This summer I worked at Suomenlinna Sea Fortress in customer service. It was often that I was approached by native English speakers asking if I spoke English. “Of course I do!” I always thought. To me it seemed odd; is it not obvious that working in customer service at one of Finland’s most popular attractions, I should automatically be expected to speak fluent English. Not for foreigners.
We Finns take for granted being taught English. It is a privilege and an enormous advantage to be able to speak fluent English as most of us Finns do. In addition, we are also taught our other official language Swedish, and most students choose to learn a third foreign language, such as French or Spanish. I speak four languages fluently; Finnish, English, Russian and Swedish. On top of that, I also am learning French, and would much like to learn Spanish. I have always thought of it as a natural thing for Finns to do; learn multiple foreign languages as our native language is not spoken anywhere else, and it is a disadvantage to not master more than two languages. I have found myself to be unaware of actually how much I should appreciate the skill I have in languages.
We have the skill, yet speaking is an issue. Even though we are given an excellent base in foreign languages, I feel like we Finns are still diffident about speaking up and using our skills. Working in an international environment has forced me to dare to use my knowledge of foreign languages to the best of my ability. At work I had to use all four languages I speak in the span of one day at best. And after a while, I even pushed myself to speak French in which I am not even adequate; I can barely count to 100! But still I wanted to use even the little skill I had, because I find that the only way to better yourself and become more confident in speaking a foreign language is if you actually use it in real life situations. No matter how many books you read or hours you spend sitting in class, you cannot gain the confidence to use the language naturally. When travelling abroad, one is forced to step out of one’s comfort zone and dare to speak. Making mistakes is only human and at least you are trying, right?
At 21 years, I now have the confidence to speak. Working and travelling have both taught me: do not be afraid to speak up. Most of us mess up in our first language too, so why are we so afraid to make a mistake in a completely foreign language?