Speak English, Kiitos?
Language, identity and immigration in Finland: What’s more important to fit in, language skills or true ‘sisu’?
The mayor of Helsinki, Juhana Virtiainen, told Helsingin Sanomat in August 2021 that Helsinki should perhaps be declared an English-speaking city. The idea behind this proposal was to encourage Finnish companies to recruit larger numbers of technically skilled workers from abroad, in order to address the worsening labour shortage in medical, technical and administrative fields that the Finnish Chamber of Commerce called “alarming”, according to a report by Yle News. Could Finland’s language policy be the key to solving its skilled labour shortage?
One obstacle to coming to work in a highly skilled job in Finland is that companies often still stipulate a native-like command of Finnish – something that can seem unreasonable, and which is normally not allowed under Finnish equality law. Such language requirements must always be directly linked to the nature of the job itself. However, many expert roles do indeed require a high level of control and precision in speaking and writing.
But does a high level of speaking and writing have to imply the use of Finnish? Adjoining Helsinki to the west is the municipality of Espoo, the second-largest urban area in Finland. Of its 300,000 inhabitants, one in six does not speak Finnish or Swedish as their first language, as noted by Kai Mykkänen, Chair of Espoo City Council in Helsinki Times in June. In 2017, English was made an official service language in Espoo, making it possible to use public services there in English. English is also available for the most common aspects of national infrastructure, such as transport, health and social security, and taxation.
However, when foreigners deal with more complex or less common issues, they invariably reach the limit of the roll-out of English-language information, and find themselves confronted with a dense PDF
file of administrative or legal Finnish. It’s fortunate, then, that Finns regularly rank among the most proficient speakers of English as an additional language, according to the World Economic Forum. Especially in metropolitan areas like Helsinki and Espoo, but also elsewhere in the country, Finns are typically prepared to at least meet someone halfway if they are struggling to be articulate in Finnish, and many Finns positively relish the chance to use their knowledge of business English or to deploy their English-language popular culture references.
This is a cultural richness that makes Finland feel welcoming and friendly at the level of day-to-day interactions, despite the popular stereotype of Finns eschewing small talk and preferring silence. The reality is that once you get a Finn talking, they really talk! The downside of this for someone moving to Finland and hoping to learn the language, is that it’s easy to hit the wall in terms of what can be absorbed by osmosis from life’s routines.
There is something of a paradox, then, in the attitudes of Finns to the English language. The majority recognise the value of English for international competitiveness, but they are also anxious about Finnish being displaced by English. Radio stations play a mixture of languages, with English songs featuring prominently. Over half of the country uses SVODs (subscription video on demand services) such as Netflix, and over 70 per cent use social video streaming such as YouTube. Finns like global culture. But the Finnish language itself only gained official status relatively recently in the nation’s history, when Swedish rule ended in 1809 and Finland became an autonomous Russian Grand Duchy, until it gained independence in 1917.
Language as identity Finnish national identity is intimately associated with its language. The word ‘sisu’ is regarded by many Finns as untranslatable. It refers to a kind of distinctively Finnish toughness, grit, or guts. The distinctively Finnish aspect of ‘sisu’ is tied to the way the country transformed after the Second World War, pulling itself up into a thriving, eco-friendly, technologically advanced, highly educated and fair, progressive democracy. ‘Sisu’ captures a dogged sense of duty and getting things done the right way, but it also aspires to a utopian ideal of what society should be like.
At the level of the individual sounds of the language, Finnish identity is found, for example, in the highly trilled /r/; every Finnish grandparent is keen to know the moment their grandchild acquires the magical ability to pronounce this particular phoneme. At the level of the whole language as a political object, there is a national flag day for the language itself, another for the national epic poem, Kalevala, and several more for individual poets and writers. Perhaps this strong link between language and identity is part of the reason why job advertisers are relatively conservative in their language requirements. In addition to the increasing frequency of public statements designed to raise awareness of, and break the link between, language stipulations and labour shortages, Helsinki Business Hub ran the 90 Day Finn programme in 2020, offering United States tech professionals a relocation package to Helsinki, attracting over 5,300 applicants for just 14 spaces. People want to come to Finland, and when they come, they want to stay. The English language will continue to be popular and important in Finland, but Finland’s other languages will always have pride of place.
Lutheran Cathedral of Helsinki. Photo: pxfuel.com
Helsinki from above. Photo: pxfuel.com Finland has two main official languages, Finnish and Swedish, and six official minority languages: three varieties of Sami, spoken mainly in the north of Finland; Romani, spoken mainly in the south and west; Karelian, spoken mainly in the eastern region bordering Russia; and Finnish Sign Language.
Just as the pandemic was beginning to shut down all of the clubs and night spots in the spring of 2020, Swedish duo Jubël found themselves with a monster UK radio and streaming hit on their hands, with their bop-worthy cover of the Toploader classic, Dancing In The Moonlight. Unable to capitalise on the potential of a club hit until recent developments, they’re now back with another stab at soundtracking our good times on the dance floor. New single I & I is a cheeky little tune that celebrates the healing joy to be found in temporarily removing yourself from everyone else around you and taking some time to live your best life all by yourself for a while. All set to a fabulous disco production that bangs suitably, of course.
Those recently reopened dance floors have birthed a brand-new band to look out for in Denmark, going by the name of Kalaset. Their debut single is Riv I Mit Hår, which serves up some shimmering indie sounds that will take you right back to the more kitsch side of ’90s Britpop, all while keeping one ear on all of the retro-styled electronica that’s taken over Danish radio in a big way over the past 12 months or so. It’s therefore a song that has ended up as something that’s unequivocally ’10s Danskpop! The melodies on this track are irresistible, made all the more endearing via the harmonies they’re delivered with.
