Speaking of

I’m not sure at what point someone becomes an immigrant. In the last three months I have received a residence permit, sat mute in the immigrants’ section of the unemployment bureau and signed onto an “adaptation plan.”

While this is not the first time I have lived in a country other than my own, I’ve never before embarked upon the official journey to minoritydom, enlisting in the world of “foreign born residents,” who speak Finnish as a second language. In the last few months I’ve had to fill in form after form declaring; nationality – Zambian, mother tongue – English, until I, befuddled, lose track of their purpose.

While I have so far resisted the urge to join the International English Speakers Association, I have found a renewed passion for the English language. There has been an obvious advantage to speaking English. English is widely spoken in Finland, meaning I have been protected from the battle to be understood that I have seen so many other foreigners fight. I don’t have to point and repeat, look around helplessly and walk away frustrated. There are even jobs available for English speakers that don’t require Finnish and I have met expats who have been here for years without learning the language.

A first language (also native language, arterial language, L1, mother tongue, or native tongue) is the language(s) a person has learned from birth or within the critical period, or that a person speaks the best and so is often the basis for sociolinguistic identity

But I have circumvented the expat title, I have decided that there is little value in transience, I have signed the form and officially declared that I am not a passer-by. In doing this, I have had to concede to the fact that the language in which I was scolded and praised, TV was watched and books read, friendships made and conflicts soothed, may need to be superseded. As an unashamed lover of the English language, the language in which all great literature is available and into which all good films must be translated, I find it hard to accept that my “integration assistance” is tied to learning Finnish, that my job prospects may improve and becoming a part of another society will be eased and I can truly explore a new country.

Unless, of course, I choose to be a perpetual Helsinki Times reader, doomed to perusing the English section at Stockmann’s, staring blankly at waitresses and hoping that the metro driver will repeat his announcement in English.

Photograph; Bishop72/Guido via Flickr

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