Have Finnish politicians kept pace with the language demands of the new EU age?
By Anu Nousiainen
Last autumn, shortly after the Kauhajoki school shooting, a press conference was convened, at which a tall, bespectacled man spoke into a microphone.
"Kän piipöl ket laisens tu ö händ kan sou frii laik it häs biin juusd in Finland."
This was the Finnish Prime Minister, speaking English.
Matti Vanhanen’s pronunciation was stiff and spiky, the grammatical mistakes came thick and fast, and he clearly struggled to find awkward words in the foreign language.
”Sou aim veri kritikal foor tis gan, tiis händkans.”
The clip of the event has been available on the YouTube video-sharing site for just over a year.
The comments by Finns underneath have not been very flattering: "shameful", "pathetic", "Tankero-English" [don't worry, we'll come to the meaning of this one later] were three terms used by one Finnish respondent.
The 21st century is well under way, Finland has been in the EU for more than a decade - have the politicians not moved on from the days of the 1970s?
The question had to be put to the test.
Europe has begun to resemble India: there are many local languages and one common tongue.
Je suis désolé, my French friends, but that's how the cookie crumbled: the European language is English.
Within the EU, English has overtaken French as the most important language for civil servants. In the European Parliament, the speeches by MEPs are often interpreted/translated first into English and only then from English into other languages.
English is well suited to the role of lingua franca around the world. It is in any case a mongrel tongue - a Germanic language with plenty of ingredients and borrowings taken from the Romance languages, such as French.
It is also a pretty spare, slimmed-down language in its modern form, and as such it is relatively easy to learn as a foreign language.
Outside of the purely liturgical context, there is only one form for the second person singular and plural (you), removing all the problems with what socio-linguists refer to as "the T-V distinction". Grammatical gender has also long since vanished from the scene, even if ships are still "feminine", and English is not exactly bulging with cases and case-endings, though some might say the absence of clear rules for word order and prepositions more than balances this out.
In post-war Finland, English represented an international window to the West, a taking of distance from the earlier key foreign languages of Swedish, Russian, and German.
Some four years ago, when the University of Helsinki's Language Centre (Kielikeskus) carried out a survey of what languages students required in working life, the result was: English.
The other languages studied by undergraduates get used little after the students leave university.
Ultimately, having "good language skills" is not all about being able to manage satisfactorily in several languages.
Good language skills means that you speak excellent English: that you are fluent in the language, understand the nuances of speech, and are able to use idiomatic expressions; that you pronounce words correctly and are not obliged to limit what it is you are trying to say.
Like it or not, English has become the language of international organisations, doctoral dissertations and scientific articles, commerce, popular culture, sport, youth culture, travel, and not least, the Internet.
As many as eight out of ten scientific papers are written in English - and Finnish academics are no exception to the rule.
The ability to speak English is already regarded as a given in Finland.
According to recent studies, more than 60% of the Finnish population estimated that they could cope with normal conversation situations in English, and among the young the figure is appreciably higher than this.
English has de facto become "the third language", alongside Finnish and Swedish.
Politicians and civil service mandarins are expected to be able to display at least a good level of English, and excellence would certainly not come amiss, since these people are representing us, after all.
In the global world one cannot constantly lean on the services of an interpreter, as used to be the case.
For all these reasons, the English coming out of the Prime Minister's mouth sounded, well, rather clumsy.
"Sou frii laik it häs biin juusd in Finland."
But are our other cabinet ministers and party leaders any better?
The answer becomes somewhat clearer after the English-language skills of Finnish politicians are put to the test by a competent panel. The panel comprises two victims (Shouldn't this be "experts"? Ed.).
American-born journalist Eddy Hawkins got his first Finnish residence permit in 1972. Hawkins, now 58, works for the English-language news service of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE), and also teaches journalism at the university and other institutes of higher education.
He has met nearly all the most prominent Finnish politicians and interviewed them.
British-born translator William Moore, 56, has lived in Finland since 1975 and was naturalised in 1986.
He has taken part in the writing of two series of English textbooks for Finnish schools (pupils from the ages of 9 to 13), and for the last ten years he has been responsible for Helsingin Sanomat's International Edition in English (the pages you are reading right now).
Hawkins and Moore speak English as their mother tongue, but both are also at home in Finnish.
Hawkins and Moore are known as language professionals and are not ashamed of demonstrating it.
This is all to the good, since the object of the exercise is not to dole out comforting words of solace and encouragement to the Finnish politicians being put on the rack.
The panel's task is to demonstrate that it is no longer enough to try to get by with the language skills of the 1970s.
Politicians have to up their game or stay in the lower leagues of municipal politics.
Because, let's face it, "The Finns speak English a whole lot better than was the case when Eddy and I landed up here", as Moore notes.
"Kids hear English all the time and they are good at imitating."
Hawkins goes further. In his view, the Finns have even overtaken the Swedes in this department.
"Or at least the young Finns have."
Much of this is down to a change in teaching methods in schools, where the old emphasis on grammar and writing - which often left people scared to open their mouths - has given way to a more communicative approach.
And English is heard all the time nowadays: the Finns can consider themselves very lucky never to have suffered the horrors of television or film dubbing, and some imported daytime TV-soaps, with their constant repetition, could easily serve as basic language courses.
The language panel are to be sat down with a bunch of audio and video recordings of ministers and members of the European Parliament, all speaking English.
Thrown into the mix are some clips from Parliamentary Speakers past and present and members of the opposition.
For preference, we have tried to find interviews and press briefings where the politicians answer questions.
If such recordings are not to be had, the panel gets to hear (or see and hear) a speech in English - which admittedly might have been written by the politician's aides.
