Life in a multilingual country

Life in the United States is, on an institutional level at least, predominantly monolingual. There are of course areas of the country, and areas of life, where you encounter or even use another language in an official context, but on the whole the US is basically (or legally) English Only.

The rest of the world may joke about Finland being demographically homogenous (which is a post for another day, because that's increasingly not true), but it is a fact that Finland is a very multilingual society. It is officially Finnish/Swedish bilingual, and citizens have the right to receive any and all government services in either language. You can go to university in Swedish or in Finnish. Depending on which town you live in, the street signs and other public signs might even be printed in both languages (that's how it is here in Turku).

But it goes beyond even Swedish and street signs and government services. As a relatively new consumer of Finnish television, I continue to be amazed at how much multilingualism - including English - is on display on TV. Take the show The Voice of Finland, for example. First of all, the actual name of the program is in English. And then every once in a while, they have a contestant who is an immigrant to Finland, who speaks English on the show...and the hosts (all but one) speak back to him/her in English! Finnish subtitles pop up for those few minutes and that's it. Can you imagine watching an American TV show and having the language sometimes change to Mandarin and no one bats an eye? That's how it is here with Swedish or English. It's just part of the society and it starts at a young age, since kids start learning English in second grade and Swedish by sixth grade. It is so, so normal to be bilingual here, and even more normal to be trilingual.

Then there's the work context. My experience may be slightly skewed since I work in an actual center for languages at the uni, but people here float in and out of Finnish, English, Swedish, French, Russian, whatever. There are group emails that start in Finnish until someone chimes in in English and then a final reply all in Finnish again. It's charming...and SO multilingual. Unfortunately, it's also challenging for me and my rummage-bin language brain!

March 9th, outsourced

At the dentist in Finland