Agata Dominowska: 'What I Like About Languages Is That I'm Constantly Learning Something New'

Who are you and what do you do in Helsinki?

I’m Agata, a Polish girl living and working here in the Finnish capital. For the past two and a half years, I have been working as a research assistant at the English Philology department of the University of Helsinki, in an innovative project which involves creating a database about change and variation in English across time. On the side, I am also working towards completing my Master’s in Finnish language and culture, which is my goal for the next year. Plus I also freelance as translator, interpreter, and take on some other - quite varied - jobs to gain all kinds of experience. All of this means I am also addicted to coffee. I fit very well in a country with the highest consumption of this beverage per capita in the world!

Before coming here, I studied applied linguistics, English, and French in Warsaw, Poland, which is where I got my first MA degree. I used to work as a language teacher and translator, and briefly in a more technical data administration job. So, in short, I am a linguist who is also quite technically oriented.

In the little amount of spare time that I have, I enjoy drawing, illustration and photography, and I love exploring what Helsinki and its surrounding nature have to offer.


What inspires you to study languages?

I find languages fascinating. It is an intricate tool of communication that makes us humans unique. Linguistics is such a well-studied area, yet there are so many things to discover. I have always been drawn to scientific subjects that can be applied to real life, and language studies are definitely that. I am also inspired by the fact that as an individual, I constantly learn something new about the languages I speak. I’ll probably still be discovering new things when I’m 80!

You said that you also translate and work as an interpreter, what are the greatest challenges in those two areas?

First, I would like to bring out the bright sides of both. Freelancing as translator and interpreter is extremely fulfilling. It means constant learning about new subjects, and it is never boring or repetitive. As for interpreting, I mostly do community interpreting between Polish and Finnish - meaning I help individuals in hospitals, at the doctor’s, at schools, at the police stations and in various administrative institutions - and it is great to be able to facilitate communication in those everyday situations. I can see how much tangible help I bring with the skills I can put to use.

The biggest challenge for both is time. Translation jobs often have tight deadlines, so to complete the task well I have to focus on the subject and be able to find all relevant information in a short amount of time. Interpreting jobs also require lots of preparation beforehand, and there is additional stress connected with the fact that you never really know what might come up and you need to think fast! Once, I was interpreting during a high-profile meeting in the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture on the subject of working conditions and vacation system in agriculture. One speaker came up with a brilliant anecdote involving Polish bisons, history, current politics, and Finnish cuisine all at once - that was indeed quite a challenge to interpret. An aspect of community interpreting that is not widely talked about is the occasional psychological strain: interpreting for a person who is undergoing cancer treatment or for someone who has been arrested for a serious crime may be emotionally draining.


You have a very impressing track record with languages – what’s your secret weapon? Do you have tips for language learning in general?

Just do it! Learning a language is a long, tedious and quite possibly a never-ending process. Take small steps, but do it every day: learn a new word, read an article, listen to a song you like. Find a topic that interests you and start there. The most satisfying part of learning a language is when you actually stop treating it as an abstract code and start being able to voice your ideas and needs, but this also requires stepping out of your comfort zone. When I came to Finland, I started using Finnish everywhere I could: at work, at the bank, at the post office, calling on the phone… To say it was difficult is an understatement, especially for a perfectionist like me. But after a while it gets easier, and suddenly you realize that the comfort zone you left behind has caught up with you - only it is so much wider! I would say this jump-right-in-and-try-to-swim attitude is the best approach to learning any language.


I know you decided to come to Finland for an exchange on the spur of the moment. What made you want to move back?

Back then, it was a bit of a random decision, true! It took me five minutes to make. Soon after coming here I fell in love with the country and the Finnish way of life, both the big picture and the tiny details. After the exchange period I went back to Poland, but I moved soon back because I feel very much at peace here.

The pace of everyday life is not as hectic as in many other European capitals. I think people value free time and friendships a lot. Conversations are more slow-paced, and silence is not uncomfortable; there is space that does not need to be filled with meaningless chatter. What can also be said in favour of Helsinki is that it is very international and multicultural, so I find it very easy to fit in here, yet at the same time it is very local and not overwhelming. In the working life, I admire the work ethic of Finns, the respect towards all kinds of jobs and the high value placed on education. I also love Finnish nature and I like how close in general people are to it. Also, Finns have a quirky, self-depreciating sense of humour, which I adore.


Is the weather - such as darkness and long winters - something that bothers you?

This is the question I’m most frequently asked. I don’t find the weather or the length of day that different from the kind of seasons we get on the Polish coast, where I’m from. Winter lasts longer, true, and it does get tedious around March, when I find myself craving for sunlight and looking for any signs of spring. However, there is a lot to be said for that feeling when you can wrap yourself in a blanket and read a good book, while the wind is howling outside during a snowstorm, or for the possibility of going skating on the frozen sea!


Christmas is almost here!  What’s the best thing about Christmas for you?

To me, Christmas always means going back home and catching up with friends and family while munching on traditional food. What could be better than that?