Who has language skills?

”What? He speaks five languages? And did he have anything to say?” wrote Finnish author, Lauri Viita. Here, being able to speak five languages is presented as cause for people being impressed. But at the same time, the essence of language skills is questioned: what good is speaking a language if you do not use it to say anything?

The everyday meaning of language skills, or lack of them, is by no means unambiguous. On paper, Finns leaving comprehensive school typically speak Finnish and Swedish, the official languages of Finland; English and often a fourth language, however in practice they often lack confidence and and stay quiet in several languages. Our educated perception of language skills is often linked to the idea that learning a language must be institutional, i.e. take place at school or in a course. Language skills acquired spontaneously often remain invisible. In the academic world, language skills are often measured by the ability to operate in your mother tongue and in English. According to some, no other languages are required. This criterion is futile when we deal with immigrants arriving from the Middle East, Asia or Africa to look for work in Finland: their English, Arabic, French or other language skills are ignored, they are expected to know Finnish, even if it is not required to carry out the work in question.

Our perception of languages and language skills is entwined with our assessment of people and our ideas of class and ethnicity. My fellow researcher, an American with several years of experience in Hong Kong, illustrated this with a personal experience: being able to say a few Cantonese phrases, he is praised for his language skills. The young subjects of his interaction study have moved to Hong Kong from Southern Asia. They speak several languages, including Cantonese, but people are worried about their language skills, and they will certainly not be complimented on speaking a few Cantonese phrases. The urban multilingualism generated by globalisation movements is not the same as broad academic language skills; multiculturalism is seen as a challenge or even a problem, whereas internationalism is seen as a virtue worth striving for. It is easy to test the different connotations: in your opinion, what is the difference between an international school and a multicultural school? On a factual level, pupils in both schools use several languages in their everyday life and have lived in several countries. The differences that may come to mind relate to the location of the schools, the ethnic background of the pupils, and the social status, education level, and social class of their parents.

In my doctoral thesis, I studied the language and interaction of young people in secondary schools in Helsinki, where pupils speak some twenty languages as their first language: Somali, Estonian, Russian, Kurdish, Thai, Chinese, Arabic, Lingala, English, Swahili, Turkish, Albanian, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, Balochi, Punjabi, Dari – to mention just a few. Among many young people with immigration backgrounds, multilingualism does not mean mastering and using two parallel languages: one spoken at home and one spoken at school. Instead, their linguistic biographies consist of several phases and their linguistic repertoires are more complex. They may have come to Finland via another country and may have started school in another language, perhaps one that isn’t their first language or the language spoken at home. Many of their homes are already multilingual. These youngsters also learn about their friends’ languages and even learn them spontaneously. Here is an example I like to use: an Iraqi-born girl who participated in my study. Her family spoke Kurdish and Arabic. The family moved to Turkey, where the girl started school in Turkish, and they made friends with an Iranian family. The girl learnt conversational skills in Persian. She moved to Finland and now goes to school in Finnish. She knows expressions in Somali and I have personally witnessed her participating in a conversation in Russian. Of course, she is also learning at least English at school. This means that her linguistic repertoire consists of resources within at least eight different languages. Is she considered an immigrant with insufficient language skills if she cannot speak Finnish the way Liisa sitting next to her does? Finnish is an important language to everyone in the schools in my study, and for most, it is the language they use the most. However, pupils’ access and relationships to the Finnish language vary, which has an inevitable impact on the way language education in Finnish schools should be organised in the future. I am not referring to anything that would diminish the status of Finnish as the language of education or the official language of society. Instead, there might be cause and potential for widening linguistic competence – and with it, language skills.

I do have concerns about the status of the Finnish language, but my concerns are not related to individual expressions in other languages, immigration, or the language of young people (By the way, the perception that young people corrode the language represents an ancient language ideology. It is being repeated by one adult generation after another, and this is likely to continue until our civilisation is destroyed due to global warming). The Finnish language also continues to lose ground in my operating areas: in the academic world, universities, and within research. Outside certain philological and humanistic disciplines, the perception of language skills is extremely narrow: everything done in English is considered more valuable than anything written or spoken in any other language. A university receives more publication points – meaning money – for anything ”international” usually written in English, than for an article written in Finnish, regardless of the content or quality of the articles. Any significant researcher will write their doctoral thesis in English if they wish to participate in the international discussion, even including the discipline of Finnish language, which was my subject. Universities are also offering more and more master’s-level education in English.