Former Scan Magazine cover girl, Rhys from Sweden, is back with a brand-new track called Cry Over Me. An instant keeper, it’s some straight-up, top-notch, super-catchy pop music that contains definite shades of some of the mid-’00s
smashes that her fellow Swedish creative, Max Martin, used to pen for the likes of Kelly Clarkson and P!nk.
A happy chipsmas
Did you go to IKEA for your Christmas tree? Of course you did. In times of great uncertainty (climate change, Brexit and a never-ending pandemic) you return to what you know. Clever storage solutions and a bland hotdog in a bland bun that always breaks right down the middle. Surprisingly bad design, especially considering where it is sold.
Now, if you went to IKEA you probably decided to enjoy a cheap lunch in what resembles your old school cafeteria. Perhaps you chose a salmon plate or a Daim cake. Or perhaps you went all in and opted for the meatballs. You probably did. But did your heart almost jump out of your mouth when you were asked if you wanted chips with that? This is a confusing take on the classic meatball dish. Almost… forbidden. Especially since it turns out to be a delightful combination. But we must remember to eat it in shame. After all, we have a reputation as healthy Scandis to protect.
It reminds me of a time in my youth when I was on tour in Ireland. We stayed in a small hotel in a small town and the next morning we got up early for breakfast. I slouched in my chair, hungover, possibly still drunk, and said I just wanted whatever the others were having. The fried breakfast, the shameful breakfast, the clogged-arteries breakfast, the one my mother warned me about. To my horror, the waitress turned to me and asked: ‘And do you want chips with that?’. Chips for breakfast?! I stared at her for a moment, bewildered. Then I broke and said: ‘Yes… yes I will have those chips’.
Shame is not great design. Bring on the chips. Happy Chipsmas.
Gabi Froden is a Swedish illustrator and writer, living in Glasgow with her husband and two children. Her children’s and YA books are published in Sweden by Bonnier Carlsen and Natur&Kultur. www.gabifroden.com
Tampere festival of light. Photo: Visit Tampere
Scandinavian Culture Calendar
– Where to go, what to see? It’s all happening here!
Stockholm ice skating If you’re looking for a way to get rid of those cobwebs in your head or burn a few Christmas calories, take a spin on the ice with Stockholm Adventures. There are options for total beginners as well as longer excursions for those who are already comfortable gliding on the ice. Skating on natural ice is about as Nordic as it gets. Kungsbro strand 21, 112 26 Stockholm www.stockholmadventures.com
Oslo Philharmonic: New Year’s Concert (6 January 2022) Oslo Concert Hall, with its impressive architecture, is playing host to Oslo Philharmonic’s New Year concert. Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann and pianist Khatia Buniatishvili will be guiding the audience to a new (cultural) year with Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. 7pm. Oslo Concert Hall, Munkedamsveien 14, 0115 Oslo www.ofo.no/en
Dance Theatre Hurjaruuth: Winter Circus Speed (until 9 January 2022) Dance Theatre Hurjaruuth is a Finnish institution, and its annual Winter Circus is the highlight of many a child’s (and indeed adult’s) Christmas season. The storytelling is based on movement and is therefore accessible to everyone. This year, the Winter Circus theme is ‘speed’ – so prepare for a wild ride on bicycles, roller skates, hoverboards and bobsleds, encompassing live music, video projections and, of course, circus. Sörnäisten rantatie 22, 00540 Helsinki www.hurjaruuth.fi
Kjarval and the Contemporary (until 16 January 2022) Jóhannes S. Kjarval (1885-1972) was a pioneer of Icelandic art and one of the country’s most-loved painters. In this exhibition, his works are shown next to those of a number of contemporary artists, showcasing the mark he has left on Iceland’s cultural scene. Flókagata 24, 105 Reykjavík www.listasafnreykjavikur.is/en
Jenny Wilson (19 January 2022) Singer-songwriter Jenny Wilson, who hails from Sweden and published her first solo album, Love and Youth, in 2005, is known for her distinct electro-influenced music. She has previously collaborated with another Swedish favourite, Robyn, and will now be performing at the Vulcan Arena in Oslo. 7pm. Maridalsveien 13 B, Oslo www.vulkanarena.no
Women artists at a time of social upheaval (until 23 January 2022) In addition to being a member of the Swedish royal family, Prince Eugen (18651947) was also an artist, art collector and patron. Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde on the leafy island of Djurgården in Stockholm is a popular art museum located at his former residence. The exhibition A Room of One’s Own – The Role of the Artist in the Late Nineteenth Century celebrates women artists working at a time of social upheaval, with works by Julia Beck, Hanna Hirsch-Pauli, Bertha Wegmann and Helene Schjerfbeck on display. Prins Eugens väg 6, Stockholm www.waldemarsudde.se
Winter Jazz (3-27 February 2022) Feeling the winter blues? Denmark’s Winter Jazz festival spans three weeks and 150 venues in multiple cities, and offers more than 600 concerts, so you are bound to find something to suit your tastes. Copenhagen itself is known for its jazz scene, thanks to hosting American icons such as Stan Getz in the 1950s and 1960s. www.jazz.dk/vinterjazz-2022
Tampere Festival of Light (until 14 March 2022) Launched in 1965, the Tampere Festival of Light is the perfect antidote to the darkest time of the year. The highlight of the event is the light gallery located between the Central Square and Hämeenpuisto. The gallery consists of 15 artworks depicting city dwellers at work and at play, curated by Tampere Art Museum. Tampere, Finland www.valoviikot.tampere.fi
Stockholm ice skating. Photo: Stockholm Adventures
Hurjaruuth. Photo: Riku Virtanen