Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. About 90% of Finns speak Finnish as their mother tongue and about 5% Swedish. Many of those who have moved to Finland have noticed that, without proficiency in a local language, it can be difficult to cope in the country.
Competence in Finnish or Swedish is often important when seeking employment. Some jobs require proficiency in both languages. After many attempts, a 36 year-old man from Afghanistan finally got a job as a sales assistant in a grocery store. He said that finding work required a great deal of persistence.
He already speaks Finnish fluently, but says that the way that he speaks made it difficult to find work. He had trained as a car mechanic in Finland, and had initially sought dozens of jobs in that field.
“At one dealership, the owner said frankly that he wanted a Finn for the job, as that is what the customers liked. I could do the job very well, but he was the owner and I was a foreigner. What could I do?”
English is no replacement for Finnish
Finns are very good at English. Finland has statutory compulsory education, which includes not only the teaching of the other national language but also of a foreign language. The country also has, for example, training programmes in English. This can give the wrong image of the importance of the Finnish language.
“With English you can handle everyday tasks, but integration and overall living will be unsatisfactory. If you are applying for education, work or are seeking friends, competence in Finnish is often necessary,” says a man of Kurdish background.
Another man from Afghanistan agrees.
“When I arrived here, I was good at English and I thought that I would cope with that. Then I began to teach physical education and I soon noticed that, without Finnish, I would not succeed.
In Finland, many jobs require not only language proficiency but also professional training or higher education. In order to obtain employment, you must be able either to acquire sufficient training or to supplement the qualifications you have acquired in another country, in accordance with Finnish requirements.
The Finnish language is difficult but not impossible to learn
Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric family of languages. It often causes people trouble. Because there are no words in common with your own mother tongue, learning the language must be started from scratch. Swedish, on the other hand, is an Indo-European language, which belongs to the Nordic branch of the Germanic languages. It is related to Norwegian, Danish and German, amongst others. Swedish also has many borrowed words from French, for example.
“‘Bad English’ is spoken in many countries, but ‘bad Finnish’ is heard more rarely. In Finland, you are required to know the language at least quite well,” says the man from Afghanistan.
“Once you can express yourself comprehensibly in Finnish, it is easier to make contacts,” the Kurdish man adds.
In the early stages, Finnish is not necessarily easy to learn. In terms of its vocabulary and grammar, it differs completely from many other languages.
“Finnish is very different from my own mother tongue. Both have the Roman alphabet, and the language is pronounced as it is written. But they have nothing else in common,” says a Somali man.
Learning Finnish is not, however, impossible. According to the interviewees, it requires a perseverance and hard work. In the opinion of the Kurdish man, who speaks Finnish completely fluently, you must begin studying as soon as you arrive in the country.
“It’s not just a question of finding work. If you live in a country, spend a normal life there and have dealings with the people, it’s shameful to complain that you can’t speak the language.”