How learning Finnish language will benefit your career in Finland

When I landed in Finland, almost six full years ago, I would have never imagined I would come to call the place home one day. I knew close to nothing about Finland, a country which has a very limited visibility in Italy. I found out I knew some of its most popular exported products very well, but ignored their connection to Finland. I apologise to all my Finnish friends, but at the time I believed Nokia was a Japanese trademark (feel free to throw salmiakki at me at our next encounter). After few months, I was madly in love with this amazing country and its people. When I was offered an opportunity to continue my doctoral studies in Helsinki, I caught it right away. I have been living permanently in Finland since the end of 2011, and started my work career in this country then. Here I would like to discuss one aspect of this part of my life, in a way that I hope will advise new-comers or people who dream of moving here.
My message is: if you dream of a career or of achieving certain work goals in Finland, learning Finnish language is a must. You might be fooled by the fact that most Finns - especially in the capital area - speak fluently English. There's plenty of English-speaking companies here, and surely you can start a career here. However, the long-term goals need a different angle.

Learning Finnish is painful, takes a lot of time and energy. Personally, I'd say it's a good personal investment if you plan to live in Finland for at least 5 years. Also, you need to be consistent with learning and be courageous with training yourself in your daily life. I've met several people who had more certifications than me and still did not have the courage to actually start speaking Finnish in their daily lives, even outside work. Unless you are really gifted at languages, expect a via crucis... but also great satisfaction when you'll reach your goals, I can guarantee.

I have been studying Finnish language for five years - slowed down by my maternity duties - and after about 3,5 years I started feeling confident about understanding most contexts. At the time, I was working at the university, an environment which is basically defined as international. During the previous years, in working mailing lists there had been sparse but persistent appearances of emails exclusively in Finnish. I had never paid attention to them, thinking that I'd be notified in case they concerned me. Boy, I was wrong.
When I started understanding contents of such emails, I found out many - not most, thankfully - concerned everyone. They were advertising job postings or, worse, grants. Most online forms for Finnish grants were in Finnish only. That was the day I thanked the myself of the past for having such determination about learning the language. I also started realising that not knowing Finnish could be a terrible limitation in my future working life.

After such epiphany, I started switching to Finnish language in social situations and encourage my colleagues to keep the conversation in Finnish. There came the second big realisation. I felt my colleagues were sharing a lot more information when they were talking in Finnish. It felt as they were different people. Beware: I am fully convinced they didn't even realise that! They were much less formal and clearly more free when they were speaking in their mothertongue. There I got it: without Finnish language, I would have stayed an outsider forever. Only a visitor. After observing this social phenomenon, I turned my eye to myself and noticed that "Paola speaking Italian" has a slightly different (perceived) personality than "Paola speaking English" and even more than "Paola speaking Finnish", since I don't yet have the confidence - for instance - to have a sense of humour in this language. I found out there are even studies and articles about having "multiple personalities" linked to different known languages. You know all that talking about the importance of networking in your career? Well, there I understood not knowing Finnish would have put an invisible wall between me and my colleagues.

In many countries, knowing the local language can make the difference in survival in everyday life. In Finland, this doesn't happen because Finns are very good at English and languages in general. Finnish is objectively very hard to learn, and these two facts combined tend to convince immigrants that it's not worth the effort, at least from the career point of view. Finns themselves - even most immigrants - will tell you that you don't need Finnish to work in Finland. Personally, I strongly encourage foreign workers in Finland to sit down and make a career plan for the next years: if at Easter of 5 years from now you see yourself eating mämmi, it's time to collect your sisu and apply for a Finnish language course.

Paola Elefante

Digital Scaling Project Manager at Plan International. Proud mother & wife. Shameless nerd&geek. Feminist. Undercover gourmet.

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