Is There Finnish in Finland?
*** Destia Finavia Itella Boreus Finstaship Edita Stadia Merita Nordea ***
Finnish? No. Well, what language then? No one knows. But they are all new, internationalized names for Finnish companies, banks, and schools. Can you guess which one is the Post Office – formerly Posti? (The answer will be provided in the end)
So, is there Finnish in Finland? Depends . . .
I am happily shopping at UFF, a charity run second hand store, with Eicca, my brilliant, Lebanese American Finnish student from California, now studying in Tampere. Eicca and I only speak Finnish – and comment loudly at our delightful discoveries. When the time comes to take our treasures to the cashier, I go first, all along speaking Finnish with Eicca. The cashier naturally uses Finnish with me. But immediately, when Eicca steps forward to pay, the cashier switches into English. This behavior drives us Finnish as a Second Language -teachers nuts. We want our students to be able to practice natural, colloquial Finnish while in Finland. Good luck!
But I do also understand the other side. When I was studying languages, there were almost no foreigners who would know Finnish. So we grew up learning many languages and making sure we used them with foreign tourists, friends, etc. If we didn’t happen to know their native language, the lingua franca, English, would come to rescue. There were no gray area speakers of Finnish. Most foreigners could manage barely understandable päivää (good day), kiitos (thank you), and kippis (cheers). Very few would reach an almost-native-speaker level. And there were none in between. But in 2007, we live in new, multicultural Finland with refugees and immigrants, the new Finns – in addition to large groups of exchange students from other EU-countries under the Erasmus program, and still others from far more exotic places, further away. They all should be expected – and allowed – to speak Finnish.
On the other hand, the following scenario has happened to me four times in the last two years while visiting Finland. I sit in a café, ready to order. My waiter approaches, announcing right away, I don’t speak any Finnish. No apologies – just a statement with a smile. The reality is that there’s a shortage of workers in the service sector in Finland, and the free EU job market brings in many temporary workers, especially for bars and restaurants. I have met four workers: two restaurant waiters and two café waiters who told me right away in English that they didn’t speak any Finnish. Now, what would happen in California if your waiter boldly told you in Spanish, French, Chinese or Arabic that he doesn’t speak any English. This might well BE the case, but it wouldn’t ever be announced. It’s true that most young Finns speak excellent English, but what about my parents’ generation. Shouldn’t they be able to order in their native language, Finnish, in their native country, Finland?
The head of the department of languages (a cluster) at Jyväskylä University is a German with exquisite Finnish language skills. We discussed the language situation at the university, and he admitted being concerned about some foreign researchers, professors and staff working for the university who do not have adequate time and/or motivation to learn the language of their adapted country. We both agreed that knowing the language of the country you reside and work in greatly enriches one’s life. This is true even if getting by in English is a viable – but limiting – option.
So we, the Finnish teachers plead with the shopkeepers, bank tellers etc. and beg them to use Finnish with those ‘weird foreigners’ coming in speaking funny Finnish when it’s time to send our students for an Information Hunt Final Exam in town. Furthermore, we pretend not to understand the English-insistent waiters and try to entice our foreign colleagues to enroll in the excellent Finnish courses, offered for many levels. Definitely some unFINNISHed business here!
Answer to the quiz: Post Office is Itella. (No, no . . . don’t even ask – I have no idea why.)