Today’s interview is with Albert from Romania living in Finland. Albert Papp is one of the newest members of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and has been living in Finland since the end of 2018. I sat down with him recently to chat about a number of things including his origins, language history, moving to one of the northernmost capitals of the world, and his progress in learning the language of his adopted country.
Coming from a city called Cluj-Napoca in Transylvania, Romania, the young violist was lucky enough to grow up bilingual.
I grew up in this city in the north-west of the country and there is a huge Hungarian minority there. My dad is part of that minority. He and my mom met at the local University. My mom grew up in the city, but my dad is from another city called Brașov that also has a Hungarian minority. He settled permanently in Cluj after meeting my mom.
On a daily basis in our apartment, both Romanian and Hungarian were flying around at all times. My mom isn’t a part of the minority, she’s fully Romanian, but after living with three Hungarian speakers – My dad, my brother, and I – for so many years, she understands everything that’s being said. I rarely hear her speak Hungarian though.
Most of the time, parents raising bilingual children are encouraged to draw a clear line between the two mother tongues. One language can be spoken in the home and the other while out in public. Some families even adopt an every-other-day-approach. But Albert’s parents’ decision to each speak to him in their mother tongue is also a common strategy. He admits though that he was often confused as a child. He would mix languages at home and at school which brought on a bit of teasing from other children who weren’t bilingual. It simply took some time for him to fully separate the two languages in his head, but speaking with him today, it’s obvious that he is more than well off linguistically.
When I speak directly to my dad or brother it’s in Hungarian, and with my mom it’s in Romanian. Even on the phone. Every Sunday, I talk to both of them along with my aunt and it’s a constant back and forth in these languages for me while they each speak their mothertongue on speakerphone.
Papp has learned two other languages to native-like levels: English and German. The former he learned at least receptively as a child mostly by watching cartoons.
Honestly I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t understand English. I watched so much English TV and I felt like I always understood. Of course I had to start from nothing. I couldn’t just automatically understand this foreign language, but in the 90’s, there was much less, if any, dubbing on TV in Romania. I watched most cartoons in the original language.
Then there was English class at school starting in grade five, but it doesn’t even really deserve a mention here. It was fun, but also useless. And I could even say I didn’t learn much there. My teacher was just determined to turn the American English I was learning into British English. Not a single language that I speak was learned in a classroom. And I have a personal interest in languages, but they also weren’t learned just for the sake of learning them. English was needed in order for me to understand the media I was consuming and German was needed in order to go to the university I wanted to attend.
Although there were German classes at his school as well, they were just as useless as the English class. At the age of 17, Albert began to focus seriously on learning German. He had exactly two private lessons, but then decided to do what he could on his own. This ended up being a bit of grammar study and more of reading bilingual books.
The next year, after turning 18 and graduating, he was accepted to study viola performance in Graz, Austria. He would spend the next three years there improving his performance skills, his German, and even his English (because of the presence of many international music students).
University and Beyond
For those three years, Graz was the place he called home. It was his first time living alone and also his first time living abroad. He practiced like a machine, never missing a single day. From Monday till Saturday starting at 7:45, and on Sundays at 10:00.
I didn’t really have much of a social life, to be honest. I made a lot of progress and it definitely helped me get to where I am today, but I couldn’t do it now. Practicing every single day like that isn’t healthy in my opinion. I love what I do, but I also need breaks. Everyone needs breaks.
A week before receiving his bachelors degree, Papp was accepted to do his master’s at Europe’s largest arts school, Universität der Künste in Berlin, Germany. He was 23 at the time. His life in Berlin was much less machine-like and he was able to really expand his social circle. Being the large international city that it is, Berlin gave him friends from all over the world. During this time, he performed at gigs both in Berlin and around Europe, traveled to India with an orchestra, and worked as a doorman in the Berlin Philharmonie all while auditioning for jobs in orchestras wherever there were openings.
Being a music student looking for jobs isn’t easy, let me just say that. I auditioned for many orchestras around Europe before I landed the job I have now. It ended up not being THAT many auditions. It was just eight, but you have to keep in mind that I didn’t know when or if I would ever win one. I have friends who have auditioned over 60 times before they finally landed something. It’s not easy and it can be really frustrating.
The audition for the Finnish Radio Symphony orchestra was Albert’s eighth attempt at winning an audition and, to his own great surprise, he won.
I was both exhausted and shocked by end of that day. It lasted two days and there were 20 other people there auditioning for the same position. I passed round one on the first day and was happy, but I really didn’t expect to keep getting through the next rounds on day two. I knew that I was good enough to win it, I was confident in my playing, but I also knew how difficult and unlikely it was. Sometimes one person out of 50 wins and sometimes an orchestra just won’t take anyone. It would have been just another normal audition if they had rejected everyone in the end.
Life in Helsinki
Now Albert officially lives in Helsinki and has been working in the orchestra for a few months. Being one of the northernmost capitals in the world, this city presents newcomers with some things to get used to. Few hours of sunlight during harsh, snow-and-ice-filled winters could make this place almost unbearable for many people coming from southern countries.
I’ve definitely had to adjust to a few things living in Finland, but not everything is what you would expect. Having a solid schedule, for example, is new. Because this is my first real professional job. Before this, the schedule wasn’t as solid.