Language skills in your first language or mother tongue also require practice and use; it is part of language skills. If people graduating from Finnish universities with master’s or doctoral degrees do not consider it necessary to talk or write about their own discipline in Finnish, this inevitably diminishes the status of Finnish as the language of science and society. This is not an accusation, it is a statement. The English language is not to blame in itself. The English phonology, syntax or vocabulary is no more flooded with ”killer language” traits than the system of any other language. There is also nothing absolute that would make it cooler, easier, or more suitable for scientific thinking than any other language. The status of a language is a result of human activities: we build up respect for a language and modify language ideologies in our everyday interaction. They are manifested in the social status of languages. Respect for languages and the perception of language skills also impact the relationship between an individual and society; to what extent does an individual feel included and accepted. One could ask, for example, whether someone who does not speak English is considered illiterate in our society. Is it possible to lead a well-balanced life in Finland without speaking English?

I dream of a society where linguistic competence is considered a part of good language skills. By linguistic competence I mean an understanding of what kind of languages exist in general, what is the meaning of a language to an individual and to society, how is linguistic interaction constructed, and how do languages vary and change.

At school, developing linguistic competences should be the task of all language subjects, if not all subjects taught at school. This way, the objective of learning and teaching would not always be limited to being able to operate in various situations within the standard of a certain foreign language. Linguistic competences are improved by exploring a new language, even a little bit. I am relieved that the perception of language skills no longer includes the ideal objective of native speaker skills: for no-one can know an ”entire” language. Even small bits of language carry expressive power and potential for interaction, even limited language skills can be useful and bring you joy. It widens your horizons, like travelling.

In August 2016, I will start as a post-doc fellow in a project funded by the Kone Foundation. The project is entitled The new Finnish languages of Eastern Helsinki, and I will be joined by collegium fellow Janne Saarikivi and journalist Reetta Räty. The project leader is Professor Jyrki Kalliokoski. Within the project, we will visit the schools, day care centres, youth centres and leisure time activities of the multilingual Eastern Helsinki. We will organise events where participants can use their own languages and learn about each others’ languages. Through methods of participation and engagement we hope to be able to make the participants more aware of the ”invisible” linguistic resources present in their communities: by encouraging people of different ages to use Somali, Kurdish and Arabic, for example. The social objective of the project is to increase linguistic awareness of the participating communities and individuals and, together with the participants, to develop tools to enable those working in linguistically and ethnically diverse communities (such as teachers) to make better use of the diverse linguistic skills in the community. The project seeks to empower: even if the participants’ languages may carry with them a stigma, communal activities in these languages will create a sense of belonging to the local community where language skills are appreciated. Getting to know the unfamiliar will also increase tolerance and encourage you to question your own attitudes and prejudices. Our goal is to create constructive ways of dealing with ethnic and linguistic identity in a diverse world. Such competences are part of the language skills of this global age.

I will finish with some playful exercises for readers willing to improve their linguistic competences and language skills:

  • Learn a poem or song in a language you cannot speak at all. Make sure you understand what you are saying or singing. Ask speakers of the language to help with pronunciation or listen to it on YouTube, for example. Perform the poem or song to a small audience. Afterwards, reflect on your feelings: what did you learn about the language or languages in general?
  • Try to figure our and interpret an article, a TV show, a poem, or a short story in a language that you feel you only know a little. Tell someone about what you read or heard. Reflect on your experience of your language skills. Alternatively, you can also do this in a language closely related to a language you do know: for example, if you know Swedish, do this in Danish; if you speak Finnish, do this in Estonian; if you know German, try Dutch.
  • Write a status update on Facebook, or Tweet in a language you do not normally use. Dive into the conversation.
  • Do you have a friend or colleague whose first language or the language they speak at home is a language you do not know? When you meet, ask them to talk about what they are doing in their own language. Try to learn some expressions. You can also use them!
  • Learn about a minority language. What is life like for speakers of that language; can they go to school, read newspapers or books or run official errands in their own language? Compare this to the situation of your own language.


Heini Lehtonen