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How Finns fare in English: Observations from over the years

June 26, 2013

This entry is not to knock the Finn who operates in English, this is merely to point out the challenges the Finn may have with the language. And let me tell you, as someone who has freelanced and taught English over the last 15 years; it’s true, the English language is a nightmare to learn, even as a native speaker! So please bear with my Finglish as I note my observations…

The people I work with

This is a tribute to the people I work with. They are incredibly intelligent people from whom I have learned since the day I set foot in the house over 12 years ago. I speak English with my closest colleagues because it would feel incredibly awkward not to. And now that I am not the only foreign-born, non-Finnish speaking person in my unit, the crew has adapted. The rest of the company has taken on a decidedly international flare, we have more than 15 nationalities working in our head office alone. There is a crew that I only speak Finnish to, and some of whom I have run into outside of work. It seems when we’re not at work we speak Finnish.

I’ve helped out over the years with editing documents, news pieces and so on. At one point being the only native speaker of English in our head office put me in a unique position. I work with incredibly smart and educated people who don’t need my help so much anymore. In addition a new generation of folks coming into the company don’t need any help at all because they have studied in English. Quite often they know more about the intricacies of the English language than I do.

The people I teach and have taught

I used to teach English as a full-time freelancer, and discovered that I had a lot to learn about my own language. It has made me ponder getting a certification in ESL at some point. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt. (I should first get my degree studies out of the way, then I can think about my next moves.)

I have had lots of smart students over the years and others who could never nail things down, but were still motivated enough to come to class. I often let lessons unfold themselves if we hit on an interesting topic. I try not to feed them too much grammar, but work a lot on vocabulary and giving them some new words to work with. Presently I teach a small group of electrical engineers and designers and I use these books from Otava: English for Electrical and Electronics Professionals  and English for Construction Workers. They’re great and I am so glad I have them. Just ten years ago there was nothing like this out there. The benefit of using these books goes both ways – I learn some Finnish too.

The in-laws

The in-laws are rural-raised folks who have never had a need to speak English. The nasty reality of globalization hit them around the time I arrived in the family. There were ordeals with electronics and programming them, getting on the internet and surviving in their professional lives. The Mr.’s dad, who is set to retire soon, was surprised to find out that his name is on the English pages of the city’s site naming him as the contact person for fishing and licencing issues for the district of Kuopio. He has been around here and there, but has decidedly left it to the others to take care of language issues. Now that he is entering retirement and has a desire to travel to Canada, he has expressed an interest in learning English. He is in his early 60s. 🙂

The Mr.’s mom was a nurse, which not surprisingly is becoming a field where language skills are a must. From what I understand she never needed it in her job and left it to her colleagues in the case of language issues. She knows a few words here and there, but if a program comes on TV without any Finnish subtitles, she’s outta there.

The Mr.

He seems to be a species of his own (and I say that out of love and – observation). He might disagree though. 😀 Back in 2009 he embarked on a Master’s degree program and I agreed to edit his thesis for him. Nightmare scenario: imagine being presented with a huge document of text with selective (or no) entries of articles (a, an, the). I spent HOURS correcting his work. And his reasoning was, “Well, I didn’t know what put in most cases, so I left it out. I knew you would fix it anyways.” 😛

Currently he works in a fairly international environment and has been complimented on his skills in English. I think it is a relief for him to be able to speak Finnish with his friends though.

After all this time, I can say that he speaks very good Canadian and he has the shirt to prove it.


Kids scare me these days as far as language acquisition goes and my own is no exception. While I could say that she directly translates from Finnish to English when she speaks (she speaks Finglish), I cannot put anything past her and I wish that the Mr. and I knew a third language that we could communicate in, but alas, we don’t. The rich multi-lingual environment we’re surrounded with here makes me kinda regret my monolingual upbringing. As an adult it has been very difficult to acquire a second language. I grew up learning French, but I do not use it, so I have lost it.

In comparison to 10 years ago, I no longer have to endure frightened stares from small kids who wonder what on earth I am speaking. Now I always love the questions from the really small kids, “Mitä sä puhut?” and I can answer them back in Finnish. 🙂

What gets messed up?

Finns run into stumbling blocks with pronunciation and I find a lot of common misspellings in written English.

Pronunciation of certain letters is a real headache for some people. English speakers should remember to emphasize the letter when speaking to a Finn who has basic (or no) skills in English. I can say this from experience, a person may not always hear the distinction in pronunciation, so be aware.

  • c-g – cold vs. gold
  • d-t – distinguish
  • b-p – big vs. pig (To Finns the distinction is between a soft “p” (big) and a hard “p” (pig))
  • c-s – This a problem when words beginning with C have an S sound.
  • thr- My grandfather’s first language was Finnish and I noticed that he always pronounced “three” as “tree”, this diphthong is incredibly difficult for many Finns.
  • -gh – words ending in -gh (through, tough, laugh, trough, plough) always present a challenge to Finns who are learning English.

This is one word that I always have to emphasize in terms of pronunciation: ache [eik]. I am not an expert in English or in grammar, but I do try to present things in a readable form. Just a couple weeks ago a student had trouble with the pronunciation of “accessible,” so I wrote it out as [äksesibl] and he got it right away.

  • prize – price (and vice versa)
  • colleaque – colleague

And there are more, but perhaps you get the idea.

How do I weigh in here?

Canadian, born and raised. When I came to Finland to work and live I realized I had a lot to learn. And after all these years I still have a lot to learn. I classify myself as a speaker of Finglish. My vocabulary, spelling and public speaking skills have declined markedly. Fortunately working in a largely English-speaking environment has headed off the decline, and so has doing my Master’s degree – by forcing me to write.

I am reading a really interesting book on bilingual families called Growing Up With Two Languages: A Practical Guide for the Bilingual Family. The author, Una Cunningham, is from Northern Ireland, and lived and worked in Sweden for over 30 years with her husband and four kids (Swedish born and raised).

Una Cunningham book

So far I have read about things that happen in my household. Very frequently we run into situations where someone starts speaking English to me when they hear me talk to the Little Miss in English. I usually pipe up and say, “Hän puhuu suomea.” (She speaks Finnish.) Often there are comments like, “It is so good that you speak English to her. It is a very rich thing to be brought up with two languages.” Indeed… Better yet when we’re out somewhere, I say something to the Mr. in English, a salesperson then speaks to me in Finnish and to the Mr. in English. You should see the looks on their faces when he answers back in Finnish. Hilarious!

The ones who don’t understand and don’t want to learn

Finnish people are smart and resourceful. Granted there is a section of the population who remain determinedly Finnish; they refuse to learn English (or perhaps any other language) because they don’t need to. Their roots remain firmly in the Finnish language and Finnish culture. I can remember a student from Lohja who cursed at me every time I walked in the room to spend time in her nursing class. She said (in Finnish), “I will never have to use English at work, so why do I have to learn this?” I wonder if she has changed her tune? I am sure many of her clients, if she is still in Lohja that is, do not speak any Finnish. I had another student who also steadfastly refused to speak any English to me even though he understood almost everything I was saying – even humour couldn’t warm him up.

The overall situation

I can say that the Finnish population has adapted and learned. Having done a master’s level course in the influence of English as a global language, I have come to admire the efforts of every single Finnish person I have come into contact with – they try very hard.

A timely article from YLE News on May 24 indicated that English is by far the favoured language to study in schools.

Although I think it is pretty unfair for Finnish kids to have to go through university/college programs entirely in English. What does this mean for the future of the Finnish language at the post-secondary level?

There is plenty more to discuss on this topic, but I’ll leave it here for now.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2013 12:23 pm

    Even after all these years, The Engineer still pronounces stomach as stomatch! Great post, I can relate to many of these situations 🙂

    • June 26, 2013 2:01 pm

      😀 Yes, we have a “temperature meter” in the house – thermometer is too much of a stretch for the Mr.

  2. June 26, 2013 12:38 pm

    Very insightful piece, I am always interested in reading about how other cultures deal with bi-/multi-lingualism.

  3. June 26, 2013 1:52 pm

    Nice piece! My Finnish bf speaks very good English but I (native British English speaker) have had to help him pronounce some words correctly: dough, mow etc (although I adore his Finniglish accent!). He sometimes tries to mimic British accents especially Liverpudlian (he’s a huge Beatles fan) but actually he can’t tell the difference between British accents on TV / in films (he thought Gerard Butler was a Cockney!). We speak a garbled mixture of Finnish and English between ourselves.

    • June 29, 2013 10:42 am

      Thanks Chloe, sounds like you have Finglish down pat already. 😀

  4. Jussi Paloniemi permalink
    June 26, 2013 2:17 pm

    “The big pig had to pick a Bic” becomes “Ta pik pik hat to pik a pik.” 🙂

  5. Sonia permalink
    June 27, 2013 11:33 pm

    Very insightful!

    I think that English skills in the metropolitan area are quite different in comparison to the “rural” Finland. When I moved to Finland, I had really difficulties to get responses in English…

    Bi-lingual upbringing is good and important. I have never understood the rants about “poorly adapted” foreigners in Finland, because they speak with their children in the native language, but when Finns live abroad, maintaining the Finnish culture and language is a superior act of patriotism and simply a must. Abu Hanna addresssed this mindset in her book – spot on.

    Often, parents learn the (local) language themselves at the same time, so why on Earth should they use a (broken) local language at home to communicate with their kids? The proper integration and acceptance in the environment (kindergarden, school) make children learn in no time.

    And yes, poor use of articles seems to be contagious. I have never had problems with it before moving to Finland (as you told me when checking my master)… as a German, I am used to even more articles around. Of course we travel from Finland to “Cran Ganaria” (I have seen it written like this even on an ad!). Latest when Finns pronounced my maiden name “Panik”, I “had to” get married 😀

    But in general, there is quite good level of (different) language skills in Finland, which is understandable, because Finnish is a small, uncommon and difficult language. Non-dubbed TV movies are an opportunity to listen to (different) languages and globalization kicked in recently. But the visible obstacle is: the fear of mistakes and the learning-by-the-book (non practical language skills). So Finns don’t dare to start speaking/communicating/presenting (!) (and often admit it), but wait till perfection. Which will never happen without practicing. A vicious circle. Fortunately, global work environments change the mindset a bit.

  6. Robert permalink
    July 11, 2013 12:04 pm

    I know many people have mixed feelings about their kids speaking e.g. Finglish. It is certainly not easy if the kid has problems to express itself to oneself. But as a FinnGerman raised to speak to one parent with one language and to the other one with the other language (crucial!!), I consider Finglish as a intermediate step to perfection and skill only bi-tri-quad-linguals possess. Being able to switch mid-sentence, without thinking and delay from one language to another is not something you can learn, you have to grow in. And this skill is definately something that offered me the chance to interact with people like a fish swimming the water…

    So, C, O will be an absolute champion in Finglish 😉

  7. Nerdygirl permalink
    July 12, 2013 1:23 am

    I think it is good the foreigners learn Finnish in Finland. After all, I get no special treatment when I travel to France. People speak French to me there, so why should Finns speak another language to foreigners who live in Finland? Tourists is one thing, but if you live there, learn the language, the culture and the manners.

    • Sonia permalink
      August 7, 2013 12:10 am

      I agree with Nerdygirl that learning the language is crucial to really dive into a culture and understand the manners (I don’t think that manners need to be “learnt”, after all you are not going to give up yourself who you are – Finns also maintain their culture and manners when living abroad and are proud of it). It is a give and take for both sides.

      Nevertheless, a language like Finnish is not learnt overnight and e.g. expats who just come on an assignment usually don’t bring it to perfection. I worked in other countries in multicultural environments and when it was clear that someone was not yet ready to communicate, nobody would just go on in a local language, but try to get everyone involved in a common/English language.

      I have experienced this summer in France (outside Paris) that everyone was very friendly even we didn’t speak a word. they spoke decent English or just threw in some French words, but absolutely no arrogance and were happy if you were interested to learn some French words. A matter of mindset.

  8. August 20, 2013 6:30 pm

    Thank you so much. This article thought me a lot. I’m going to move to Finland on 4 th of September, so sometimes I need guidance just for preparing me the life there.

    • August 21, 2013 6:09 am

      Good luck dancatfish! Finland is what you make it – enjoy it and learn! 🙂 Try to make it through the dark season (November-December) – that’s tough!

  9. August 30, 2013 1:14 pm

    You forgot one: distinguishing between v and w. I still find it amusing: Ones I went to a pub in Australia, and got it wrong by accident. Back then it took me a while to realise why they were so apologetic about not having any “veggies” even though I saw other getting their wedges…

    • August 30, 2013 2:49 pm

      Indeed! You’re right! 🙂 First thing that comes to mind is “wahna” and vanha.

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