least partially in Finnish.

So then we get this kind of catch-22 problem. So how do I get a life in Finnish if I don’t speak Finnish and how am I going to learn Finnish if I don’t have a place to speak it. That’s a question, isn’t it, and that’s actually why I’m here today, because I believe that there will be as many solutions to this problem or answers to this question as there are people in this room.

And I think that we need to start talking and sharing our ideas about how to do these things and then solutions will come.

So today I invite you to start a conversation with your friends, with your family between foreigners and Finns together and with yourself, because we need to answer — we need to address our beliefs as well collectively and individually and each and every one of us as we’ve said many times tonight needs to figure how is it that we learn.

And also what is it that we love to do, because when we start doing those things for ourselves and then we start doing those things together, that’s how we’re going to figure out how to do these things in Finnish as well.

So Tim Doner said that language is about conversing with people and looking beyond cultural boundaries to finding a shared humanity. So why don’t we start with that shared humanity, because in my experience the people who move to Finland are a lot more Finnish than you may think.

I see some nodding over there. We all live through the same weather, the same darkness but the only thing missing are the words to share in an identity and to connect over an identity in the same way that Finns do, an identity built around language.

But don’t get me wrong. This is not a question of immersion or integration problems; this is more of an identity crisis that affects us all, each and every one of us. So the good news is I think it can be solved and the way that it can be solved is by Finnish people sharing, share with us your unique point of view, share with us your language, because the English language cannot properly articulate the Finnish way of thinking.

But that way of thinking is so beautifully crystallized in the Finnish language, I can’t even tell you because I didn’t understand it myself until I experienced it as a Finnish speaker.

So just imagine what this country would look like if everyone who chose to come here felt at home here and if we didn’t have to feel like we have to prove that we belong every time we open our mouths to speak.

So this is where our opportunity lies. In a small country celebrated for having the most innovative education system in the world, what if we put as much focus on Finnish as we did on engineering. This reality of a language that we share and an identity that we share is well within our grasp. All we need to do is collectively reach for it and get past this question of can I learn Finnish, you know, and together start designing the environments where people teach each other, where people share and do what they love to do and learning just happens as a result.

So I’m going to ask you one more time. Can you learn the hardest language in the world and what are you going to do about it?

Thank you.


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