Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Time off, Finnish style

In Finland and most of Europe, people know what it means to really take time off.  Time spent away from the office relaxing with family and friends is highly regarded in Finland.   With summer vacations approaching soon, people are starting to get excited about their longest stretch of time without work.  In Finland, since the summers are precious and short, most people take off several weeks in July.  I don't just mean 1 or 2 weeks off, but 3, 4 or even 5 weeks in a row.  Finns know what it means to truly relax from the stresses of the workplace and recharge their batteries.  Some spend 2 weeks traveling, then 1 week relaxing at a summer cottage, then an additional week just to recover from their vacation.  The goal is to totally decompress and get work out of the mind and the system.  Having worked in the US for most of my career, I recall struggling just to reserve 2 or 2 1/2 weeks off without interrupting the work schedules.  If I wanted to take off more than 2 weeks in a row, I needed upper management to sign off on my vacation request.  US bosses always say to take your vacations, but when it comes down to it, they care more concerned about keeping the business running like a well oiled machine.  In Finland, almost all businesses completely shut down during the month of July, so managers are not running around with decreased staff trying to keep the business at full speed, but they actually relax and take the time off themselves.  It makes sense since the summers are short and precious, people should not be wasting them in the office.

Most US companies start with 2 weeks of vacation and increase to 3 or even 4 weeks when employees reach a certain level of seniority.  In Finland, most companies start with 5 weeks, however many other Holidays and  extra days off can taken during the year.   I was lucky enough to have 4 weeks of vacation in my last US company, however that was kind of exceptional. Good luck if I was ever going to get off 4 weeks off in a row.  I normally took off 2 weeks during the summer and spread the other vacation days around throughout the year.  It will be nice talking off long stretches during the summer now and feeling guilt free about it.  I am truly looking forward to vacations, Finnish style.

Monday, May 7, 2012

So you want to learn Finnish?

There is one topic I have avoided writing about in my blog. That would be in regards to my painful struggle with the Finnish language.  In the past I have always considered myself to be engaged and truly interested in learning foreign languages. However,  Americans like myself are a bit crippled in this respect and the majority of the US populous are monoglots.  Language learning just isn't supported in the United States the same way it is in Scandinavia and Europe.  We are not required to take languages in school and usually don't even start to learn them until High School (which is much too late).

Excuses aside, Finnish truly is a difficult language to learn, and some say it is one of the most difficult in all of Europe if not the entire world.  You might think why is Finnish any more difficult than most European languages?  First of all, Finnish doesn't belong to the same language tree as the other Germanic Scandinavian languages and it isn't really related to any other languages.  Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric language tree.  In fact the only other major languages in the Finno-Ugric tree are Estonian and Hungarian.  So, it is a truly unique language.   What makes it super difficult for Americans and other native English speakers without language backgrounds is the fact that the pronunciation is so difficult and there are so many different cases.  The Finnish alphabet uses a few special characters like the ö and the ä.  These have distinctly different sounds from the English o and a.  I won't get too deep into pronunciations, Finnish words, or grammar cases because that would be an entirely different post.  However, I do want to give an example of the twisting of words in Finnish.  For example, in English when you use a noun in a sentence like "glass", the word stays the same.  The spelling of the noun never changes.  However, in Finnish depending on how you use "glass" in the sentence, the word changes.  So if you drink from the glass, throw the glass, break the glass, put the glass on the table, etc.  The word will change in each case and you must remember how to twist the word in all the cases.  This is by no means an easy learning experience. I find it hard enough just to learn all the new verbs and nouns and then having to worry about twisting words up to 15 times is just mind boggling in my opinion.  You throw the difficult pronunciations on top of that and you are in for a very challenging language learning experience.

I had taken some Finnish lessons several years ago before moving to Finland, so I had some knowledge of the language and knew some vocabulary.  Also, now living here for 9 months I have obviously had more exposure to the language.   But, to be totally honest, Finnish is not a language you just pick up while living here.  You don't just string a bunch of words together and speak slowly in Finnish, you pretty much either know Finnish or you don't.  There really isn't much in between, because if you attempt to speak Finnish and you can't be understood by the locals, in 95% of the cases, you will get English spoken back to you.  Their command of the English language is very impressive to say the least.    It is very frustrating knowing how many Finns can speak perfect English, when I am in their country and can barely string 2 Finnish sentences together and make sense of it.   The Finnish language has been compared to a triangle, where one must learn the most difficult and challenging part at the base and then work their way up to the top of the triangle where mastery takes place.  The bottom of the triangle or base is very difficult and takes a long time to master, however once the rules are learned, the learning curve gets easier. Where in English, the language has been compared to an upside down triangle where the rules of learning in the beginning are easier and one can learn to speak basic English fairly fast.  However, as they climb up the triangle, the challenges grow with the different rules of English words and tenses.  So, basically what I am trying to say is that Finnish is extremely challenging in the beginning and English not so much, but in the long term Finnish gets easier where English can get more difficult.  It is a combination of the initial difficulties and complexities of Finnish combined with the fact that so many speak English which makes learning Finnish a difficult but not impossible proposition for any expat living in the Helsinki area.