For most of my childhood I had trouble learning things: I couldn’t read or write until the third grade, ride a bike until fourth grade, or swim until fifth grade. Winter sports, which are huge in Finland, where I’m from, remain hard for me. I can’t really cross-country ski, my hockey game is weak, and wearing ice skates hurts.
Then there was speaking. I couldn’t properly pronounce the letters K, L, R, S, T, or U in my native Finnish. That was unfortunate, as my name has two Ls and one K in it.
In first, second, and third grades, I saw a speech therapist every Tuesday morning. She held a wooden stick over my outstretched tongue while I tried, in vain, to pronounce my letters properly. “Vuoristorata. Rollercoaster,” she would say, placing great emphasis on the Rs. “Amerikka. America.”
R was the letter I struggled with the most. I just couldn’t say it. In Finnish you’re supposed to roll your Rs, somehow place the tip of your tongue at the ridge of your mouth and exhale while the tongue reverberates. I still don’t know how to do it.
At first, the speech therapist was encouraging and cheerful. But as months turned into years and I showed little progress, she became less joyous and more intimidating. I remember the coarse paper of the old notebooks she held before me and the way she forcefully pressed the pencil when she wrote a new word.
In elementary school, I learned that it was often better to not say anything. I began murmuring instead of talking, omitting the Rs wherever I could. I was often asked to repeat myself because my speech sounded so muffled, my R-less words hard to decipher.
In second grade I took up English as a second language. My teacher, Riitta (whose name I couldn’t properly pronounce either), was Finnish-American and loved spending her Christmases in Florida. Each January she returned from Amerikka with a deep tan. I marveled at her flawless, unaccented English and wanted to be as fluent as she was.
To my surprise, I could pronounce English words with ease, including the American R. There was no more wooden stick holding down my tongue. The word “rollercoaster” rolled right off it.
English allowed me to explore a much freer register, too. Alongside the speech impediments, a large part of my social anxiety stemmed from my growing realization that I was gay. I tried to hide whatever feminine undertones were in my speech and demeanor, and I used a deeper voice for Finnish. But English provided a completely new way of talking and a broader vocabulary: words like “fabulous” and “queer.”
In Finnish, there are more words for insulting queer people than there are to describe queer life. In Finland, homosexuality was classified as a psychiatric disorder until 1981. By the time I came out, in 2010, the language still hadn’t caught up. “Homo,” the term in popular usage, was the same word bullies used. “Gay,” although foreign and new to me, felt more welcoming and safe.
So when I was 18 and came out to my family, I began in Finnish and ended in English: “Mä oon gay” — “I’m gay,” I said, instead of using the loaded and clinical Finnish homo, a derivative of the Finnish medical term “homoseksuaali,” meaning “homosexual.”
After I came out, I moved to London and then New York and lived in English. I discovered that “gay” also means “happy”; that “queerness” denotes so much more than just sexual orientation. The vagueness is there by design: These words encompass all forms of queer life and recast them in a more positive light. In English, I found more room to breathe, to evolve.
Part of the reason for this has to do with history: The gay rights movement originated in the United States; English is the movement’s de facto mother tongue. Unlike elsewhere in the world, where silence has done a lot of the talking for gay people, in the Anglo-American world, queer life has been vocal for a long time.
Sometimes I wonder who I would have become had I never learned English. But Finnish remains just as important to me: I know now I can only exist as my full self somewhere in between or across languages. I think that’s better than living as a limited version of myself in just one.
Kalle Oskari Mattila is a Finnish writer living in New York City. Follow him on Instagram @kallemattila.