Helsinki kärsii taitopulan vaikutuksista ja sen pormestari uskoo, että pääkaupungista virallinen englanninkielinen kaupunki voisi auttaa ratkaisemaan tilanteen.
Or, put another way, “Helsinki is suffering from the effects of a skills shortage and its mayor believes that making the capital an official English-speaking city could help resolve the situation.”
Juhana Vartiainen has announced he would like to make Helsinki an official English-language city, alongside Finnish or “Suomi”, and Finland’s second official tongue Swedish.
The proposal is unlikely to be seen as revolutionary in the country; many people are bilingual and English is widely accepted as the global language of business. One of Finland’s most famous companies, Nokia, has long established English as its official language for communications and documentation.
Finnish is a notoriously difficult language to learn with its 15 grammatical cases, tongue-twisting words that never seem to finish and vast numbers of vowels. The example above contains few visual clues for the uninitiated to grab, reflecting how Finnish lacks Germanic and Latin influences for other Europeans to cling to.
The Bilingual Kidspot website for families living in foreign countries rates Finnish the fifth hardest language to learn, placing it between Mongolian and Russian. It cites the language’s vowel harmony system as the key difficulty. Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese filled the top three positions for complexity.
Vartiainen says that this difficulty level has contributed to a skills shortage by deterring skilled workers from abroad who would otherwise come for work, attracted by the clean, Nordic environment and good salaries on offer. Research has shown that about one in three foreign students return home fairly sharply after the completion of their studies, after grappling briefly with the local tongue – though immigration bureaucracy, high taxation vied with linguistic difficulties as their main reasons for quitting.
Swedish is widely spoken in the country for historical reasons – it was given equal status with Finnish in 1923 by the government and is compulsory in schools – making Finland bilingual. Many citizens – about 70% can also speak some English and a lesser proportion, Russian.
Sami, Romani and Karelian are also official languages, and are spoken by ethnic minorities in various parts of Finland.
Public sector employees are required to be fluent in Finnish and Swedish and many private firms already require foreigners to speak English and Swedish before they are hired.
Vartiainen told Helsinki’s Sanomat newspaper: “Helsinki could call itself an English-speaking city, where people who speak English wouldn’t need to speak Finnish or Swedish.
“We need employment-based immigration,” he said.
He described the country’s inability to lure foreign professionals as a “terrible failure”, adding that Helsinki should provide more English-language education facilities for children as part of efforts to make the city more attractive to international workers.
Vartiainen envisaged Helsinki integrating English into professional life and business, but not replacing Finnish or Swedish.
According to Sanomat, much needed postgraduates in high demand fields such as artificial intelligence and telecommunications were among those to have left recently, citing language problems.
There is no suggestion that English will supplant Suomi and Swedish in the city. Rather, the proposal is to integrate the language, already widely spoken in Helsinki, into professional life and business.
Last year, Finland launched a 90 Day Finn scheme seeking to lure professionals and their families to the country. Now closed, it received more than 5,000 applicants, mostly from the US and Canada. The scheme provided applicants all official documentation, suitable housing, school or daycare for their children, remote working facilities, introductions to tech hubs and networks in and around Helsinki, and help with permanent residency.
With universal healthcare, generous parental leave, work-life balance and proximity to nature, Finland certainly has much to recommend it to international workers. They only obstacle for many remains the cold winters – and that vowel harmony system.