I officially became an American-Finn about a year ago when I obtained my Finnish citizenship. “Finnish-American” sounds a lot cooler than “American-Finn”, but I crossed the Atlantic in the wrong direction so I’m stuck with the latter.
As Mattias described in his previous post, one of the requirements for Finnish citizenship is passing the language test in either Finnish or Swedish. While he took the Swedish route, I went with Finnish, which had its own unique challenges and set of Pros and Cons.
Before I dive into the topic of becoming a Finnish-speaking Finn, I should mention two things:
1) When I refer to myself as Finnish-speaking, I say it with no illusion that I’m an excellent speaker of the language. I speak decently well for a foreigner who moved here after the age of 20, but as mentioned in a prior post, my listening comprehension is pretty horrendous and learning Finnish will be a lifelong process. I also embarrass myself about 2-3 times per month.
For example, there was that time I tried to tell my colleagues about the beautiful Aurora Borealis I witnessed the prior weekend… I told my colleagues, “Viime viikolla mää olin Keski-Pohjanmaalla, ja näin kauniit ripulit taivaalla!”, which in English translates roughly to, “Last weekend I was up north, and I saw the beautiful diarrhea in the sky!”
Or that time I tried to ask the bus driver for a ticket, but accidently switched the letters around in the word “ticket”… “Moi! Yksi pillu, kiitos!”, which was me saying, “Hello! One vagina (vulgar), please!”
I’m a bit terrified to speak it at the office given my penchant for embarrassing myself, but I still do it from time to time, and so far have only once called my bicycle frame a “runkku” (jerk-off) during a conversation with colleagues about our hobbies.
Anyway, I don’t speak Finnish perfectly, but well enough to pass citizenship tests and feel relatively confident in most social settings, so I guess that’s good enough to refer to myself as Finnish-speaking.
The other reservation I have about calling myself a Finnish-speaking Finn is related to the second part of that title:
2) When I refer to myself as a Finn, about 10% of people who read this will start getting all riled up and angry and will say something like, “You can only be a Finn if you were born here! You’ll never be a Finn!”
Whoaaa buddy, hold your horses! Bring it down a notch… the Suomi Suomalaisille rally isn’t until next Thursday.
But maybe my haters have a point. I feel 100% American (and probably always will), but I feel maybe only like 60% Finnish. However, that percentage has been growing with each additional year that I live here, so eventually my new redditor friend will have to call me suomaalaespaska instead.
Anyway, for the purpose of continuity, I’m going to refer to myself as a Finnish-speaking Finn in this post, knowing that it is only kinda sorta true.
Back in the late 2000s, I met a charming blond Finnish gal while I was on exchange. I fell in love with her pretty quickly, and within a few months, I came to the conclusion that I was going to move to Finland one day. A year or so later, that day finally arrived and I found myself meandering around the streets of Kallio on a warm July evening, wondering what the hell I got myself into.
Life in Finland went very well for a while. I made friends, explored the city, went to parties, and basically soaked up as much culture as I could. But there was a problem bubbling beneath the surface: I always felt like an outsider. I loved my girlfriend, but I only knew her family superficially because of the language barrier. My friends were super nice and patient and willing to use English when I was around, but I always felt guilty, like my presence was a burden to them (even though none of them ever complained). And the culture that surrounded me, embodied in signs, books, magazines, TV, radio etc., was out of my reach. For these reasons, I started to get burned out on life in Finland.
Although it was getting a bit rough, I wasn’t ready to leave, and I realized that the key to alleviating most of my troubles was the language. Of course learning Finnish wouldn’t solve all my problems (such as missing my family, friends and America in general), but it would certainly help to make life in Finland easier, and my experiences a bit richer. And, perhaps most importantly, I knew it would strengthen my relationships with the Finnish people around me. I also realized that one day I would most likely have children that speak Finnish, and that those little monsters would have a secret language that Dad wouldn’t understand. Nope, can’t let that happen.
So I did it. I learned Finnish. Or let’s say, I learned a lot of Finnish. And I still have a lot more to learn, and will probably be doing so for the rest of my life, but I’m happy to have made it this far.
Just as Mattias laid out the Pros and Cons of Swedish (which was great, and kinda made me want to start studying Swedish as well someday), I’ll attempt to do the same for those of you who are considering learning Finnish.
- Incredibly useful for building trust with Finnish people. I’ll always have an accent and second-rate grammar, so people will always know that I’m an outsider to some extent, but when you meet Finnish folks, they often seem more laid back and warmer in their mother tongue. In fact, my perception of a few people in my social circles completely changed once I started speaking to them in their own language. It totally makes sense, and I’m the same with English. It’s almost like I have a second personality when I speak Finnish since I’m a bit less confident, and more dependent on silly humor instead of wit.
- It demonstrates a commitment to Finland, which helps professionally. Even if you’re not using it every day, by using it in interviews or while networking, you are demonstrating a longer term commitment to the country that shows you won’t be leaving tomorrow.
- There are a lot of words that are fun to say in Finnish. My personal favorites: takaisin, pyörremyrsky, höpöhöpö, and Mikko Leppilampi
- It makes Finland’s media and culture a lot more accessible. I can now enjoy watching the same 7 actors acting in every single show on television.
- Probably the most obvious downside is how challenging it is to reach fluency in Finnish, especially for those who’ve moved to Finland after the age of 20 and can get by well enough with their English. It takes a ton of time and energy, and only a small percentage of foreigners ever learn to speak it like a native.
- People will constantly try to switch back to English. You’ll have plenty of conversations where you try to speak Finnish to a Finn but they speak (near perfect) English back to you. They’re not being rude, rather just trying to be friendly and helpful, but it makes it difficult to improve.
- The opportunity cost. I occasionally think about all the useful skills I could have learned if I took those countless hours of studying and practicing Finnish, and used them for something else, such as nuclear physics, or dentistry. I’m not saying I regret my decision, especially since it’s improved my quality of life here in Finland and strengthened my relationships with some of the most important people in my life, but still, it’s hard not to think about it from time to time.
- It has limited use outside of Finland. Obviously it’s important if it’s part of your family life or social circles, but it won’t be much of a boost to your CV if you’re looking for jobs outside of Finland.
I’m pretty happy that I decided to learn the language. It’s a challenge, but it’s beautiful and fun. And of course, living in a foreign country gets better when you learn how to connect more deeply with those around you. If you plan on spending an extended period of time in Finland, I highly recommend learning Finnish (or Swedish if you also enjoy champagne and other classy things).
I’d give it a score of 8 out of 10 Karjala-lippistä!