Are You Being Served (in Swedish, that is)?
Helsingin Sanomat tested whether Swedish-speakers really can get service in bilingual Helsinki
By Johanna Tikkanen
"You study Finland? Det är halv pris", replies the Finnish Railways counter-clerk at the main railway station in Helsinki when asked in Swedish for the cost of a student ticket to Hämeenlinna.
The VR official is a delightful Helsinki customer service representative, in that he throws his full linguistic skills into the ring and does not reply to the Swedish enquiry in Finnish. With a bit of an effort and some stumbles, he gives the ticket price, the departure time, and the platform number, all in Swedish.
According to a questionnaire study carried out by Åbo Akademi in the spring, the majority of those Swedish-speakers living in the Greater Helsinki area don't even bother trying to get service in their mother-tongue, because more often than not the replies come back in Finnish.
Let's put this to the test and take a tour around the city, seeing how one gets served in the minority language in this officially bilingual city.
We'll start with the post office. I tell the clerk that I have moved a couple of months ago (it is the truth, actually), and I would like my mail to be automatically redirected to my new address.
The post office worker listens fluently, but then asks if I speak Finnish. I do, and the business gets dealt with in Finnish.
Then it is off to a branch of the Sampo Bank. The same situation here. I order a new ATM card in Finnish.
Things can go wrong and emergencies can come up in Swedish just as well as in Finnish, so the police ought to be bilingual. I go and ask if the set of keys I lost has been handed in to the lost property office at the Kaarti Police Station.
"I don't speak Swedish", says the official brusquely.
No surrender. There is a reception desk in the lobby, with two sympathetic-looking gents behind it. I ask if anyone here speaks Swedish.
"Jag pratar lite, men han är bättre" [I speak a bit, but he's better at it] claims Reijo Björklund modestly, and points to Juha-Matti Vesanto, who says - in very fluent Swedish - that his Swedish isn't very fluent.
Björklund explains that he seldom needs to use Swedish at work because very few demand to be served in the other national language.
It would be worthwhile demanding. It turns out that Björklund has experience of speaking in the language: his sister is a Swedish-speaker with no Finnish, his wife speaks Swedish after having been evacuated over the water as a child during the war, and the officer himself has only recently been brushing up his language skills at evening classes.
Next stop is the health centre in Kallio. At the appointments desk I report (in Swedish) that I am suffering from recurring strange stomach pains, and that the normal painkillers don't seem to be working.
The person behind the counter does not understand, but is also not fazed. She says "födelsedag" and pushes a pen and a piece of paper in my direction. I duly write down my date of birth.
It soon transpires that I am at the wrong health centre. The clerk sends me in the right direction in a curious mixture of Finnish words and Swedish. Before I go, she asks me to write down on the paper what it is that is wrong with me. I put down that I am suffering from irregular sharp stomach pains, and I ask how long it normally takes to get an appointment.
The receptionist's language skills end here. She calls up a Swedish-speaking colleague, who arrives in a couple of minutes, asks my business and asks me to wait.
I get the details of the correct health centre and I call reception to book an appointment with a GP. I am put through to a Swedish service number. Everything gets done smoothly enough, though it would all have gone a sight faster in Finnish.
I still need some medicine. At the pharmacy in Punavuori the Swedish-speaker has no trouble getting served, as all the staff speak the language.
Next I go to Helsinki City Transport, where I seek - and get - information in Swedish on season-tickets.
After that it is across the road to the local office of the Social Insurance Institution (KELA).
I tell them in Swedish that I have received too much by way of student grant payments, and should I... The clerk gestures me to stop and goes to fetch a colleague who understands.
Finally, I head for the Kallio Public Library, where I receive flawless service in Swedish. I am brought exactly the volume I expected to get, a rather dry history opus in Swedish.
The most determined Swedish-speaker I encountered on the entire circuit, however, was rather predictably someone on point-duty in the square next to the railway station who wanted something from ME - an Amnesty International activist who would like me to sign up and pay my subscription.
He is prepared to stretch his language skills to the limit for a score.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 2.9.2006
More on this subject:
FACTFILE: Swedish-language services being developed
JOHANNA TIKKANEN / Helsingin Sanomat