Too few people study Finnish or Swedish

Although language courses are often held during working hours, not everyone is aware of this, or there is simply not enough time to study.

Text Terhi Hautamäki Images Veikko Somerpuro, Milla Talassalo

David Whipp from the United States works as a professor in the University of Helsinki’s Institute of Seismology. When he landed a permanent job last year, he felt more enthusiastic about studying Finnish.

Whipp moved to Finland in 2013, but learning the language has been a slow process. He uses Finnish mainly for short everyday encounters: in a restaurant, in a shop or when his children’s friends stop by for a visit.

“When I first arrived in Finland, I took an introductory course. I learned some vocabulary, but I didn’t learn to speak. Two years later, I took another introductory course for those who have some previous knowledge of the language.”

Colleagues and his supervisor encouraged him to study but understood the lack of time. As the father of two young children, Whipp did not want to leave the Kumpula campus for courses in the city centre after a long day of work, only to arrive home after the children had gone to bed.

Now, eight years later, he is in his fourth course, Finnish 2. Studying became much easier with the availability of online courses, and many of his colleagues are equally enthusiastic about taking one. On-site courses are also planned for the Kumpula campus.

Studying became much easier with the availability of online courses.

Whipp has particularly enjoyed the courses for researchers on the Kumpula campus. Because he and his colleagues see each other anyway, they have practiced talking to each other as well.

“Our teacher has been really helpful explaining things that are more specific to our interests, recognising that all of us are very busy, and she has been patient with us, even though maybe the pace of advancement is not as fast as with some other students.”

SWITCH OR ENGAGE?

Whipp does not actually need Finnish in his research work, though departmental meetings are held in Finnish. Colleagues encourage foreigners to speak Finnish, but it is easier to have quick conversations in English. While living in Finland, Whipp has gotten used to people switching to English while he’s still pondering how to answer in Finnish.

Whipp has gotten used to people switching to English while he’s still pondering how to answer in Finnish.

Whipp thinks that if he wants to advance in his career as a director of a department or institute, for example, he should know Finnish. He especially needs Finnish language skills for social activities.

“I would love to engage more, for instance, with high school students to tell them about the kind of research we are doing. I have had opportunities to do that in English and tried to speak clearly. Most of them are fairly advanced in English. Earlier this year, I had to ask one of my master students to lead one presentation because they told us they would like us to present in Finnish. Of course I was very happy to have the opportunity but somewhat frustrated that I didn’t feel I could do that myself.”

With such prospects, Whipp and his family plan to stay in Finland, so the desire is to better integrate into society.

“It would be nice to not freeze every time someone asks me a question out of the blue somewhere but actually feel able to respond and to feel more connected to the average person here.”

“It would be nice to not freeze every time someone asks me a question out of the blue somewhere.”

David Whipp
Johanna Moisio

“Does everyone know equally about language training, or is the flow of information dependent on the immediate supervisor?”

Johanna Moisio is asking.

STUDYING AT WORK

Universities encourage their foreign staff to study Finnish or Swedish, at least in principle. When Acatiimi asked if staff could attend language courses during working hours, half of the universities said unequivocally yes, and half mentioned that studying during working hours should be agreed with the supervisor.

Universities share information about courses on their intranet, in newsletters, through targeted emails, in the staff training calendar and during orientation. Information is also issued by supervisors.

However, Johanna Moisio, executive director of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT), estimates that many are unaware of the opportunity to study. When FUURT discussed this with university management, it turned out that universities do support language learning but have not considered it carefully.

“Some universities support the integration of entire families into Finland. But when we asked if you have Finnish or Swedish language teaching and whether the staff can study during working hours, the answer was, One moment, we need to check. Does everyone know equally about language training, or is the flow of information dependent on the immediate supervisor?” Moisio ponders.

FEW FOREIGNERS STUDY FINNISH

Only about 20–30 percent of international staff attend Finnish or Swedish language courses each year.

The range of participants in language courses is vague, because universities report the number of participants in proportion to the total number of international staff. However, the same people can attend multiple courses in the same year. No statistics were available from several universities.

Only about 20–30 percent of international staff attend Finnish or Swedish language courses each year.

The University of Helsinki reports that about 20 percent of their international staff participate in Finnish courses each year, and 25 percent at LUT University. At the University of Turku, about one-third attend the introductory course.

Tampere University reports that 29.6 percent of their international research and teaching staff have taken language courses this year. Åbo Akademi reports 43 percent, but the university estimates that some of them have taken several courses. Last year, about 20 percent of the University of Oulu’s international staff attended language training, a large proportion of them doctoral researchers.

At the University of Jyväskylä, 50 people took part in language training, compared with 300 international staff. The university cautiously estimates that the proportion of participants in language courses is about 10 percent, as it is likely that the same people will attend different courses and some will not be employees, such as researchers working under grants.

FINNISH SPEAKERS STAY IN FINLAND

When studying languages, it is important to be able to progress to a level where one can succeed in working life. Universities offer studies if there is a demand, and courses are tailored to the needs of the participants. Staff can also take courses intended for students.

The University of Vaasa mentions that the university can also pay for language studies completed elsewhere on one’s own time.

Overall, Moisio sees language education as an issue of equality for scientists.

“Some universities require that in a professor’s career path, they must acquire sufficient Finnish skills. Professors’ work involves administrative tasks, and if they do not speak Finnish, there is a risk that Finnish-speaking staff will end up handling the bulk of the administrative tasks.”

If employees are to be encouraged to study, there should be room for it in their work plan.

For many, language studies fall short of good intentions, because there is no time for them. Moisio says that if employees are to be encouraged to study, there should be room for it in their work plan. She has not heard that to be the case, however.

“Less than half of graduated doctors stay in the university to work, and half should be able to find jobs elsewhere. There is a risk that without Finnish or Swedish skills, they will not be able to find work and will leave Finland.”

Recommendations and requirements

Finnish or Swedish skills are naturally required in language teaching positions as well as in certain professorships and administrative positions. Universities also have requirements for the language skills of other professionals. Tampere University mentions that Finnish skills are required, for example, from clinical teachers who work in medical sciences.

Universities are happy to recruit international experts, and it is possible for a foreign or non-native Finnish citizen to deviate from the language proficiency requirements specified in the Government Decree. The language requirements for each position are explained during the recruitment phase.

Åbo Akademi says that the administrative language and the primary language of instruction is Swedish, and proficiency in Swedish is essential in order to participate on equal footing. The University of the Arts Helsinki replies that most positions require proficiency in Finnish or Swedish.

Some universities have made recommendations or requirements for language learning. The University of Jyväskylä states that foreign personnel are generally required to have at least basic knowledge of the Finnish language (A2.2 level) within three years of employment. At the A2.2 level, the speaker understands familiar topics quite well and can write with simple language.

The goal of the University of Vaasa is for employees to acquire basic A2 Finnish language skills within four years of being recruited. Level A2 is not enough for teaching or demanding administrative tasks, but it helps them participate in the work community. If the position involves or is expected to involve demanding administrative tasks, such as management teamwork, the university recommends that at some point, the employee study at least at the B1 or B2 level, at which point they will be able to hold natural conversations and understand texts related to their own work.

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