I don’t speak Finnish, mutta ymmärrän kyllä

Mikä ei kuulu joukkoon: inessiivi, elatiivi, illatiivi, vai einatiivi? Viimeinen ei aina yliopistoyhteisössämme kuulu joukkoon, which is why I am switching to English here. The above joke does not translate, which is kind of the point: non-native Finnish speakers are at times disadvantaged or forgotten at our university.

The University of Turku is a Finnish-speaking university, proudly once the first one of its kind – Finnish is deeply ingrained in us, and that will not change. But the University of Turku is also an international English-speaking community – we are proud of that too. And that will change, namely towards a community that is even more international.

It may seem that language is a non-issue: we have many international PhDs and postdocs, a notable number of international Master’s students, and a handful of non-Finns as professors, and much (most?) of the scientific discourse is in English.  This, however, is what is new (and exciting!): of the seven most recent professor hires (of all ranks) to the Faculty of Technology, six do not speak (much) Finnish. Prior to these recruits, the entire Faculty had two non-native Finnish speakers as professors, both fluent in Finnish long before becoming professors. Now we have one department that has as many professors who do not speak Finnish as ones who do. I hear stories that confirm a similar trend in other Finnish universities (in engineering fields).

This fast-evolving language-scape is an opportunity to improve and rethink how to best support all members of our increasingly diverse academic community. Thankfully, we are already doing many things fine, and even well.

  • Most of our public events, seminars, webinars, etc. are in English.
  • We do a fair job with communications: emails and news items from the central administration are in both English and Finnish; our websites and even the Intranet are to a large degree bilingual. Information provided by faculties and departments are more spotty, though.  Ideally, these parts of the Intranet would be bilingual too, but certainly in the Faculty of Technology, we lag behind.  One reason is that our Intranet and web page framework are not the most conducive for perfectly synchronized dual language content—the English and Finnish pages are essentially completely independent sites (I have some ideas for how to fix this, but that is for another blog entry).
  • We teach in both languages, and offer a large selection of programs and courses for international Master’s students. While this is not yet the case for Bachelor’s students, Bachelor’s programs will probably start to appear soon.

But we make mistakes too. Two examples from our faculty’s short history:

  • On a Viima-discussion board for our faculty, the conversation about the faculty’s language policy was in Finnish. Duh!
  • We sent our young international tenure track professors to (expensive) academic leadership training, where several sessions and subsequent discussions were in Finnish only. We took corrective action midway, but duh2!

The end result in both of these cases was that some missed out on being included, and others missed out on hearing the views of the excluded.

The last bastions that operate primarily in Finnish are found in the (administrative) organs that discuss and plan how we conduct our business and make decisions, both routine and strategic. For example, our faculty boards operate in Finnish; our rules and policies are in (complex) Finnish. Should we try to change that? Add English as an official administrative language?

Perhaps not, but when we have units where half of professors are not Finnish-speakers, we should find ways to make administrative forums more accessible to everyone. For example, it could become the norm that faculty boards can have members who understand Finnish well enough to follow discussions, but prefer to use English to express their views. And to various less formal committees and working groups (departments’ and faculties’ committees on teaching, research, continuous education, outreach, many university level committees, what have you), we should not hesitate to appoint members regardless of their Finnish competence level.

We, and surely many other faculties and departments, are doing this already. As changes are implemented, some may notice differences in how discussion flows as committee members switch away from a language they are habituated to. But this switch pays off: we include more people to work on common issues, and gain fresh ideas and perspectives—that may come because of people’s different backgrounds.

Many of those staying at UTU for longer periods, or even indefinitely, will one day become fluent Finnish speakers. But it will always be the case that a large number of people in the UTU community are not there.  It is thus a constant that we operate in an environment where some have trouble communicating in Finnish, and others have trouble communicating in English. This balancing act between two languages will never fully disappear.

The growth toward increased language inclusivity does not only occur in formal, committee settings. In my own experiences in a foreign university, I was grateful for many colleagues who tolerated my clumsy Norwegian and had the patience to converse with me slowly and with a lot of repetition. In this way, speaking in Finnish can also be inclusive. It may be useful to recognize that learning to understand a foreign language often happens much quicker than learning to speak it, and especially to master academic jargon. If we become more comfortable with mixing languages, we render even contexts where the discourse is primarily in Finnish more inclusive.

A recent move in this direction nationally is an upcoming change to the DIA entrance exams (for engineering and architecture programs), which are currently in Finnish and Swedish. We recognize that there are many talented young people in Finland who are not native Finnish speakers, but who know enough Finnish to thrive in our study programs. Such applicants face an uphill battle trying to compete in Finnish-only exams. To correct this, starting in 2022 (or maybe we must wait until 2023), all questions will be given, and can be answered, in English as well.

