When I first got started as a small business owner back in 2009, Finland was quite a bit different at the time. We mostly hired local people living in the capital area and assumed everyone spoke fluent Finnish. “You live here, so surely you speak the language, right!” I remember thinking to myself. A few of our employees were natively bi-lingual; thus, their stronger language might have been Swedish, but they didn’t have trouble working in any of our customers’ three languages: Finnish, Swedish, or English.
Fast forward to 2022. Our companies are still based in the capital of Finland, Helsinki. Most of our work is for local companies or corporations based in the Nordics. Many times our workshops and customer meetings are held in English. Never in Swedish, as even if we’re bilingual on paper, Swedish is not a language we use. I studied a lengthier bit of Swedish at school; I can read Swedish more or less okay, but constructing expert-grade sentences on complex topics is impossible. I’m like a five-year-old at a meeting if we don’t use Finnish or English.
The other day I was in a hurry to a meeting but needed to pick up something to eat for the team. I stopped by a local coffee shop and started hurriedly telling her what I needed. The sales assistant stopped me and shyly asked if I spoke English. Well, yeah, sure I do, but ideally, I’d like to use my native language in my native country, if at all possible. This was on me, as I was preoccupied with something, and it takes an extra thinking cycle and a bit more energy to switch the language. Which I did, and it went smoothly from thereon.
This got me thinking, then. Do you need to know Finnish to be able to work in IT in Finland? Natives can spot a non-native speaking Finnish after about 500 milliseconds. It sounds somehow off. I always think it’s very admirable for anyone to learn our somewhat challenging language, yet I also feel we can switch to English to understand each other better. I think English does not have this handicap. And I bet it must be annoying to anyone trying to learn the language, as we native speakers promptly and without asking switch to English upon hearing broken Finnish. “That person must struggle as he cannot pronounce my name correctly, so let me help him!“
I often hear someone proclaim that anyone who wants to work in IT can work easily here in Finland without knowing the Finnish language. Partially, yes – and sometimes, no.
Let me clarify my thinking on this. Having project meetings in English is not a problem. It will tone down the comments and ad-hoc discussion, but stuff gets done. Many times – and of course, not always – documentation is written in Finnish. Nobody has the time or resources to translate those on the fly, so we assume whoever is reading the specs uses Google Translate to make sense of them. And even this fails when you spot a remark in one of the PowerPoints casually stating, “Äläpä editoi tätä tai käy niinkuin Kälviällä” (in short, don’t edit this or help me God). And this then might cause minor but sometimes costly misunderstandings.
Furthermore, more notable projects – such as multi-year engagements where a significant client is renewing their whole environment – work exceptionally well in a mixed language setup, and people in the teams switch to English when necessary. Documents get written in English, also. I feel these projects are the ones people think of when they casually mention that you get by just fine with English as your primary language.
But smaller projects – and often those that do not have a strict months-long plan, but are more consulting and less defined deliverables, tend to be the most problematic in my experience. The nuances get lost in translation if translation even happens. Companies might bring people to design meetings who do not speak English or are not comfortable sharing their detailed thoughts in a foreign language.
I feel it’s unfair, but once you excel in your craft, you get by very well in English in Finland without needing to know Finnish (at all). It’s unfair because you have a disadvantage. You have to be that much better (more experienced, capable, reliable, trustworthy, etc.) for the language barrier to be overlooked or even tolerated. And I don’t think it’s intrinsically something that people decide, and it’s just that “welp, we’d rather get that guy who spoke Finnish” type of casual mention, implying it’s just easier for everyone, especially as the rate is usually the same.
In closing, I’d encourage anyone and everyone wanting to move to Finland and work in IT, to invest in learning the rudimentary basics of the language. I hear Duolingo is quite good with this. But beyond this, bringing your skills and experience to the table is the key. You might have to adapt to the Finnish way of work – pragmatic, hands-on, and non-formal.
I work with Azure and frequently write about my experiences. I’m a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional, ex-MSFT. Based in Helsinki, Finland.