I’m Learning Finnish

Almost eight months ago, I moved to Finland.

I moved to do a job where I’d asked my interviewer, right at the beginning of the interview, whether I’d succeed only speaking English, and he repeatedly reassured me that it wasn’t a problem.

Finland is pretty well known around the world for a few things. Sauna (the only Finnish word widely adopted in English), Nokia, Angry Birds, and having an really tricky language to learn.

When I moved here, I felt like I fitted in, partly because people are quieter, and more reserved than in most places I’ve been, but partly, because everybody I do need to talk to speaks pretty good English, often without me asking them to.

That said, I like Finland, and I want to stay in the future and integrate into society properly, so a couple of months after arriving, I enrolled on a basic Finnish course, which I managed to pass (despite writing “I am not a cat” in my first big assignment).

When I left the classroom, and started trying to use my Finnish in the real world, I had a problem. If I’m out shopping, the moment I look slightly confused, hesitate, say “umm” or even pause for more than a second, whoever is serving me immediately swaps to English. This is great customer service, and this is often really helpful, especially when I was new here.

Often, though, I want to practice with a real, native Finnish speaker. It might take me an extra few seconds, but I learn so much from it, about how language is really used (which is, as a side note, a little different from the textbooks).

I want to integrate into society, and the language is one of the first steps. I need to learn to do all of my daily “stuff” in Finnish. Selkokeskus, Finland’s “Centre for Easy-to-Read [Finnish]” has done work encouraging organisations to make simple Finnish versions of their written materials, but spoken language is different.

My “Opettelen Suomea” badge in the snow.

For the past few months, I’ve tried wearing a small (just over 2cm) badge, that says “Opettelen Suomea”, to try and point out to people who I might try talking to that hesitation doesn’t mean I don’t want to speak Finnish, and speaking to me in simple, clear Finnish, will be a big help.

At work, it’s lead to me occasionally using incidental bits of Finnish. This has lead to discussions about the language, and again, it feels more realistic than practicing phases from a book in a class with other beginners.

In my experience, it’s best with people you see every day, like colleagues and friends, but I’ve been well received when trying to speak Finnish in the cafes, hamburger restaurants, and with the postman.

Overall, the people who have paid attention to it, have absolutely loved it. I get compliments for trying, even when I fail miserably. Every time I, for example, buy a hamburger, I’m learning more about interacting with people in Finnish than my classes with other foreigners can teach me.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a big success.

I’ve given badges to a few of my friends, some of them have found them useful, others not.

Now, I’m sure I’m not the only one in my situation, so I’m experimenting with making the badges more widely available.

For a Euro, you can order a badge through my website, I’ll post it to you, and whether you’re in an English-speaking workplace, or going to the supermarket, you can discretely tell people;

“Hey, I know you’re probably happy to speak English, but I’m making an effort to learn and I’d really like to try speaking Finnish!”

I consider this an experiment, I’ve got a bunch of badges at the moment, and I’d be really happy to hear how it goes if anyone tries wearing one at work, or in the wild!