Me No Understand English


‘Me no understand English’ was a pretty common refrain for many.

In this excerpt from Dad’s book, he tells of the challenges created by language barriers.

I’m in the process of translating his book into English. It is a storying of Finnish migrants who settled in Australia in the early 1960’s. Most could not speak a word of English.  Dad had lived in Canada for some of his early childhood. Even though in his late 30’s when we moved to Tasmania, he was fortunate to  remember enough to get by.

Despite his best efforts  for some reason our boss could not learn to pronounce Taito’s and my first names. However, names were only used on pay packets.  He came to speak with us one day very seriously about changing our first names. We explained what our first names meant and he came up with numerous suggestions for new names. A good tradesman had to have a decent name, he said, justifying his stance. We were not overly enthusiastic about a name change.

As we couldn’t resolve the matter, Ken made his own decision and we had to be satisfied with that. Taito was to be Tito from then on. He informed me that my name was to be Vic. It was shortened for Victor. I have retained that name ever since.

pay envelope Finnish names have generally created problems and many have changed both their first and last names by deed poll. First names, however, have often changed in the same manner as mine. Our neighbour, Eino Saastamoinen, had more than his fair share of problems with his surname on pay day. The boss eventually got used to the fact that the last pay envelope in his hand belonged to Eino.   But Eino was  not satisfied with that. Yet again he went to the pay office with a note on which was printed in big capital letters SAASTAMOINEN, E. Despite this, his envelope was last yet again. Written neatly on the envelope was Taas Toinen  E (this literally means another one!).

The language barrier brought endless mirth and laughter. Everyone dealt with it in their own way – either licking their wounds or joining in with the laughter. Everybody experienced problems in the beginning. We noticed that this was because the bosses were particularly slow to learn Finnish. After all we weren’t here to learn the language but to work hard and earn money. That was especially the case for those who had decided to leave learning the language to others who had both the skills and the interest.

Ken Phillips, our boss, was given charge of a large factory workshop building project. He wanted Taito and me to go with him. It was the biggest job the firm had ever entrusted solely to him. Because it would have meant a far longer trip to work, Taito decided to stay where he was even though we would be separated. At that time I didn’t own  a car. Ken offered to give me a lift morning and evening if I was prepared to leave half an hour earlier and return home half an hour later in the evening. That suited me fine, especially as every day included an hour’s overtime.

In the beginning I was the only Finn on the job but Ken   gave me the task of finding a few Finnish carpenters straight away. I spread the word. In two weeks there were ten Finnish carpenters most of them newly arrived in Hobart. I was made foreman again which improved my pay a little. I had a really good crew. Amongst them were Finns, a couple of Polish labourers and two dark skinned Tasmanian Aboriginals.

When it became clear that there would be fairly regular overtime on Saturdays more men than we could take appeared to ask for work – even Finns. Nevertheless Ken sent a message via me to Taito to let him know he was welcome. Even though the work crews were pretty full there would always be work for Tito. After a few weeks separation Taito and I were together again on the same work site. The work proceeded well even though I was the only one in our crew who could speak English with the boss. And my language skills were not the best.

Then I had an unexpected injury. A board fell on to my right foot injuring it and the ankle. The doctor estimated I would need at least four or five weeks rest with my foot in a plaster. Ken Phillips arranged matters in his own inimitable style. He said that the injury compensation was nowhere near enough to support a family. It was best I return to work, foot packaged up, and receive the same pay as always. This suited me fine.

Mum and Dad - Finland
Mum and Dad – taken in Finland

Tito was given the task of organising crutches and a wooden armchair to be put next to the table in the covered area by the office. This was to be my ‘office’ until my foot recovered. I would check the plans and instruct my crew about the day’s work. I had a good view of their work site from there so it would be hard for anyone to cheat. With the combined effort of Taito and Oiva Elkio the crutches and chair were soon ready. Both were good joiners and carpenters. Oiva was to be the crew’s foreman until my foot recovered.

The crutches were mainly needed when I went to Ken’s office which was only some metres away. A few weeks went by without too many language problems.  Then one day Ken overstepped his ability by suddenly giving Tito a new job. Men and machines had dug up 1.5 metre diameter cement pipes which were five metres long. The plan was to lift them up. The sewerage trench had to be deepened so the pipes could be laid at the right depth.

