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Is There Finnish in Finland?

Written By: mustikka on October 27, 2007 6 Comments

*** 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.)

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6 Responses to “Is There Finnish in Finland?”

  1. daveski on: 5 November 2007 at 8:38 pm

    I think this experience must be shared by so many people who go places where English or other languages of broader currency determine the linguistic market. At first in Japan and especially in Korea I used to resent the fact that it was so difficult to speak in those languages in some cases, because my mere presence as a westerner/American seemed to switch the rules of the conversation. When would I be required to speak in the other language? When would it be expected that–of course–this is Korea, so of course Korean should be spoken? It’s ironic when the language learner from a country like the U.S. where English is the (a?) common language wants to try interacting in the local language, whereas the native speakers of that language might feel more comfortable keeping the discussion out of the ‘local domain’. it’s times like these that, upon reflection, I realized that what I represent is much bigger than who or what I am as an individual…the most fulfilling interactions I’ve had have been when the interaction starts out in English and I welcome that, and building common ground in English ironically (?) opens up a space for moving in and out of the other language.

    Nicko Reply:

    Those posts are old but when I read them it reminded me similar experiences that I had before, and I felt like posting something!

    Few years ago, I travelled in Mexico for a year (yeah I know it was a long trip!!) and back then one of my objectives was to learn Spanish. I had bases in Spanish and as a French native speaker learning another Latin Language was not a big deal. But somehow, most of the time people were talking to me in English (especially in the northern part of Mexico). I was kind of feeling annoyed and disappointed about that, then one day I came up with a solution: I will just pretend to not speak any English! So anytime people would talk to me in English, I would just say “Lo siento, no hablo ingles! Soy frances y nunca aprendi ingles! Si quiere, podemos hablar en español o en frances!”. Then people would just say “aye no hablo frances, mejor hablamos en español!”.
    I guess that could work in other context as well! I used that strategy in Korea as well but sometimes people wouldn’t believe that I don’t speak English!

  2. katie_k on: 26 November 2007 at 10:55 am

    I had the same experience the time I was in Paris (which, granted is full of tourists, and I’m sure it’s just easier for the people who have to deal with non-French speaking customers to just constantly use English). I only spoke one sentence of French the entire time I was there, and it was when I was ordering at an out-of-the-way non-tourist cafe. It was frustrating to say the least. Every other time I opened my mouth to speak a word of French, whoever I was speaking with would cut me off and speak in English. But the most exciting part of being in a country where they don’t speak English, is being able to at least try to communicate in a different language, and it’s wonderful when it all works out (incredibly frustrating, but a good learning experience, when it doesn’t).

  3. madcherrylimas on: 28 November 2007 at 5:27 pm

    minä rakastan soumea!

    mitä…? Itella..? How is that more international than Posti?

    I feel like people should learn Finnish, and that local languages should indeed be used. It would be lame if everyone spoke English; it would feel like going to Disneyland Finland. The scenario with the waiters is strange. I have Bulgarian friends working in Helsinki who don’t speak Finnish, but they do technical or janitorial jobs – basically, jobs that don’t require speaking to people. But even they speak enough Finnish to order and, presumably, take orders for, food.

    I feel kind of lucky and weird. Not to sound conceited or anything. No one ever tried to push English on me unless my accent was incomprehensible (which it was, in the beginning). I would always greet people right of the bat with a, “moi” or “hyvää paivaa,” and for the most part, they seemed really happy that I was trying to learn their language and were really helpful.

    I really like to travel, and I generally try to speak enough to the local language so that I don’t feel like the ugly american stereotype with strangers. Off guidebooks and talking to others I learn enough to ask for directions and order food and say hello, and I almost never have English thrown at me when I’m trying. In Paris I actually got complemented on my French (once. Once… and I got corrected at bonjour at least seventy times). In Israel I learned enough to speak very, very basic Hebrew, and I feel like people take you seriously when you have halfway decent pronunciation and they try to help you. I mean, I know a dozens of phrases in Hebrew that I have no practical use for, just, people were like, “This is a very Israeli thing to say.. learn this.” In Croatia I learned how to get directions and make basic chit chat, and I learned enough to become a (very basic) translator for some other tourists down in Montenegro where they rarely speak English. By translate I mean like, bargain prices and get directions to the good beaches. In my experience, if you look very happy and silly speaking a different language, and are comprehensible, people will be delighted to speak to you in it.

  4. Jenn on: 4 September 2010 at 2:47 am

    That waitress was probably Estonian (from neighbour country and they speak Estonian and English only) because Finnish don’t waste their time in those occupations, mainly because of the low money they get from it. Estonia has much lower wages and that’s why so many Estonians work in Finland. For example, in Estonia waitress gets $5 an hour (that’s the top wage mostly) and in Finland it’s $10 an hour (that’s average).

    sirpa Reply:

    Very true . . . many Estonians working in Finland – but many of them know enough Finnish to manage in our language. I actually found out two of the waiters’ I mentioned nationalities: Irish and Korean.

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