Tuesday, 25 August 2009

mind your language

I think that I'll need to paint a little background picture here first, so please bear with me on this one ...

One of my personal beliefs is that as when I'm in a country that as much as possible I should use the local language. Not as easy as you may think as no native speaker uses standard textbook language and then there's local dialects (quite strong in Finland) to consider.

Some people already speak a few languages, which can make picking up a language much easier, and of course if you've studied the language before going to that place then that makes the process all the easier.

Finnish as a language is unlike most of the languages in the region. By unlike I mean at a really deep level. Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are all part of the same language group and are quite close to eachother. Learning enough to move between them is relatively easy (although the Norwegians sometimes complain that the Swedes don't bother). German Dutch and English are also related languages and easy to move between in comparison to Finnish. Myself I find Japanese and Korean easier to learn and grasp than Finnish. Russian (one of the slavonic language groups) is also nothing like Finnish either, so looking over to the east doesn't help much for inspiration either.

Fortunately (well in Helsinki) Finns are quite aware of the global insignificance of their native language and are very accomodating with using English (note: more people speak Swahili than Finnish).

Now, don't get the idea that I don't want to learn this language (I've got family commitments here) but there is a really big difference between polite dinner conversation and discussing issues within a project team meeting (and country Finns are not noted for saying heaps at dinner I gotta tell ya).

Its actually really hard to be at the level where you can express subtlety or be tactful and delicate (yes, even in Finland some people want to do that) in a language you feel unfamiliar with.

So in a recent Team meeting here at my work I noticed that one person (the first as it happened) decided to start his section report in English, then everyone sort of followed. Of course this was for my benefit as I am the only native English speaker in the room (the other foreigner isn't an English speaker but does as well as a merchant Dutchman would).

While the sentiment was lovely I felt bad as the organisation does not have any directives requiring that and some of the people really struggled with English. Later in a discussion with my supervisor I said that I felt bad that everyone had to be put out because of me and I would be happier if the meetings were in Finnish because not everyone was comfortable with English and it was only me that was uncomfortable with Finnish. He agreed and so out went an email (in English) quite tactfully suggesting that in the interests of communication facilitation meetings would be in Finnish again unless someone wanted to specifically ensure that I understood a point.


The topic came up again over afternoon tea in the next week and various opinions were put forward and chatted about. Then one person said:
"Well we all speak good English here (invalid assumption if you ask me) and besides it gives everyone an opportunity to practice their English. So I think that if even one person in the room is speaks English as their language we should all use English."
while everyone seemed to be nodding and agreeing with this one person quietly said:
what about if one person speaks Swedish?

Well ... that put the cat among the pigeons. Protests, rejection of the idea, and comments like:
  • I've studied that language for over 15 years but I still can't express myself well
  • Oh come on ... Swedish?
You see here in Finland (in case you didn't know) they are a bilingual nation much like Canada is; and just like Canada's tensions between the English speakers (majority) and the French speakers (politically influential) tensions exist here between the two language groups.

Perhaps its more complex because Finland has (at various times) been governed by Sweden. While Finns speak Finnish, some in the coastal areas have Swedish ancestory and speak Swedish as their mother tongue (some claim they can't speak Finnish at all).

So if you speak English then that's simply a neutral foreign language ... but if you speak Swedish, well, that's loaded with connotations and implications.

I'm beginning to see why the Swedish speakers sometimes feel isolated here ... (of course the Finns will tell you that its their fault ;-)

suomen Lippu
Where this all starts to get interesting (to me) is that recently Sweden has recognised Finnish as an offical language within Sweden (recognizing Finnish minorities), while all the time here in Finland I hear debate about
"why should we have Swedish as a national language here when we didn't ask for it or them"

this to me says loads about the two nations.


  1. Chris, I don't fully agree with all of your observations on the status of Swedish in Finland. If you need more examples on the uses of these two languages in everyday life in Finland, just drop a line. I am on the other side of the curtain.

  2. I think you skipped a really big point about Swedish, which is that it's a mandatory subject in schools here from the junior high school to the university level. Also Finland is a bilingual country only on paper. Swedish is being spoken by a six percent minority that can mostly be found in a rather narrow strip on the coastline - and most of those people are effectively bilingual nowadays.

    So, for an average Finn Swedish is pretty much useless. Oh, it's nice to know the language, but on the practical side forcing everybody in Finland to study a SECOND minor language doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Learning languages is hard and take a lot of effort. A lot of students would rather choose some other world-level language for their second choice, something like Spanish, German, French or Russian, but instead they have to waste their time and effort on a minor language they consider useless. It's like everybody in Britain was forced to learn Dutch. It's no wonder that Swedish has been the least liked subject in schools in every study I've seen.

    The most "amusing" thing about this are the mandatory Swedish (yeah, yeah - the mandatory SECOND NATIONAL LANGUAGE) courses in universities. You can't literally graduate unless you pass your Swedish course, since "everybody should be able to talk about their own field in Swedish". For example my fiance with her English philology major is not overly amused by that rationale. I've dealt with Swedish researchers in my field back at the time. They always spoke far better English than most Finns spoke Swedish, so it made sense to switch to English, in which the science was done in the first place. Yeah, that was 12 years of Swedish studies well spent.

    Bearing all the former in mind it's not hard to see where the animosity about speaking Swedish comes from. Also, this doesn't translate to animosity against Sweden for the majority of the people, with whom it's just the ordinary kind of squibbling between neighbouring countries.

    Well, it could be worse. I once chatted about this with a linguist from Iceland, who considers us lucky compared to them. In their schools they have obligatory DANISH.