The paradox of Finnish language teaching

I moved to Finland in 2006, after having been traveling there on a more or less monthly basis since April 2004. The reason you can guess. “Imported” by my Finnish girlfriend at the time, wife now.

As with many things in life, I figured it would be handy to learn the Finnish language, so while still dating, I enrolled in a language course in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, somewhere in 2005. The fact that it took about 6 months of waiting before the course had 4 participants could have perhaps indicated that the Finnish language wasn´t the most popular language.

Overly eager, and perhaps slightly arrogant, I figured I´d master the language in a year, as – at that time- I already spoke fluent German, English, Spanish and French and had some Frisian skills. Useless to say, that first year passed, and I wasn´t really having the feeling of going anywhere and almost gave up, especially when somebody in Joensuu couldn´t understand my “mina olen Egbert” statement and told me later that I should use “mie oon Egbert”.

After I moved to Finland, I took several intensive language courses but grew so frustrated with the focus on “kielioppi” / “grammatica” that I threw in the towel and gave up. This behaviour in itself, an almost tone deaf focus on structure, was something that later on I learned was part of Finnish culture, something quite opposed to what I was used to as a Dutch person, which was a more “happy-go-lucky” approach to structure (too much structure limits the rather extreme need for Dutch people to feel that they are not being controlled).

I am using this story to highlight an important reason why Finnish language education is not up to standard with regards to teaching these wonderful intricacies of Finnish to foreigners. And yes, I am one of those foreigners who actually do like Iskelmä, as it feels a bit like the melancholic “Fado” in Portugal.

Roughly, the world can be divided in two camps of learners. There are those who learn by doing (intuitive learning) and those who learn by structure (deductive learners). For me, my personal journey brought to life that in the case of two relative similar cultures - Finland and the Netherlands, there are actually massive differences in how we get taught at school and how we are taught to learn.

The paradox for me is that how I see my kids getting taught at school, very much the intuitive way, differs so much from how I, and with me thousands of others foreigners, are taught Finnish, which is very much the deductive way. And this deductive way, truth be told is a very good way of making sure most foreigners who come from what we call “low uncertainty avoidant cultures” never learn Finnish as they will hate the language before they learn to love it.

If you are serious about internationalising as an organisation, yet at the same time want your foreign employees to learn the Finnish language (which is not difficult, yet very, very rich in many many words and so it takes a long time), this starts by understanding that people learn in different ways and that you as an organisation might want to create mental space for this.

For any foreigner to learn the language, whether intuitively or deductively, they need to get their actual feet wet, and this requires organisations to create a learning culture – a safe space where people learn by doing, learn by making mistakes and learn by being mentored by those Finnish colleagues who truly care about the Finnish language. To expect people to speak fluent Finnish prior to joining your team is like thinking you will win the lottery. Sure, it happens, but not very often. The question is, can you really afford not to create this space?

Till next time,

Egbert Schram

Egbert Schram is a Dutchman, residing in Finland. He acts as the Group CEO of Hofstede Insights, a global cultural advisory, advising individuals, organisations and governments on the impact of culture on work life. Currently having operations in 60+ countries, and a global practice of about 150 people (of which 93% outside of Finland).