When Ken returned to his office and told me he had given Tito the job of uncoupling the sewerage pipes I felt somewhat uncomfortable. Terror gripped my heart when an hour later Taito came out of the tool shed with a large sledge hammer on his shoulder. The machines were making such a racket my shouts would be useless. Fortunately Ken saw Tito from his office window. Slamming his safety helmet onto his head he quickly ran after Tito.

hole in concreteTaito had already had time to step on to the pipes in the trench. He was about to start making holes like any good workman should. Two pipes already had fist sized holes in them. Those he had carefully chipped with a chisel he had been given. Pointing to the holes Taito announced See, two very nice holes, soon plenty more. To demonstrate, he spat on his hands and lifted the sledge hammer for the first blow. It would be a  hole per blow. By evening a hundred pipes would have good holes which he would tidy up a bit the next day with a chisel. At this stage Ken lost his cool. A good selection of Australian  swear words echoed out of the trench into which he had descended.

Tito was commanded to get out of the trench and the sledge hammer flew after him. Together they arrived in the office and Ken started a new string of swearing.  His selection had improved markedly during a five year stint in the army. He suspected that this Tito was probably in cahoots with his Yugoslavian namesake. His intention was to sabotage the capitalist’s building programme. I received my fair share too as I could not stop laughing.

Finally Ken settled down and started smiling himself. The smile froze, however, when Taito explained his intention of making a fist sized hole in each pipe by evening. That’s why he had got the sledge hammer. Using a chisel would have been painfully slow in his opinion. Holding his head the boss let out a long wail but did not swear out loud any more.

That he had managed to stop Taito’s plans was surely God’s intervention. Perhaps the husband had once again been remembered in prayer by his wife. His wife apparently was a devout Anglican who went to Church every Sunday with the children. I suggested that perhaps Ken himself could do the same the following Sunday as a token of  thanks for his protection. A smile spread across the face of our marvellous boss. He said he would consider joining in with  Church activities regularly for at least as long as he had dealings with Finnish carpenters.

trenchThen he pulled out the sewerage plans and asked me to explain the job in detail to Tito. Including what it would have meant if Taito had had time to make a hole in each pipe. Ken would have been fired at the very least, if not Tito as well. The firm’s Manager would be coming soon to inspect progress. It was left to the two of us to cover the holes already made  so they wouldn’t be noticed. Because I would not be of any use I could ask Oiva to help, if necessary, with his whole crew. When Taito and I inspected the plans, he threatened to resign immediately. Doesn’t matter what the issue was the boss was not allowed to swear at him. Calling Oiva for help we together convinced Taito that there was  good reason for forgiving the boss his failing this time. If Oiva took his whole crew to the site and they carefully prised the joints open with chisels the problem would be solved. It was done and before nightfall the cranes had lifted half a dozen pipes up on to the ground. Including two with ‘very nice holes’!  Of course the holes were facing the ground.

When the firm’s Manager visited a few days later tens of pipes had been moved out of the trench. They were neatly stacked on the ground seemingly guarding the two which had two very nice holes. But the existence of the holes was only known by a select few. Sometime later professionals fixed the holes declaring in clear Finnish that those two pipes were now better than new.

© Raili Tanska

Images – Pixabay


17 thoughts on “Me No Understand English

  1. I enjoyed this a lot ☺
    I face language difficulties every day 😶 My language skills are as good as Taito 😂

      1. I have been living in the country forever… I’m not very good with languages 😶😷 Not giving up though ☺

  2. I just recently learned about passing of your dad. My deepest condolences. In 2003 I met Voitto in Townsville when I was a new migrant. He was visiting his “confirmation children” from Mt Isa long time ago, now those chidlren lived in Townsville and were retired, one of them, Pentti, very close to the end of his earhly journey. We chatted about migrating and Voitto recommended hsi book. I got it and read it (actually listened to it as an audio book). Oh, it was much easier for me to migrate because I could understand and speak English … but still I was a stranger, culturally illiterate, or a beginner at least.

    I have a few photos of Voitto in my blog Timo tropiikista.

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