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Speaking the Same Language

It was 2001 and I had just landed my first airline job at a multinational airline. Even though it was just customer service at a contact center, it was a dream come true and I was excited. I was 23, studying marketing, and bright-eyed about the future. It would be full of flights, cultural exchange, and languages.

With this job I finally had the world at my fingertips! The swanky office walls were covered with world maps. Red pins indicated the airline’s hubs, and together with a bucketful of blue pins mapping partner airlines’ destinations, the world was as good as conquered.

Everyone in the office was perpetually making travel plans and swapping sassy insider travel hacks. It was my first encounter with the ubiquitous office coffee machine, where I would fill my airline mug with hot chocolate whilst chatting with colleagues.

Two other students started working there the same week as me, and beaming with wonder and excitement, we were handed generous staff benefits and thick operative manuals. Our first task was to learn airline lingo – airport and city codes, airline codes, and abbreviations used in bookings.

The company had an internal newsletter, printed in newspaper form, and its content was featured in three languages: Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. While my Swedish was quite fluent at the time, it was still a foreign language for me, a language learned through school and practice. Most of the other employees were native Swedish-speakers. But whatever our native tongue, we employees were just expected to pick up Norwegian and Danish through exposure, and I quite liked the challenge.

I was a language nerd and an airline was the perfect employer for me. I read the newsletter in the tram on my way home from work, deciphering all the wonderful little quirks of these languages, side by side in their own columns, all without any internet dictionaries whatsoever.

Once, the Danish CEO arrived for a visit and held a speech for us in Danish. Now, Danish is the trickiest of all three languages for us Finns to understand, because it sounds more like Dutch than Swedish – reading it is quite a lot easier than listening to it. But we made do, and tried our best to understand. Nobody complained – after all, the company’s internal language was Swedish, close enough!

Years later, I was answering Nordic phone calls at another large airline and many of the customers spoke to me in Norwegian, while I answered back in Swedish. Norwegian is one step closer to Swedish, my comfort zone, than Danish and it went well. The customers were unanimously happy to get service in their own language and I was happy to deliver it. I was learning more and more each day, feeling quite fluent. I felt like I could indeed conquer the world, just like the red and blue pins dotting the wall.

My language skills served me well for a while. Swedish is a compulsory language at school over here, and, I’m sure you would agree, compulsory is never good. For most Finns, it was – and still is – their least favorite subject at school. Because it’s compulsory and also because the two nations are hard-core rivals in ice hockey.

And so, for many years, knowing Swedish well gave me a competitive edge on the job market, combined with my airline experience. I went on to work in other positions in different niches of the industry, at one point working with Norwegian customers at a Finnish B2B-travel agency in France. By then, my French was quite good too, and sometimes I’d accidentally mix up the two, though they were not at all similar. French and Swedish just happened to occupy the same part of my brain. My Swedish was better, but my French more top-of-mind.

And then I had my brief Spanish-in-France and French-in-Greece stints, both stories I might tell some other day. Along with many similar ones with different combos. I traveled for a decade.

And then… it all came to a halt. For the past ten years or so, the only language I’ve needed at work was Finnish. My other languages have shrunk away, disappeared in silence. All I have left are the two languages I’m bilingual in: Finnish and English.

As for my Finnish colleagues without any international background, for whom English is a foreign language, many are embarrassed by their rusty English skills since they too have had no use for it. We’ve been working in a Finnish-language bubble, not even bothering to get web pages properly translated because the company culture is what it is. No one talks about long haul travel hacks at the coffee machine and we don’t have company mugs. (People don’t seem to mind.)

I’ve moved on from the travel industry into a far less exciting field of business. I’ve grown up and I have bills to pay. Airline jobs were always quite unreliable.

But wait. Something else has happened, too. While this Finnish bubble was developing at my last two work places, a surprise twist has occurred in our growing capital, just outside my office building’s walls. It’s recently come to my attention that Finnish is no longer used in most cafes or restaurants.

What do I mean? I mean that if a Finn goes to a restaurant in the Finnish capital, they can no longer get service in Finnish, the local language. All of the hospitality industry’s work force now seems to speak English. How did this happen? What were Finns doing while their language was being shoved aside?

I don’t mind speaking English at a restaurant but what about older generations? Are they no longer welcome to receive service in their own language in their own home town? This recent development is confusing and disconcerting.

As someone who used to love chatting in Swedish and getting replies in Norwegian, smirking at how Norwegians called an airplane a “machine” and at how cute their very own singing kind of intonation was, I find it odd that foreign workers are not willing – or required – to try to learn Finnish at a cafe job. Doesn’t the Finnish language have any cute quirks at all? Did they even try to look for any?

And are customer service jobs no longer wanted jobs for Finnish speakers? Do they just aim for CEO straight out of school? Finnish speakers still represent the majority of customers. Can you imagine this happening in your country – a foreign language taking over?

On a global scale, Finnish is a tiny language, spoken by less than 6 million people. Is it fading away with declining birth rates?

From a language nerd’s perspective, I’m a bit worried: all languages are worth keeping, as they are a key to the culture and, dare I say, the very soul of the speaker. Diversity is always a good thing, but not all aspects of local culture need to be bulldozed. The local language is a diversity, too, if it’s not one of the world’s major languages. This is something the country’s Swedish-speaking minority has been talking of for a long time, but no one has been listening.

I feel like Finns have all too happily handed away the keys to their soul in exchange for a feel of international belonging, which I recognize all too well and don’t judge. As a small country, it’s important for Finns to learn other languages (because there is little incentive for anyone to learn such a complicated language as Finnish), but previous generations managed to do so without losing the right to get served coffee in their own language. Now English seems to be taking over. I love English, it’s my preferred language. But we are in Finland!

As for language skills at the work place, it turns out none are needed anywhere anymore. Swedish customers are served in Finnish or English. (And Finnish customers are served in English.)

And jargon is back big time. Big Words are the new language of today. Just like airport codes in the airline business, abbreviated to save space in written communication and to be uniform throughout the industry so that they are understood by all, no matter the local language, marketing too has its own codes. Codes of conduct.

It’s all about the image, as marketing pros well know, and how you present things. Use jargon and throw in some mysterious acronyms and English words translated in a weird way. When googling for a definition, Finnish trend jargon is nowhere to be found: if you don’t know what they’re talking about, you’re not going to find out. You’ll be left out.

It’s like deciphering that old newsletter in the tram without a mobile phone, except less fun because you feel silly, outdated. It’s not an adventure but a struggle. Never mind crafting your thoughts into an easily approachable, tempting read. Using jargon and trend words are all you need in Finnish professional life to appear competent. The less sense it appears to make, the higher you rise in status. No one dares to ask you what you mean.

The next step is probably ordering coffee in jargon?

(By the way, that sour barista girl still speaks Finnish. Some things haven’t changed.)

 

The photos are from several trips to Italy

127 replies on “Speaking the Same Language”

Interesting thoughts. I admire your fluency in so many languages, it’s not a talent I share. I am surprised by the fact that English is so prevalent, because I’ve been so many places where it’s not spoken. If you lived where I do you’d think Spanish is taking over the world. Good food for thought.

Liked by 1 person

This was a really interesting read, thank you. Although the English language is undoubtedly the international language of communication, I hate to think that it is eating away at the use of other languages and cultural identity.

Liked by 1 person

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