As must be clear at this point, this blog offers no simple recipe for a university community where opportunities and responsibilities are equally available, and where one can participate and feel recognized regardless of one’s mastery of the Finnish language. But we can make real progress towards these goals by doing a bit of extra work, by tolerating some initial awkwardness, by patience and empathy, by paying attention to small practical things, and by learning from our gaffes.

Jaakko Järvi

The writer is the Dean of the Faculty of Technology. 

Categories: KoulutusKeywords: ,

7 responses to “I don’t speak Finnish, mutta ymmärrän kyllä”

  1. I want to thank you for bringing up the language issue. If I may propose a step forward, would be to include more advanced or field specific language courses (not Suomen mestari related, have nothing against the book but it is not enough once you reach a certain level and not helpful at all when learning spoken Finnish which most of the time feels like an entirely different language one has to learn).
    NOTE that these courses should be part of the curriculum for students but also offered as options for those working, as in, employees should not be left to look for and pay for courses outside of their working hours.
    Take the example of Sweden, doctoral candiate positions are paid positions most of the time and include Swedish lessons as part of the work load and within working hours, because the requirements for the position include some use of Swedish. Why not do something similar in Finland? This will also enrich the growing body of academic research in Finnish!

    • I think that if you “reach a certain level”, the best way to learn spoken Finnish is by using it and not taking courses where you will always be in an artificial environment. If you want to learn puhekieltä, watch Finnish TV shows and try to use the language in real life situations.

  2. Jaakko’s blog raises an important point. I was for many years on a tenure-track towards full professor here in UTU. When I started in the tenure-track position I asked whether the time needed to learn Finnish is considered as part of my working time. The answer I received from my superior was “No”. I concluded that learning Finnish was clearly not that important. As my native language (not English) is far from the Finnish language, and I am not very talented in languages, I felt that learning Finnish would require a massive amount of hours. I felt that I should focus my valuable tenure-track time towards getting results and making progress in the hope to gain tenure. I did get tenure and actually find that – at least in my field – one can manage quite well at UTU without spoken Finnish. At UTU, staff and students speak English, often really good English. The title of Jaakko’s blog is in my view a good description of the Finnish needed; especially understanding written Finnish is important.

  3. Thank you for bringing this topic up! As I came to Finland 13 years ago, I didn’t speak or understood a word in Finnish. Almost all information even in the train station was in Finnish and Swedish back then. So I knew, if I am going to stay here, I need to learn the language first.
    There are many opportunities to learn Finnish in Turku! But yes, you need time and motivation. Well, I was highly motivated and had luck, because my family was patient with me when I asked to switch the home language into Finnish. And I am very grateful to my colleagues for their patience and tollerance, when I make mistakes and speak with a strange accent.
    As one, who have lived in three countries and every time spoken the countries’ language, I know how important (and enrichend!) it is to understand and to speak the countries’ language. But, as one who went through hard and long process of learning Finnish, I can understand also, that for fixed term – stayers in the country, there should be better possibilities to operate and bring their best performance in English.

  4. Thank you Jaakko for the reflection and well written article. It touches on many relevant aspects that often are not explicitly mentioned in ongoing discussions related to Finnish language challenges while integrating immigrants in the workforce.

    As someone who has struggled (and keeps struggling) in learning Finnish, I want to express the importance of feeling supported and welcoming enabling us to thrive and contribute in our work and communities. It is so important that each one of us (Fins and no-Fins) feels as part of the group independently of our different talents.

    In reference to language acquisition, maybe there is space for improvement. I do not know how, but we might need to search for mechanisms to support those who would like to grow their language skills. We need to put in (a lot of) extra work, patience (for oneself too) and empathy for sure. Together we will overcome the barriers. 😉

    We are learning together and from one another.

    Kiitos sanastasi!

  5. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments and for offering several good suggestions for our dual-language community. And thank you for sharing your personal experiences: though everyone’s experiences are different, they are also similar, so that many (including myself) can relate to what you describe.

  6. First of all, thank you. No, actually THANK YOU! UTU is proud of being a Finnish speaking university and I respect that. I tried my best to learn Finnish despite working day and night but there are other things internationals are dealing with in connection to the language. The university should think more critically about the reasons for hiring internationals and how to attract talented international researchers without comprimising the Finnish-speaking identity but with paying attention to being inclusive. It starts with being aware of the fact that these people need guidance for operating culture, expectations, dynamics of worklife, and life in general no matter how experienced they are. They need guidance in these because many things that we need at first are described better in Finnish and at a very surface level in English, at least this has been my experience. I hope your entry will raise awareness in the UTU community to some degree.


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