Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Speaking English

Bertolt Brecht once said the Finns were the only people in the world who were "silent in two languages".

That is grossly unfair as Finns are often pretty good at more than two languages!

As it happens though, just last week, The Economist's blog highlighted some research that placed Finns in the top 5 speakers of English as a foreign language in the world. The blog post mentions several factors that correlate with English ability across the world, and which seem to explain Finland's position: wealthy country (tick), small country (tick), language not largely spoken outside the country (tick), export dependency (tick) and good teaching (tick). It could also have added: no dubbing of foreign TV programmes and movies (tick).

It wasn't always so though. I remember being surprised the first time I visited Helsinki in the 90s how few people spoke good English. I found I had a better chance of communicating using German than English. I've been told that the former CEO of a publicly listed Finnish company used to speak such poor English than he would answer the phone with the very terse: "buying or selling?".

But now everyone speaks English in Finland. And I have to say I have been very impressed with the Finns' ability to speak, understand, read and write in English, even when tired, drunk or otherwise not fully compos mentis.

They make very few mistakes, though the mistakes they do make always seem to be the same. For example, they will say: "I have two pens. The other one is black, the other one is blue" (instead of "one is black", they can't both be "other"!) – a direct translation of the word "toinen". They will also use the preposition "to" instead of "for" ("I have bought curtains to the bedroom") – the Finnish language doesn't make that distinction.

I have also noticed a bizarre obsession with expressions like "goody, goody" or "okie dokie", possibly as a result of their own language's use of repetitions such as "päivää, päivää" ("hello, hello") or "hei, hei" ("bye!").

That is nit-picking though. I wish I was as able to communicate in Finnish as well as most Finns can in English. I am decades away from that. Sigh.

In the meantime, I am practicing my Finnish silence.


  1. Wow, I really love your saying that you are practicing your Finnish in silence. I also practice my English, French, Swedish and Chinese in silence and to the CV I'll write: Moderate -level.

  2. I think you have a good point. Someone once said: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

    I often forget to apply that in my life!

  3. I think that Finns are good at English spelling, because:
    1. We learn to spell and say a word at the same time (as opposed to first learning to say a word and then, years later, learning to spell it)
    2. In Finnish, letters are always pronounced the same way, so we tend to read English and then pronounce it how we would say it in our head.
    3(?). I don't know if others do it, but I tend to associate a sound with letter combinations that generally are pronounced the same way. (So if I know that the -tion part in station is pronounced one way, if I hear that in another word, I spell that sound that way.) This isn't always effective, since one same sound can be written multiple ways, but it helps.