Languages in Finland

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Languages in Finland

Finland is officially bilingual in Finnish and Swedish, and both languages are compulsory in all schools, but in practice most of the population is monolingual in Finnish. Finnish is not related to the Scandinavian languages (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese), Russian, or English. In fact, it is not even an Indo-European language, instead belonging in the Uralic group of languages which includes Hungarian and Estonian, making it hard for speakers of most other European languages to learn. Reading signboards can also be difficult as Finnish has relatively few loan words from common European languages, and as a result it is very hard to guess what words in Finnish mean.

Swedish is the mother tongue for 5.6% of Finns. There are no large cities with a Swedish majority, and the Swedish-speaking communities are mainly smaller rural municipalities along the Southwest coast. Many towns and road signs on the coast use alternate Finnish and Swedish names, so road signs can be confusing. The small autonomous province of Åland and the municipalities of Närpes, Korsnäs and Larsmo are exclusively Swedish-speaking, and people there typically speak little or no Finnish at all, so English is a better bet. Swedish is a mandatory subject in Finnish-speaking schools (and Finnish in Swedish-speaking schools), so everyone is supposed to speak and understand it; in reality, though, only 41% of the Finnish-speaking population are conversant in it, and of these people live in coastal areas and especially in predominantly or significantly Swedish-speaking areas. Even this varies: for example, in Helsinki and Turku most people can speak Swedish enough to deal with important conversations you engage in as a tourist and often somewhat beyond, but living would be impossible without knowledge of Finnish, whereas towns like Vaasa and Porvoo have a significant Swedish-speaking minority and are more genuinely bilingual (i.e. it would be possible to live there with Swedish only). Most larger hotels and restaurants in areas where Swedish is widely spoken do have Swedish-proficient staff.

Russian is understood near the Russian border, for example Lappeenranta, Imatra and Joensuu, which are areas frequented by Russian tourists. Tourist destinations which are popular among Russians in Eastern and Northern Finland have some Russian-speaking staff.

In larger cities, with the exception of the elderly, nearly all people you could possibly meet as a tourist speak English very well, and even in the countryside younger people will nearly always know enough to communicate. In fact, outside of the Swedish-speaking communities, English is usually far better understood than Swedish. Conversely, within the Swedish-speaking communities, English is often better understood than Finnish. 73 % of the population in Finland can speak English. Don't hesitate to ask for help: Finns can be shy, but will help out in need. Besides English and Swedish, some Finns can speak German (18 %) or French (3 %), other secondary languages (Spanish, Russian) being rare.

TV programs and movies are nearly always subtitled. Only children's programmes and movies get dubbed into Finnish.

The Finnish language has relatively few exceptions but quite many rules (where some rules might be considered cleverly disguised exceptions). There are about 17 different cases for "getting some coffee and getting the coffee, going into a pub, being in a pub (or in a state of drunkenness), getting out of the pub, being on the roof, getting onto the roof, getting off the roof, using something as as roof" and so on that are encoded into the word endings. In written text, the plethora of cases makes it a challenging exercise to even look up a single word from the dictionary. The conjugation of verbs is unfortunately somewhat more complex.

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