Some of the ministers apparently speak English so sparingly that it was not possible to find any evidence whatsoever of their language skills. Equally, some of the MEPs use Finnish and simultaneous or consecutive interpretation, so it was not possible to get any samples of their English in action.
As a consequence of the above, the panel is obliged to compare "apples and oranges", as Moore grumbles over his coffee cup.
Among the clips screened, for instance, is one in which the former Minister for Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja goes head-to-head with Tim Sebastian in an edition of the BBC's fearsome Hardtalk programme, while at the other extreme Minister of Transport Anu Vehviläinen reads from paper an opening address at a transport and energy forum.
Some of the clips put before the panel can be heard from the link given below this article.
Before we started, it was necessary to decide on the criteria according to which the politicians' language skills should be judged.
Moore and Hawkins perused the Council of Europe's Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR), which is used in recognising and comparing language qualifications from different countries.
Here the abilities are graded from the "Basic Speaker: Breakthrough" level (A1) up to the dizzy heights of "Proficient Speaker: Mastery" (C2), at which point the chances are a good many native speakers are themselves already gasping for air.
Each step along the way is meticulously defined, but the descriptors are so many and the process is so staggeringly complex that Moore suggests a simpler yardstick.
He proposes the panel adopts his own makeshift grading system, which he says he has devised while watching figure-skating on the television.
The basic principle is as follows - the more the TV-viewer has to fear that the skater is about to fall on his or her backside, the lower the grade. Conversely, the greater the sense of relaxation among the armchair audience over the skater's ability to land in an upright position, the higher the marks.
Moore bravely asserts that the panellists could just as well rank the English skills of the Finnish politicians using this sliding scale.
We decide to abandon the 264-page Common European Framework and use Moore's scale.
On this basis, each politician's skills are graded from 4 (a failing mark) to 10, in line with the Finnish school system's report-card grades.
Since the two panel-members know their recent Finnish history backwards, we start with President Juho Kusti Paasikivi, who was Finland's head of state from 1946 to 1956.
This ten-year span included the 1952 Summer Olympics, held in Helsinki, and the panel is to watch a clip of Paasikivi's greeting to all the participants just ahead of the games, courtesy of the archives of the Finnish Broadcasting Company.
The room goes quiet.
The black & white image on the screen is grainy. Paasikivi holds on tightly to a piece of paper and wishes the visitors welcome to Helsinki and Finland.
"To the young people of the vööööölt", the President says, stretching the last word like a rubber band.
Well? What say ye, panel members?
"Okay", Hawkins begins, "So Paasikivi didn't speak English. This sounds a bit like one of those Easter messages the Pope gives."
"The translator, in other words one of our noble ancestors, was a right bastard for putting in some very difficult words that his master couldn't manage", says Moore, in an apparent reference to Paasikivi's having to overcome the tongue-twister of "an enthusiastic gymnast and athlete" when he had obvious trouble with th-sounds.
The panellists wonder whether this speech was possibly written out for Paasikivi in phoneticised form, such that he read it "as it was supposed to sound".
The panel gives Paasikivi a 4.
"Paasikivi failed", observes Moore, though the panel members do note that he was apparently fluent in Russian and - like many of his contemporaries - in German, and the word "Coubertin" came out pretty well in the short clip.
Next up is Urho Kaleva Kekkonen, President of the Republic from 1956 until he stepped down through ill-health in October 1981.
Both panellists remember the Kekkonen era.
UKK, too, is reading from a piece of paper.
One sample has been found of his skills in English: the opening address at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) in Helsinki in 1975.
"He must have practised this a lot", Hawkins reckons, as Kekkonen speaks in Finlandia Hall.
"Kekkonen understands what he is reading considerably better than Paasikivi did. His big problem is the pronunciation", says Moore.
And then Kekkonen walks right into a classic blunder.
He should be welcoming the assembled heads of state and government "most heartily", but he swallows a crucial syllable and crushes the hard T into a soft D, declaring that he "hardly" welcomes his distinguished guests.
Kekkonen gets a 5 based on this clip.
Ahti Karjalainen (1923-1990) is among the most influential political figures in post-war Finland. Prime Minister on two occasions, and Foreign Minister for the better part of a decade between 1961 and 1975, Karjalainen was also Governor of the Bank of Finland in the early 1980s.
To many, however, he is also something else: the father of all "tankero"-jokes, and the measure by which all bad English pronunciation is judged.
In one joke from the 1970s, Karjalainen visits a zoo and observes - on the basis of a warning sign - that "All animals are tankeros".
So much delight did the Finns take in the tankero word that in 1975 a band even recorded a comedy single called "Tankerous Love".
But now comes the acid test: did Karjalainen really speak tankero-English?
The clip is from an address he delivered to the prestigious National Press Club in Washington D.C.
Moore and Hawkins listen intently.
"Yes, it does sound funny", says Moore. "But he seems to have been comfortable with what he was reading out. The way I've heard it told, Karjalainen's passive knowledge of English was damned good."
In those days the Finns probably did not hear any of their politicians speaking English, with the possible exception of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Maybe for this reason Karjalainen - whose pronunciation was certainly unorthodox - became the butt of so many unkind jokes.
Especially when it was known he also had a drinknig problem.
The panel rehabilitates Ahti Karjalainen somewhat. He scores a 6.
In the next part (click below) the panel moves on to living politicians, starting with a President and a former President.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print in the October 2009 issue of the Kuukausiliite monthly supplement.
More on this subject:
Tongue-tied - Part Two
Tongue-tied - Part Three
Tongue-tied - Part Four
Clips of a selection of Finnish politicians in action in English
ANU NOUSIAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat