Myth 2: All Finns Speak English

Unlike in some other corners of Europe, Finns seem mostly to be fine at English and also fine about speaking it. Appearances can be deceiving, however. Being competent in a language is not the same as feeling at home in it – and just because you can do your current job in English doesn't mean that English will suffice for the years to come.
Photo: Rainer Paananen. All rights reserved.

This second myth comes skipping along right behind the first one. After solemn warnings about how hard Finnish is, we are reassured that you don’t really need it anyway – everyone here is happy to speak English with you instead.

This can seem very plausible, especially for those living in Helsinki or other large cities: English is heard all over the place: on the streets, in shops and in government offices. Indeed, on some of the main shopping avenues you can see more signs in English than in Finnish! If you’re working in a company where English is the main language, this myth may seem all the more plausible: all your workmates probably seem fine about using English all day long.

Just because someone seems to be managing fine in English, however, doesn’t mean that they are happy about the situation – and it certainly doesn’t mean that they perform just as well in English as in Finnish or some other language. Our attitudes towards speaking a language are, after all, much more than just a question of objective language competence. Languages connect with emotions and identity in many ways – they are not simply tools that can be switched one for another without any other effects. Creativity, for example, is one area where the impact can easily go unnoticed: apparently fluent speakers of English may still function much better in brainstorming sessions and other collaborative creative work if they express and discuss their idea in their mother tongue.

To know how Finns feel about using English at work, you would have to actually ask them. In many fields, however, the expectation of professional English skills is so strong that people can feel embarrassed to talk about the challenges of working in English. Thus the status quo of let’s-pretend-we’re-all-fine-just-speaking-English easily continues undisturbed.

Discarding this myth is important also for your own wellbeing – at least in the longer-term. In English-based workplaces, it may seem at first that lack of Finnish skills is not a barrier to advancement. Later on, however, you may discover that Finnish is expected for more managerial tasks or for working with some of the company’s clients. Alternatively, you may need to look for work elsewhere later on and find your options limited by weak Finnish skills.

Furthermore, your long-term wellbeing depends on much more than just your career. To fully participate in many areas of Finnish life – such as sports and leisure activities, civil society groups, or parents’ evenings at schools – learning Finnish is vital.

Saying goodbye to the myth of the pseudo-English Finn is therefore key to boosting your own motivation to learn. Not only is it possible to learn Finnish, it is also good for you and for all Finnish speakers if you set out on the path to become one of them.

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