But other than that, I’ve had to deal with the length of nights. I moved here after the winter solstice, but it was still dark for long periods of time. I had to get used to waking up mornings before the sun ever rose even though it wasn’t that early. Before living here, I hadn’t really experienced that. Even in Berlin, the days are short in the winter, but honestly, I had never woken up in the dark for work or school while living there. And I’m lucky because my daily working hours are often not so terribly long. Many other people have jobs that don’t even allow them to see much light at all. They wake up in darkness and go home at the end of the day in darkness
The Finnish language can be intimidating. There are many memes floating around the internet comparing Finnish words to those of other languages. These comparisons can actually be both interesting and funny, but they also really give everyone the impression that Finnish would be extremely difficult to learn. The grammar of the language isn’t necessarily a walk in the park either. It has 15 cases (compared to Russian’s 6, German’s 4, and English’s 3) and almost no words resemble their equivalents in other languages of the world. Finnish is simply an isolated language. Hungarian is actually in the same family, but the relationship isn’t extremely close. The two couldn’t be compared like Spanish and Italian are compared.
The language here actually isn’t something I’ve had to adjust to. Not because I already speak it – I don’t (yet) – but because I haven’t met a single person, regardless of age, who doesn’t speak English well. Everyone is happy to speak English with me, some people in the orchestra even speak German to me.
He’s still making an effort to learn Finnish though. He’s at the point now where he can only read really simple texts. This has not come from any hardcore studying, but simply from literally reading through a grammar book and a book of Finnish stories for beginners. It’s exactly how he learned German in the past. It seems he’s found his own personal best learning method.
I can also have very simple conversations. At a gathering recently, I was able to have some mini conversations with people. The orchestra was celebrating the end of 5 intense weeks of work on the day after our last Mahler concert. There was this baby roaming around the room and somebody asked in Finnish ‘who’s baby is this?’. At this point I saw an opportunity to speak and I took it. I said ‘It’s my baby’ even though it, of course, wasn’t. It got a laugh out of some people. But I was proud of the fact that I could spontaneously say that sentence.
Finnish is a member of the Uralic language family. Hungarian happens to be in this family as well, so this has been a slight advantage for Albert.
It actually has helped me out a bit. Because the grammar is similar. So when I read about certain rules in Finnish grammar, I find myself sometimes thinking “Oh, Hungarian does that too”.
The pronunciation is also very similar. Finnish is extremely easy to read. You literally just pronounce what you see. Its a phonetic language. It might look strange with long words and the double vowels, but that’s actually just extending sounds. It’s similar to how italian extends sounds with double consonants.
And the vowels, in my opinion, are something that Finnish and Hungarian have in common. This really helps me to pronounce words correctly. The vocabulary can be similar as well, but mostly just when it comes to very simple words.
Asked whether he really buys into what the internet says about Finnish being a difficult language, he answers with a thoughtful ‘no’.
I dont really think it’s that bad. It’s not like you have to learn a whole new writing system. And if someone argues that I have this advantage by speaking another difficult languages that happens to be in the same family, I’d have to say that I know Norwegians living here in Helsinki who have learned Finnish to advanced levels. And Norwegian could be compared to English in its simplicity. It might even be simpler than English.
The difficult part is just not being able to guess words that you’ve never seen before. You won’t even know where to start because Finnish is in this small language family and looks nothing like the languages that most people learn. And like I said, only a few simple words are cognates with Hungarian. For example, the word blood is “vér” in Hungarian and “veri” in Finnish. And the verb “to go” in Hungarian is “menni” while in Finnish it’s “mennä”
This vocabulary thing is my personal struggle right now because I’m in a phase where I’m not focusing a lot on grammar. I’ve read the grammar book, but I’m not wracking my brain trying to put rules together or asking myself why a rule is the way it is. I just learn new words whenever I can and my vocabulary is slowly expanding.
A very interesting thing that one will notice about Albert is his accent. Any native-English speaking American would be 100% sure that he is American if they heard him speak. But this is also what happens when he speaks German to Germans – they think he is one of them. With this much-coveted ability to acquire accents, he is a sort of language chameleon.
I hear very often that my accent is flawless and I, of course, enjoy hearing that. Anyone would. But it’s not like I have some magical ability. I put a lot of effort into perfecting the way I speak these languages. I definitely had a foreign-sounding accent up until a certain point.
He describes giving a little girl private violin lessons once or twice per week in Kreuzberg while he was living in Berlin. The girl’s father would be a bit astonished every week saying stuff like ‘I just CAN’T hear an accent…’
But how has he achieved this when so many other language learners are unable to do so? It could possibly have something to do with the fact that he’s a musician with highly tuned ears.
In his book Forever Fluent, author Gabriel Wyner writes about the fact that we simply cannot hear certain sounds from other languages that our brain isn’t used to. How are we supposed to mimic these sounds if we can’t hear them to begin with? A musician who has dedicated his life to sounds and practiced thousands of hours from a young age might just be able to hear them better than the rest of us.
Closing comments on Helsinki
Besides the local language, Papp had some other things to talk about regarding Helsinki. He has been enjoying life here so far. Now that it’s April, the days are longer and these daylight hours are still extending. The temperatures have also already returned to what he’s used to. His experience so far has been completely positive.
If I absolutely had to think of something negative, it would be this one time on a tram when this very drunk man was threatening out loud that he would kill himself. He was depressed after the death of his wife and very loudly let everyone in the tram know. But this wasn’t exactly a negative experience. I mean, he wasn’t threatening or trying to kill me or anyone else on the tram. He was just drunkenly blabbering. So I’d probably label that experience as unfortunate rather than “negative”.
And that is really the most negative thing I can think of. Finland, specifically Helsinki, is overall a nice place to live. Sure, it gets pretty cold and the winter weather lasts longer here than in other places, but if that’s all that we have to complain about, we’re doing great.
Published by “Graes Magazine”