About English as used by me, and by Finns in general

This document tries to describe why I use the English language as I do. I also try to explain which features in English usage, such as pronunciation problems and failures to use articles, might be typical of Finns in general.

People sometimes ask why I, or Finns in general, use English so well. I wrote this document to answer such questions, largely pointing out that we often just appear to know English. I hope this document might occasionally be of some practical value to people who have difficulties in communicating with Finns in English. So this is a subjective document; I have a separate document which contains an annotated list of links to resources on the English language in general.

I have been asked questions like the following:
I've been meaning to ask a Scandinavian person this for ages... I notice when Swedish, Norwegian or Finnish people post to Usenet or have homepages up in English, their English is usually excellent and grammatically correct.
I answered that particular question as follows:

Well, if you took a look at typical homepages in Finland you perhaps wouldn't say quite so. Recently the leading Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published a review of typical mistakes on Web pages, and one was the use of English for no obvious reasons, and using poor English. But probably people from abroad don't find a typical page too often.

Anyway, what you say seems to be common opinion. To some extent, it is an optical illusion caused by Finns' high threshold of saying or writing anything. More often than not, a Finn who says or writes something is able to formulate it well, and tries to formulate it well. (I actually consulted a dictionary when writing this message. :-))

Moreover, our knowledge of English vocabulary and phraseology is often restricted to those areas where we work or which are otherwise especially important to us. When writing about things in such areas, one easily gives the impression of mastering a language quite well. But in fact, one might be unable to handle even the simplest everyday tasks in English, due to lack of words for them. For instance, I read texts in English quite a lot, and texts about computing rather fluently, but if I try to read even a simple novel I need to consult a dictionary about once per sentence if I really want to understand it.

An attentive reader remarked that the preceding paragraph contained a vocabulary error: I used the word statement to denote a sentence, writing "once per statement". The background is that in terminology related to programming, the word statement has been translated into Finnish as lause, which usually means 'sentence'. My mistake thus illustrates the point I'm making, so I decided to preserve it.

Finland's education system as a system - independently of what it officially purports to teach - has traditionally directed people towards avoiding mistakes rather than achieving something. (When I studied languages at school, in the 60s, the exams were rated by counting errors only, grammar errors being much more serious than vocabulary errors.) This means that in a typical conversation between people from different nations, the Finn is still trying to formulate his first grammatically correct sentence when others have changed the topic a few times.

But it is true that many Finns know English relatively well, especially young people and people with academic education. And the relative number of people with academic degrees or studying for one is rather high.

English is not a compulsory school subject, but but it is compulsory to study some foreign language (in addition to one's native language and the other national language, i.e. Swedish, or Finnish to Swedish-speaking people) at the elementary school (and later, too). When I was at school, in the 60s, English and German were selected about 50% - 50%, but now English is near to 100%.

At universities, in most areas of study one has to know English. Of course many basic textbooks are available in Finnish, but the higher one gets, the more the books and other material is in English only.

The Finnish language is rather different from English (and many other languages) in intonation and rhythm. This makes dubbing rather difficult, so films and TV series are usually presented in the original language, with Finnish (and/or Swedish) translations appearing as subtitles. This means that we are more or less forced to listen to English. Yet, I think we write (and read) far better than we speak (or listen). The English phonetic system is so different from Finnish that at least when I'm a bit drunk, my English gets rather incomprehensible I'm afraid, with "b" fusing with "p", and "s", "z" and "sh" all becoming alike, etc. I also find it difficult to listen to English especially when spoken fast; after listening to presentations in English for several hours, I may notice that despite knowing all the words used, I just don't follow.

Thus, spoken English can be hard to Finns. In addition to problems common to many peoples, like pronouncing "th", Finns have difficulties in making essential distinctions like "b" vs. "p" since they usually don't make that distinction in their native language. This is sometimes reflected by incorrect spellings, too, like "propably" for "probably".

The qualities or lengths of vowels tend to cause problems, too The English words full and fool have qualitatively different vowels, with some accompanying difference in the lengths; the Finnish words tuli and tuuli have vowels of distinctively different length, with some minor difference in quality; thus, a Finn might be trying to distinguish between full and fool by concentrating on the length difference, which is less essential in English, and might be misunderstood.

In spelling (orthography) of English, Finns often outperform many native speakers of English. One of the reasons is simply that we have learned English words primarily in written form. So we usually don't misspell the words "they're" and "there" as "their" - whichs seems to be a rather common mistake in Usenet - simply because we have learned these words as patterns of written characters, not as spoken words. On the other hand, we may easily make mistakes in trying to pronounce them.

People whose native language is Finnish have problems with Indo-European languages due to structural differences. It is natural to have difficulties with such linguistic phenomena which are absent in one's native languages; and Finnish lacks grammatical gender (and the distinction between "he" and "she", too!) as well as indefinite and definite articles, for examples. Prepositions are very rare in Finnish, and so are combinations of a verb and an adverb (like put by, put forth, put off etc.).

There are some "false friends" in English and Finnish, i.e. words which look similar in the two languages but have different meanings. For example, in Finnish greippi means 'grapefruit', not 'grape'. (This has caused confusions like translations which tell about rodents which have "greipinkokoiset aivot", 'grapefruit-size brain'.)

The importance of English on the Internet as well as in IT in general is relevant to Finns' needs for knowing and using English. However, this effect is still rather limited. Probably just a small portion of Finnish Internet users actively participates in internationational discussions on Usenet, for example.

Finland's membership in the European Union might be expected to increase the importance of English to Finns. But in fact, the relative importance of English will more likely decrease; some knowledge of English being nowadays taken for granted in Finland, attention will be paid to knowing French and German due to their importance as working languages within the EU.