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  • Writer's pictureKielingua

Making Helsinki an English speaking city will attract skilled workers ...or not?

It seems like language policy is one of those topics that everyone has an opinion on. What languages do we teach in school? How much French/English/Finnish do immigrants need to know? The doctors here don’t know how to speak Finnish anymore… And so forth and so forth. In Finland, the favourite language policy topics seem to be a) “forced Swedish” (aka pakkoruotsi) and b) English language. A week ago (28/8/2021) the discussion on BOTH TOPICS resurfaced, when the new mayor of Helsinki, Juhana Vartiainen, suggested “a new way to attract international skilled workers: let’s remove forced Swedish from the job requirements [in Helsinki]” (and replace it with English). You can believe my Twitter feed resembled a battlefield for a while, and Iltalehti tabloid, Institute for the languages of Finland (KOTUS) and The Guardian picked up the topic too. Naturally, I also have “a few” words to say on this.

Under the slightly clickbaitish title of the interview, mayor Vartiainen makes three language related suggestions. First, he suggests that the city could remove the requirement for Swedish language from the requirements for employees. This is the forever question of Finnish language policy debate: to Swedish or not to Swedish. As far as I am aware, the applied linguist point of view would be “the more languages, the better”, and that not all value of language education can be measured in its “usefulness at the job market”. Already now it is known that the Swedish speakers’ constitutional right for services in Swedish is not realised which raises the question of the strictness of the language requirement in the first place. In my personal experience, it is harder to get a job in Helsinki if you speak English + Swedish and not Finnish than the other way around.

Second, according to Vartiainen, Helsinki could “declare itself as an English speaking city in which knowledge of Finnish or Swedish would not be required”. One does not have to be a linguist to see why this would be difficult to implement and even a bad decision. In Finland as well as elsewhere, there are still many people who do not speak English. By formalising its status and by removing the requirements for skills in national languages, we would most likely prioritise the highly educated Western people and marginalise others. Also, being “a skilled worker” (a tricky term in its own right) does not necessarily imply knowledge of English.

Third, Juhana Vartiainen suggests that the city could increase the number of English speaking kindergartens and schools. It has been widely shown that formalising English as the only required language and English language education are not answers to a flourishing society. Sure, language skills are good, but English as a medium of instruction schools tend to be favoured by the elite and thus the gap between the social classes widens when choosing a school becomes a thing.* If thinking of language only as a commodity, teaching and using English makes sense indeed. However, language is not only a commodity. For numerous children (and adults) the question of language skills is a question of maintaining an identity and making a living. These people are already in the country. Why is Vartiainen not talking about them and their needs?

This leads me nicely to my second point with regard to the interview of Juhana Vartiainen: the question of “skilled foreign workers” will not be solved by solving the language issues. Surely, Vartiainen mentions high taxes etc. but I mean something else. It is formatted in the article as “[a skilled worker’s] partner’s difficulty to find a job” and “the difficulty of creating contact with Finnish people”. In other words, reserved culture and racism in Finland. (Actually a few days later, Helsingin Sanomat released this article and YLE this article on this exact issue).

First, it has been shown that Finnish employers won’t hire foreign (sounding) people despite their language skills. I am not aware of studies that would enlighten the reasons for this (please share if you know any!) so my guess is xenophobia a.k.a. racism. Even if you do get a job in which you can utilise your English skills, settling in Finland won’t be a walk in the park. Only a handful of landlords will rent to foreigners. You have to pay a 500 euro deposit when getting a phone/internet contract if you have lived in Finland for less than two years. Online banks (except Nordea!), Kela, tax, and other online services function only in Finnish or Swedish. And again, Finland is the most racist country in Europe. There are still many more ways to make Finland more attractive to “skilled foreigners” than just speaking English. Also, some scholars have argued that even if there no longer was language-based discrimination, those who want to discriminate would always find another justification for it.

Finally, let’s say that Helsinki becomes a trilingual city with English as one of the official languages. Which English would we choose? The world Englishes is maybe one of the most studied topics in applied linguistics** and it shows that there is no such thing as “neutral English”. Which test results would we approve as a proof for language skills? Would African or Indian Englishes count? Or would we require received pronunciation, the so-called Queen’s English? Choosing English as the medium of communication is not a simple nor ideology-free matter. And thus dear politicians: please do consult experts of the field before coming out with statements about language and language policy.

Venla Rantanen

Applied linguist, language policy enthusiast, partner of an "international skilled worker" and a former relocation specialist, whose job was to help those skilled workers to settle in Finland

Tämä artikkeli on vastineeni Helsingin Sanomien artikkeliin, joka kertoo Helsingin pormestarin, Juhana Vartiaisen haastattelusta ja Vartiaisen ajatuksista, miten Helsinki voisi houkutella "kansainvälisiä huippuosaajia". Hän ehdottaa 1) ruotsin kielitaidon vaatimuksen poistamista kaupungin työpaikkailmoituksista, 2) englannin vaihtamista Helsingin "viralliseksi kieleksi" ja 3) englanninkielisten päiväkoti- ja koulupaikkojen lisäämistä. Artikkelissa perustelen, miksi englanninkielistyminen ei ole niin helppo ratkaisu kuin päällisin puolin näyttää.


* See for a discussion: example article 1, example article 2; for those interested in this topic, I recommend the podcast “Nice White Parents

** See for example this academic journal.

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